A few days ago, in answer to a question by sesquiotic as to whether anyone was researching the field of what Chambers Cyclopedia, in 1728, termed ‘the Crime of Self-Pollution’, I posted a list of 360 terms for the verb ‘to masturbate’. I’m not researching it as such – no more than anything else that falls beneath the rubric ‘slang’ – but as the list suggests, I’ve found plenty of examples. Were I to have included the nouns ‘masturbation’ and ‘masturbator’ in the search I would have found 200 more. Indeed, checking out a list of terms that, for reasons of space, failed to make the cut in an earlier print edition of my slang dictionary, I find another 700+. I have no doubt that there will be more. Search your browser on ‘masturbation terms’ or ‘words for masturbation’ and the sites come flooding. What urbandictionary.com or Roger’s Profanisaurus (http://www.profanisaurusapp.com/) have to offer I cannot say other than it is doubtless profuse.
Yet if ever slang bore witness to its dependence on synonymity, to its focus on themes to an extent that makes it inescapably clear that plus ça change, plus c’est indeed la même bleedin’ chose, it is in its lexis of self-abuse. As I say, I cut over 50% of the terms I had, c. 2005, amassed. I cut across the whole vocabulary – one can only bind so many pages in a single volume – but no other topic suffered so substantially. Why? Because once one leaves the 19th century, and the vast mass of masturbation terms have been coined since 1900, many emerging a good deal later, there is little to differ between them. Of all topics it is perhaps the most unashamedly formulaic. Of course there are other tropes: through slang’s predominantly male gaze sexual intercourse can all too often be reduced to ‘man hits woman’; the penis, all guns, clubs, knives and daggers, is often a boy’s toy (though gaming imagery seems as yet to have been overlooked); the vagina a narrow, dark and threatening passageway: one almost expects to encounter Indiana Jones picking his way between its booby-traps. But slang’s development of fuck, prick and cunt offer images that have, I would claim, some degree of individuality. And equally important, some creative bearing on the topic in hand.
By slang’s standards masturbation takes a while to get up to speed. A search on coinages between 1400 and 1899 gives less than 50 terms. The first, used by Florio in his New World of Words (1598) to translate Italian’s fregare, is frig, which he lists alongside rub, claw (also meaning to masturbate a partner) and fret. Frig remains the primary term for some time. As well as the basic self-referential verb it can mean to masturbate a partner (from 1647) and an act of masturbation (from 1786). Pre-20th century derivatives include frigger (the finger or hand with which one masturbates, 1684; thence a masturbator, 1888), frigging (masturbation, 1879), frigster / frigstress (a masturbator either of self or another, 1890); the phrase frigged out allies to one who, exhausted by masturbation, is unable to achieve erection / ejaculation. After Florio, Ben Jonson uses milk in 1610 to mean masturbate a third party (milk meaning semen is not recorded until 1619 but may well have pre-dated the verb; the late 19th century’s punning milk-woman is a female, perhaps a prostitute, who masturbates another person). Among other terms are box the Jesuit (and get cockroaches), which puns on SE cockroaches/cock and stereotypes Jesuits as alien and repellent beings; like many future terms for masturbation the phrase relies on an image of using violence against the penis, here box, to hit), fetch mettle (1785), from ‘the mettle of generation’, semen, and SE mettle, spirit, pluck, itself cognate with another semen/spirit term, spunk, mount a corporal and (a) four, explained by Grose: ‘the thumb is the corporal, the four fingers the privates’ , stretch one‘s pipe (a canting term of 1788; pipe is recorded for penis since 1600), and the long-lasting toss or toss off, again both transitive and intransitive, first found in 1735.
Nineteenth century coinages remain restrained. Toss off is followed, but not until 1865 by another stayer: jerk off. Play with oneself emerges in a limerick of 1879 (the player being an Archbishop, a foretaste perhaps of the many prelates who will be banged, bashed, beaten, belted, bopped, choked, flipped, flogged and polished in aid of modern self-satisfaction.) ‘Walter,’ he of My Secret Life (1888 et seq.) and coiner of frigged-out, adds fist-fucking in its masturbatory sense; Sean O’Casey, writing of the 1890s, offers shake, as in the dismissive ‘Go th’ devil an’ shake yourself!’. (The era also offers ‘go [and] play with yourself!’) Thereafter it is all lexicography, notably Farmer and Henley’s Slang and Its Analogues (1890-1904). Neologisms include fuck-fist, a male or female masturbator, sling one’s jelly and sling one’s juice, referring respectively to women and men, paw-paw-tricks, masturbation of self or another, pull about, to masturbate, rub-off, masturbation (though seemingly no recording of the verb-form until the mid-20th century), shake up, to masturbate and soldier’s joy, a civilian jibe at the solitary warrior; sailors used it too: it meant pease pudding. (F&H also list sailor’s pleasure, but unless the ‘etc.’ hides more than appears, this is merely ‘yarning, smoking, dancing, growling, &c.’)
Modernity is not bereft of charm – for men I offer shake hands with the wife’s best friend, though that’s better known for urinating, and for women clean one’s fur coat – but as the plenitude of coinages suggests, it’s all too easy, and some might say no more than coinage for its own sake, even irrelevant. For every wank, with some kind of etymological underpinning,there are a dozen artificial constructs. Take a verb, preferably of aggressive movement, e.g. buff, choke, club, flog, knock, pull or slap. Then add a noun: this can be phallic, how about baloney, cucumber or salami, and if the phrase thus conjured offers a degree of assonance, all the better, but neither suggestion is mandatory. It may simply pluck an example from the popular lists of penis slang: meat, lizard,mutton, pork, bozack. Stir until blended and the masturbation phrase is done. But again, none of that is vital. One may simply pun on the verb: shuck the corn, shine the helmet, or, all else failing, offer some silly image: audition the finger puppets, defrost the fridge, beef-stroke-it-off, double-click the mouse and download one’s floppy.
In conclusion, I pose two queries. The first is practice, the second theory. As for the first, should I as, a devoted descriptivist and irrespective of personal taste, have in the end cut so much? We are cyber now, and space is no longer a problem. Should I reinstate accost the Oscar Mayer (a perfectly good play on the penis as salami/sausage), or, for girls, preheat the oven (oven, after all, has enslanged the vagina since 1520). I have admitted various phrases with pump, so why omit pump a gusher, pump cream, pump gas at the self-service island, pump the monkey, and pump the python? And the second, perhaps a little more complex. Are these modern phrases, seemingly constructed to order rather than created through some properly organic process, actually slang? or simply euphemism. Are they no more than variations on a long exhausted theme? Indeed, were the anti-masturbation campaigners right after all and has sanity deserted us? Slang as we know, is devotedly ludic, but in this context have things gone beyond a joke?
Comments, as ever, are welcome.