November 4, 2003  
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Pasta and the penis: so many similarities!

By Lori Mastronardi
Gazette Staff

Gazette file photo
MY MOM WON’T READ MY NEW BOOK, BUT YOU CAN! Mark Morton talks about the linguistics of sex in The Lover’s Tongue.

Mark Morton, author of The Lover's Tongue, shares everything from research habits to favourite sexual tidbits.

Was there a particular reason The Lover's Tongue followed Cupboard Love, your book about culinary language?

Well, it seems to me sex has a status or role in human culture which is almost equal to that of food. We need food to survive as individuals and we need sex to survive as a species. As a result, both food and sex have inspired a huge number of words. Think, for example, of the dozens of words we've adopted from Italian for different shapes of pasta - spaghetti, linguini, fusilli, penne, vermicelli, to name only a few. Likewise, think of the hundreds of words that have been invented to denote the penis - prick, cock, dink, pecker, whang and so on.

How do you go about conducting your research?

My main resource was the Oxford English Dictionary on CD-ROM. I could search not just the head words, but the definitions too. I could search for any definition that contained the words "sex" or "breast" or "vagina" or "penis" and it generated a huge list of words that I otherwise wouldn't even have known about. A lot of those words are obsolete, so I wouldn't have found them anywhere else - words like "tarse" which was used in the 15th century to mean "penis" or "scut," which was used in the 16th century to mean "vagina."

What would you say is the most interesting piece of information you've come across while researching?

I loved discovering the word "merkin," which refers to a kind of genital toupée that was used in the 18th century to disguise the loss of pubic hair that results from syphilis. Or take the word "syphilis" itself, which was invented by a poet in the 16th century as a name for a shepherd who was supposedly the first person to be afflicted with that disease. Or how about "rantallion," which was used in the 18th century to signify a man whose scrotum is longer than his penis. Or how about the fact the word "rooster" was invented in the United States in the 19th century so that people wouldn't have to refer to a male chicken as a "cock."

Do you think words are often taken out of context?

I've never thought of it quite that way, but I think you're right: words are taken out of one context and used in another context. Doing so is a form of metaphor. For instance, the word "bitch" originally belonged to a "barnyard" context - it denoted a female dog. The word was then borrowed and applied to women as a term of objectification. You see that same process, too, with the slang names of body parts: fruit names, like grapefruits or melons, are often borrowed and turned into names for female breasts. Other examples would include "vagina," which is actually a Latin word meaning "sheath," the covering that a sword is put into. And "penis" comes from a Latin word that means "tail."

Have you grown tired of learning about language? Do you think you've reached your saturation point regarding sexual language?

I guess my enjoyment of etymologies is not as vivid and visceral as it once was, but it's now deeper and more extensive. As for sexual language in particular, I think I eventually did reach a kind of saturation point as I was researching the book. But that happens with any large project: you reach the point where you feel almost numbed by the information and then in time that goes away and fascination returns.

What does your family think about The Lover's Tongue?

My wife thinks it's great and of course I dedicated it to her! Our four dogs, though, seem somewhat indifferent to the project. My mom has said she's slowly getting used to the idea of me writing a "sex book." But it'll probably be a while before she'll be displaying The Lover's Tongue on her coffee table next to my other books!



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