Solo Artistry


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 or Roger’s Profanisaurus ( 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 offPlay 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.


wank cream





12 thoughts on “Solo Artistry

  1. Ted Powell December 29, 2014 / 7:06 pm

    Etymology of “nipper”—a bit off topic, but it at least came from the current topic.

    While looking up Friggin’ in the rigging (there’s nothing else to do), I came across this note:
    In the British Navy: the hands whose job it was to ‘nip’ a sailing ship’s anchor cable to the endless belt activated by the capstan when the anchor was being weighed were always the smallest and youngest men on board. Hence, the word ‘nipper’ has come to mean a youngster. (source)
    So I googled: nipper capstan
    The first hit was, which provided a diagram and photos of a model, and this explanation:
    The main capstan was used to weigh the anchors. As ships grew larger, so did their anchor cables, until during the 17th century they became too large and heavy to wind around the capstan. Instead, a messenger cable was wound around the trundlehead and around rollers, forming a continuous loop. The anchor cable was temporarily secured to the messenger using small lines known as “nippers”. The nippers were then handed to boys who walked aft along the deck, trying to keep the heavy, wet cable and messenger from dragging. The nippers were removed when they reached the main hatch to allow the cable to be fed down into the hold, where another large group of sailors stowed it neatly.


    • misterslang December 30, 2014 / 10:06 am

      This is very alluring, but in the end I fear perhaps not. If one looks at the revised OED (Dec. 2003) nipper n1 at sense 7a there is:

      A short piece of rope used to bind one rope to another temporarily, as an anchor cable and its associated messenger cable during the lifting of the anchor.

      However, although boys are mentioned in this context:

      1825 H. B. Gascoigne Path to Naval Fame 47 The gaining side and Cable bound in one, By pliant Nippers which the Boys hold on.

      the job-title seems to have been established much earlier:

      1769 W. Falconer Universal Dict. Marine at Nippers, The persons employed to bind the nippers about the cable and voyal, are called nipper-men [my italics]

      So I am inclined to go with sense 4a:

      Originally: a boy who assists a costermonger, carter, etc. Later (more generally): the most junior member of a group of workmen, esp. one employed in menial tasks.

      and its development, sense 4b

      A small or young boy or (less frequently) girl; the smallest or youngest child in a family

      That is, as I see it, one who nips around either performing these tasks or simply as an energetic child.


  2. Y December 30, 2014 / 2:17 am

    I vote for exhaustiveness rather than economy. After all, general-purpose dictionaries aim are over-inclusive by listing every re-, dis-, mis- and un- word under the sun, on the assumption that not all are results of a perfectly productive process, and that includes even rarities used a few times and then forgotten.
    Secondly, there’s no telling when waxing the dolphin or dating Mrs. Hand and her lovely five daughters might become popular again; one would like to trace their history.
    Lastly, one actually would like to be able to look any these up. In Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise, one of the characters convinces his naive cousin, visiting from Hungary, that the preferred colloquial American term for ‘vacuuming’ is choking the alligator. When I saw the movie, I’d never heard the expression and didn’t get the joke. If I had a good slang dictionary, I might have looked it up. Likewise, an old issue of National Lampoon shows an Australian coming out of a bar toilet, saying he was “shaking hands with the unemployed” (a joke at the expense of politicians’ photo-ops). Because of the circumstance, I figure peeing was meant, not masturbating, but is that indeed so? A dictionary would help, and the only way to assure a dictionary will be always useful is to make it exhaustive.


  3. misterslang December 30, 2014 / 9:40 am

    On the whole, I agree. And must get around to reinstating the terms in question. That said, I am loathe to offer a headword without at least one citation. These require hunting down. Space may no longer be a constraint, time – for research – always is.


  4. Adrian Morgan December 31, 2014 / 8:16 am

    I’ve always found it odd and unfortunate that common slang terms for masturbation are almost always derogatory. A society that truly endorsed masturbation (the only sex act for which a second party’s consent is NOT an ethical requirement) would obviously be a healthier society, at least in some respects.

    Also odd is the meme — captured in several of the examples above — that masturbation somehow involves the use of the hands. In my experience, the hands are nowhere near the genitals during masturbation. Instead, they are wrapped around the pillows that are positioned beneath the body in lieu of a partner. The hands can be used as a pacifying tool — to temporarily calm the passions when no immediate opportunity for masturbation presents itself — but in my experience NEVER as a stimulating tool. So I find the “masturbation involves hands” meme very strange.


  5. Nancy Friedman January 2, 2015 / 10:21 pm

    House: “In actuality, all your little girl is doing is saying yoo-hoo to the hoo-hoo.”
    Mom: “She’s what?”
    House: “Marching the penguin. Ya-ya-ing the sisterhood. Finding Nemo.”
    Girl: (giggling) “That was funny.”
    House: “It’s called gratification disorder. Sort of a misnomer. If one was unable to gratify oneself, that would be a disorder.”
    (House M.D., Episode 221, 2006)


  6. Chips January 4, 2015 / 10:24 pm

    I have been thinking about the quotation in this post and would welcome, especially from Australian English speakers, some comment:

    “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”.

    From my experience the two usages of “shaking hands with the wife’s best friend” depend entirely on context.

    “Where’s Tony? He’s been gone for half an hour.”
    “He’s just off shaking hands with the wife’s best friend.”

    “Grab another beer for me, Ken, I’m just going to shake hands with the wife’s best friend.”

    The first is about another, absent, male and is perhaps unkindly alluding to the fact that he is a fucking wanker. The second, about oneself, is a proffered reassurance that I won’t be long, and that I won’t miss on the next round. That is, I might be a piss artist, but I’ve never met a beer I didn’t love and I’ll be back in a mo.

    My first memory of the phrase about the wife’s best friend is from the Barry Humphries’ various scripts around Barry McKenzie. Has anyone done work on Humphries’ contribution to Australian scatology, in its popularisation and/or invention?


  7. misterslang January 5, 2015 / 10:14 am

    I deal with Barry Humphries in the final section of the ‘Australia’ chapter of my history of slang Language! (US: The Vulgar Tongue). Based on my reading – which is doubtless not exhaustive but which does include the entirety of Barry McKenzie plus Les Patterson – Humphries is good for the use of 775 slang terms, of which he is, so far, the first recorded user of 210.

    He does seem to be the coiner of shake hands with the wife’s best friend in its masturbatory sense, used by Les Patterson (at least in print) in The Traveller’s Tool (1985). Barry McKenzie also uses that term, plus shake hands with the unemployed to mean urinate. As is often the case with Humphries, his coinages can play on a form already in use. Thus one finds, in G. Slatter Pagan Game (1968) shake hands with an old friend, again as urinate.


    • Chips January 6, 2015 / 5:51 pm

      @ misterslang, I’ve always wondered about Humphries’ role in Australian slang! … and not surprised Les Patterson veered towards the masturbatory side of the phrase. 220/775 usages? Also intuitively correct. Thanks again


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