January 31, 2006

The vocabulary of toadying

A little while back, on his blog Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan took a quick swipe at Fred Barnes's adulatory biography Rebel-in-Chief: How George W. Bush Is Redefining the Conservative Movement and Transforming America (Crown Forum, 2006), using a reference to oral sex.  Here's Sullivan on 1/15/06:

BREMER'S BOMB-SHELL: And Fred Barnes' fellatial biography of Bush. (He makes Powerline read like the Daily Kos.) I try and make sense of each here. More on Fred's book soon.

The very next day, on the National Review's blog, John Podhoretz sputtered about "Andrew Sullivan's anti-gay invective", in a posting that seems confused on several fronts: Podhoretz apparently thinks that words have one single meaning in all contexts, and that gay men (like Sullivan), who presumably have a positive attitude (once again, in all contexts) towards performing fellatio, are being hypocritical when they characterize toadying, negatively, by analogy to one man fellating another.  (It's not easy to unpack Podhoretz's unhinged, shouting-in-capitals rhetoric, so my analysis here might be off the mark.)

Later that day, James Wolcott (of Vanity Fair), on his blog, mocked Podhoretz's fuming but embraced the imputation of homoeroticism in neocon gushing over GWB.

This was how things stood when I first learned about these exchanges, from John Calendo on the entertaining gay blog Nightcharm (yes, I'll give you a link, but that will come below the fold) on 1/19/06, in a piece titled "A Blowjob By Any Other Name":

It's a wonder so useful a word [as fellatio] was never put in adjectival form until last Sunday, when it was invented by conservative gay pundit Andrew Sullivan, the man we love to hate.

He used it in a book review, to indicate the fawning, on-their-knees way conservative blowhards write about this, the worst of all possible presidents (save one: Nixon still wins that derby.)

Recency Illusion alert!  This was by no means the first time Sullivan had used fellatial, and plenty of other people have used it.  In fact, fellatial is one of NINE attested adjectives in the fellat- family; it's not even the most frequent in Google webhits, coming in way behind fellatory, which is the only one to make it into the OED.

Now to go through these things systematically.  First, the fellat- family of words in English.  Then, some reflections on the vocabulary of toadying, the many uses of the sexual lexicon (or, why fellatial isn't necessarily a homophobic slur), and the attitudes of gay men toward fellatio (or, why it's not necessarily hypocritical for a gay man to use this word disparagingly).

Two words of warning.  First, the Nightcharm site offers, in its own words, "gay porn, blog and naked men pictures".  The blog part brashly covers all sorts of things of interest to gay men, and potentially to many people.  But there's really no avoiding the gay porn and the naked men, so if it makes you uncomfortable to be close to this stuff, don't go there.  If you're cool with that, or positively disposed, the "Blowjob By Any Other Name" posting is here.  The accompanying photos are mostly naked French rugby hunks, plus a Japanese sex doll (female) "looking very fellatial".

Second, at this point I'm going to abandon the elevated register of the English sexual lexicon ("oral sex", "perform fellatio", "fellate" above) in favor of the vernacular -- what I think of as "plain talk" -- because I dislike the distancing and shrinking-away effect of the more technical vocabulary.  You might well feel otherwise, but at least I've warned you about what's to come.

Ok, on to a brief introduction to the fellat- family.  In three dictionaries I respect (and have extremely easy access to while I'm sitting at my desk at the Stanford Humanities Center outpost of Language Log Plaza) -- OED2, AHD4, and NOAD2 -- there are listings for the nouns fellatio (cocksucking, the act) and fellator (cocksucker, the actor) and the verb fellate (suck cock, perform the act).  NOAD2 has only these three basic items.  AHD4 has the anglicized variant fellation for the act noun.  And OED2 also gives the feminine actor noun fellatrix (the variant fellatrice is attested, but not in the OED) and the adjective fellatory, noting that fellate is a back-formation and that fellatory is built on it.  (There are also occurrences of fellatiate, built directly on fellatio, or possibly a blend of fellatio and fellate, as an alternative to fellate.)

(A digression.  People have occasionally objected to the noun fellation to me on the ground that the "correct" noun is the Latin fellatio -- even though fellatio is already anglicized in pronunciation, to rhyme with ratio, not patio or potty-o.  It is true that fellatio came first, and was used as an unassimilated Latin word in medical or other "scientific" discussions of sex, and as a coded word in elegant pornography, where all the racy bits were for some time in Latin or Greek.  But some time ago the word passed into ordinary language, though as part of an elevated register; fellatio is the word you use to talk about cocksucking in "polite" contexts that allow this as a possible topic of discourse at all.  At that point, it's natural to anglicize it fully, like the zillions of other English nouns in -ation that trace back to Latin nouns with a nominative singular in -a:tio: and genitive singular in -a:tio:nis, some taken directly from Latin, some indirectly via French.  The noun fellation is, in fact, reasonably common, though nowhere near as common as fellatio.)

(Another digression.  A few people object to the verb fellate on the ground that it's a back-formation; presumably, fellatory would be objectionable as a result.  Well, there are people who object to any back-formation they perceive as recent, which is to say, any back-formation they recognize as one -- but, eventually, back-formed verbs cease to be seen as innovations, especially if they're really useful.  OED2's first citations for fellate are from 1968 and 1969 -- Updike's Couples and Legman's Rationale of the Dirty Joke, respectively -- but I have no doubt that some sleuthing will take the dating back at least another decade or two, so the verb is not exactly a recent thing.  In raw Google webhits as of 1/30/06, fellate gets 74,900, which is pretty respectable for an item from an elevated register.  In any case, if you want to talk about cocksucking in an elevated register, it's hard to do without fellate as the verb, since the alternatives -- perform fellatio on, perform oral sex on, copulate orally with, etc. -- are wordy and clunky.)

Back to the rest of the fellat- family.  Attested as alternatives to the actor nouns fellator/fellatrix (fellator is sometimes used of women, by the way, another sign that we're moving away from Latin) are fellatist and fellationist, though they're much less frequent than fellator/fellatrix.

Here I point out that every single member of fellat- family that I've mentioned so far has both literal uses (referring to events in which actual dicks are in actual mouths) and metaphorical, or figurative, uses, referring to praising, admiring, pandering, fawning, sycophancy, obsequiousness, and the like -- acts, relationships, and attitudes in what I'll call "the toadying domain".  Situations in the toadying domain involve two participants, an ADULATOR and a RECIPIENT of the adulation, and there are at least three relevant aspects of the relationship between them: (1) REGARD: the adulator appreciates, admires, possibly worships the recipient, regards the recipient highly; (2) DEFERENCE: the adulator shows deference, submission, or subservience to the recipient; and (3) EAGERNESS TO PLEASE: the adulator is eager to please the recipient.  All three aspects can vary in degree.  Some situations in the toadying domain show a fourth component: (4) THE ICK FACTOR: the adulator is willing to do things they find unpleasant or humiliating in the service of the recipient.  Figurative cocksucking often has a pretty big ick factor.

Some examples:

fellatio: Anyone who claims that artistic fellatio is not rampant in the arts in general ... Unsurprisingly the writing is a veritable Johnny Wadd of fellatio. (link)

fellation: Even I was getting fed up with the non-stop fellation of Brady and Belichick by Michaels...  [in discussion of 2005 NFL playoff] (link)

fellator: We've been waiting almost a week, you acne crippled terrorist fellator, yet you've yet to address this... (link)

fellationist: What makes Donald Wildmon think his fundy fellationist knuckle dragging 'Deliverance' inbred followers could afford A Ford truck? (link)

fellatist: Wow. After reading that, I once again have to wonder just what the hell Bush is thinking. Then I remember Fox is renowned to be a consummate fellatist.  (link)

fellate: There was never an enemy of the US that Klintoon DIDN'T fellate.  (link)

    And as long as you continue to fellate at least some of my favorites I'll keep coming back ... Sorry, I can't fellate everyone's favorite band. Farewell. (link)

    it seems that the art world is very insular and artists merely metaphorically fellate one another while simultanaously ripping off rich idiots who think ... (link)

fellatiate: Now we have a two weeks of Packer Luv Orgy on all the networks. I can't wait to hear how Madden will verbally fellatiate Favre this week. And Berman will go into some sort of ecstatic wet dream on ESPN about Favre and what a super human being he is. (link)

On to the adjectives in the fellat- family.  There are nine attested adjectives, four of them with 200 or more raw webhits on 1/25/06:
    1.  fellatory: 3,390 hits
    2.  fellatial: 853
    3.  fellative: 346
    4.  fellatic: 212
    5.  fellational: 23
    6.  fellationary: 20
    6.  fellationic: 20
    8.  fellatorial: 5
    9.  fellatiary: 4
(Not attested, on the web or in newsgroups: fellatoric, fellatorian, fellatoriary, fellatistic, fellatonic, fellationistic, fellationical.)  People have certainly been creative with English morphology in order to get an adjective related to fellatio.

The first seven adjectives are all attested in both literal and figurative uses.  The adjective fellatorial (#8) is attested only in literal uses, fellatiary (#9) only in figurative uses, but this is probably just a consequence of the small numbers involved.  Some metaphorical examples:

fellatory: The interviews range all the way from obsequious to fawning to fellatory. Two of the worst are those with Sylvia Benso and ... (link)

    As for "barbaric and backward", well, that pretty much sums up my attitude toward Europe's fellatory attitude toward Arab-Muslim tyrants and terrorists. (link)

... And we're no longer shocked to find that Wenner's indebtedness to Clinton translates into fellatial coverage of the president in the pages of Rolling Stone. And this toadying to a man who expanded the drug war to new and invidious heights!  (Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish, 2/22/01)

    THAT TONY BENN INTERVIEW: Like many former apologists for Soviet terror, the British lefty, Anthony Wedgewood Benn, has a soft spot for Saddam Hussein. His interview with the monster will surely rank high up there in the annals of moral obtuseness along with Jimmy Carter's fellatial interactions with various mass murderers.  (Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish, 2/2/03)

    In other chess news, World Champion Vladimir Kramnik now has his own website, just in time for his title defense against Peter Leko later this month. The site features fellatial sponsor profiles of the "cosmopolitan" Russian champ and the "ascetic" Hungarian challenger.  (Archives de Colby Cosh, 9/2/04)

fellative: I give you the classic Washington mode of the fellative. self-consciously literary interview instead. The kind Cox would and does ridicule online. (link)

    The new Bob Woodward book, Plan of Attack, is out on shelves, now, to fellative Hosanna by the Times' Pulitzer prize-winning Michiko Kakutani...  (link)

fellatic: Now that the son of a bitch is dead, the media is, of course, back in a full fellatic frenzy. How well they remember their beloved position, on their knees, ... [note extended metaphor] (link)

fellational: Nowhere else in Blogistan can we find such sensational, fellational Minaya-hyping AND Boras-flacking posted with such impunity. (link)

fellationary: In addition to discouraging fellationary interviews with the terrorists who raped Russian schoolchildren, Putin may have also made a crude calculation. (link)

fellationic: ... thanks to their decades-long uncritical (nay, fellationic) regard for any Republican whatever, regardless of his actual track record on Second Amendment ... [about the NRA] (link)

fellatiary: ... the criminal underuse of Chris Mortensen, and the fellatiary treatment of anything even remotely connected to Southern California football. (link)

Note the Andrew Sullivan examples of metaphorical fellatial from 2001 and 2003, and one non-Sullivan example.  I don't know when Sullivan started using this adjective in print (he seems to have some fondness for it), nor do I know who used it first, and these questions don't much interest me.  All these adjectives seem quite likely to have been created many times, by different writers; they're all possible English words, built from the stem fellat- or from the noun fellation, using suffixes appropriate for material in the classical stratum of the English vocabulary.  And indeed there are numerous literal uses of fellatial from before 2001 -- "my novice fellatial powers", "the fellatial arts", "fellatial talent", "fellatial fanatics", "the sloppy fellatial act", "cunnilingual and fellatial stimulation", "fellatial facial" (all from 2000) -- including the expected Lewinsky references,  as in this excerpt from a Virginia Vitzthum piece on Salon, 9/25/98:

Monica and the president explored an amazing span of fellatial landscape over the course of those nine "encounters." Monica's immediate eagerness to suck presidential dick offsets the encounters' one-sidedness and makes her seem less victim, more vixen.

Now I'm ready to move on to the commentary on Sullivan's swipe at Barnes.  Here's John Podhoretz:


Andrew Sullivan calls my old friend Fred Barnes's admiring book about President Bush "fellatial." Imagine if someone had used such a word about an Andrew Sullivan blog item about, say, John McCain. Andrew would have been OUTRAGED! He would have demanded an APOLOGY! Andrew, you see, is gay. So any comparison of his rhetoric to homosexual conduct would be UNACCEPTABLE. But Andrew, being gay, is free to use slighting sexual references to homosexual conduct when discussing the rhetoric and ideas of others. Why? Because, in Andrew's eyes, he is beyond reproach solely because he shares a bed with other men. And Fred Barnes? Married to a...(I know it's unimaginable) woman. How contemptible of Fred. Doesn't he know marriage is only for gay people? UPDATE: Yes, the act Andrew S. analogizes to Fred Barnes's treatment of President Bush is not exclusively one performed by homosexuals. But since Sullivan uses the word for a male writer's analysis of another male, his use of the word "fellatial" therefore has an unmistakably gay tinge.

(Note Podhoretz's modifier from the very mild edge of the toadying domain,"admiring".  The unsigned review in the 1/28/06 Economist (pp. 81-2) calls the book "gushing", which  is a bit more negative.  In my introduction to this posting I used the stronger "adulatory", taking things further into the toadying domain.  "Worshipful" would have gone a bit further still.  Sullivan goes all the way with "fellatial"; "suck-up" would have been a bit less extreme.  No doubt other writers have characterized the book with other vocabulary choices from the toadying domain.  "Sycophantic" and "fawning" would not be bad choices from the fairly negative region of this territory.  "Boot-licking" has a lot of ick factor going for it, and "ass-kissing", "ass-licking", and "shit-licking" have, in turn, progressively more.)

Now if I understand Podhoretz's position here -- not at all a sure thing -- he's saying that "fellatial" is a homophobic slur (a piece of anti-gay invective), period.  Presumably because it refers to cocksucking, and the act of sucking cock is strongly associated with gay men and so picks up the negative affect that attends homosexuality, especially male homosexuality; after all, "cocksucker" is an insult, right?

Well no, not really.  "Cocksucker" can be used literally, it can be used metaphorically to mean 'toady', it can be used as an insult directed at a gay man, it can be used as an all-purpose insult, it can be used as a taboo-word filler noun, otherwise like "jobbie"("I've got to get all these cocksuckers washed and dried by 6" -- said of a pile of dirty dishes), it can be used as an affectionate taboo-word sign of solidarity ("Any of you cocksuckers got a beer?" -- said by one straight guy to a bunch of his straight buddies), and probably in other ways as well.  It isn't just one thing; it's a lot of different things, depending on context.  That's the way language works.

Now, Sullivan surely meant to pour on the ick factor, but that doesn't mean that he takes a generally negative view of sucking cock, or of cocksuckers, as Podhoretz seems to think Sullivan's use of "fellatial" commits him to.  It would be sufficient for Sullivan to believe that FRED BARNES would find it unpleasant or humiliating to suck another man's dick -- and surely he would -- so that comparing Barnes's writing about GWB to sucking GWB's dick introduces the ick factor, suggesting that Barnes the adulator would go even to such lengths to satisfy GWB the recipient.

But, of course, Sullivan's use of "fellatial" will be read -- correctly, I think -- as more generally disparaging, and Podhoretz seems to take it this way.  Sullivan not only shares his bed with another man, but he undoubtedly sucks his boyfriend's cock (sucking dick being the most ordinary of sex acts between two gay men, the meat and potatoes of gay male sex, so to speak), with enthusiasm and pleasure.  But gay men (like Sullivan and me) don't suck cock to show regard or deference, but because cocksucking pleases us (as well as our partners); this is literal, not metaphorical, cocksucking.  In addition, cocksucking is not some unalloyed good thing, independent of context.  Gay men are not interesting in dick, any dick, every dick, any time or place; literal cocksucking can be accompanied by a considerable ick factor.  The idea of sucking off GWB is deeply repellent to me, as I'm sure it is to Sullivan, and that repulsion carries over from the literal sphere to the metaphorical one.

A tale from my sexual life...  My first boyfriend found kissing other men -- me, in particular -- enormously pleasurable, and I reciprocated, passionately.  Yet he once described an event he found decidedly unpleasant as "like kissing Richard Nixon".  (You will see how long ago this was.) Instant ick.  It wasn't kissing men, period, that was the problem, but the details of the event.  (Sullivan could have characterized Barnes's book as lavishing kisses on GWB, and that would have worked, but it wouldn't have been as powerful, simply because, as people see such things, sucking cock is a much more intimate act than kissing.)

So far: "fellatial" isn't necessarily a homophobic slur, and it's not necessarily hypocritical for a gay man to use this word disparagingly.  I turn now to James Wolcott's critique of Podhoretz.  Here's the bit I want to focus on:

"Gay tinge" is a rather prissy phrase on Podhoretz's part, as if Sullivan were trying to slip by a sly innuendo. There's no need to be sly. I won't presume to speak for Sullivan, but it's clear that there's a homoerotic ardor for Bush by neonconservatives that bypasses reason and reduces them to hero-worshipping mush.

My problem here is with "homoerotic".  We seem to have moved from literal "fellatial" to figurative "fellatial" 'servile, etc.' back to a more literal use, imputing homo-desire (though without actual cocksucking).  But this isn't really about language; it's about relationships between people.  Wolcott is connecting an adulatory relationship to homo-desire, a connection that someone could make regardless of what vocabulary is used to describe the adulation.  But why would anyone make that connection?

I can see two contributions towards making this connection.  One is very general in the modern world.  Since Freud, we have come to appreciate the significance of the erotic in our lives.  But that has led many people to see sexual desire in virtually every kind of relationship between two people.  For them, sex is always part of the story.  While not denying the importance of sexual feelings (after all, I write sexually explicit memoirs of my life and pornographic fiction and analysis of the fantasy world of gay male desire, and I create pornographic collages), I resist the idea that they're the mainspring of social life.  There are many other, equally important, factors that organize human relationships: affiliation, physical contact, nurturance, power, play, mentoring, respect, and more.  These can, of course, co-occur with sexual desire, but they need not.  I respect many of my colleagues, but (in general) I don't desire them sexually.  (I feel reasonably assured in saying this, since I'm exceptionally well in touch with my inner sexpig.)  Fred Barnes respects and admires GWB, but that's no reason to think he has the hots for him.

The other contribution is a sense of bafflement that many of us -- I am one -- have over the respect and admiration that some people (like Fred Barnes) have for GWB.  We wonder: how could anyone have such regard for someone who is so transparently unworthy of it?   And so we cast about for explanations other than an appreciation of GWB's merit.  Stupidity and gullibility are two possibilities.  A desire for a strong authority figure is another.  The hope of advancement is yet another.  No doubt there are other possibilities.  Meanwhile, especially if you see sex in all relationships, desire is always available as an explanation.  So you end up discerning homoeroticism.  I think this is just silly.  And annoying, because it trivializes the enormous power of homoerotic desire, for those of us who experience it.  (Well, some gay men find that consequence attractive, since trivializing homoerotic desire means normalizing it: look, ALL guys desire other men, so there's nothing special about me!  Spare me.)

Fascinating as all this is, none of it's about language.  So let's return to language, with John Calendo's (tongue in, um, cheek) proposal in Nightcharm for a definition of the "new word" fellatial:

fellatial (fel-lay-shel) adj.  1.  Of or suitable for a blowjob.  2.  Of the nature of blowjobs, servile, fawning, with involvement of the mouth in a hoovering motion.  3.  Ready to suck off those in authority, usually in exchange for favors, prestige or political appointments.  4.  The way things work in Washington.

Ok, you knew it, I'm going to object to the claim that it is in the NATURE of blowjobs to be servile and/or fawning.   I'm not going to lecture here on the complex and varied emotional pleasures of sucking cock for a gay man (though I have written at some length on the topic in the newsgroup soc.motss over the years), though I will note that for a lot of gay men it makes a big difference whether the cock you're sucking belongs to a gay guy or a straight guy (straight guys can be problematic in a number of ways, including the strong possibility that they will understand your blowjob as an act of servility, whatever you might think about it; on the other hand, some gay men positively desire straight cock, on the basis that straight guys are "more masculine" than gay guys), and that in any case though serving another man (not servility) can be one of those pleasures on some occasions, it's often a minor component, and may be entirely absent.  In fact, both in gay porn and in real life, the man enthusiastically taking the dick may understand the event as one in which the man providing the dick is serving HIM, by providing a cock for him to enjoy; in my experience, this is especially common for cocksuckers who generally identify themselves as "tops", in two ways: they like to be in charge, to run the show, and they fuck guys but don't get fucked themselves.  The world of sexual emotions and relations is astonishingly rich.

Calendo's dictionary entry moves quickly from the neutral (definition 1) to the negative in tone (all that follows) and thus mirrors what has long been a view of cocksucking -- the act -- as perverse, dirty, and abnormal.  I'm fighting that view by talking about it in positive and joyous ways.  Meanwhile, young Americans seem to be increasingly configuring it as routine and not perverse, in fact not really sex at all.  The January/February 2006 issue of the Atlantic Monthly has a review (pp. 167-82), by Caitlin Flanagan, of one nonfiction book, two young-adult novels, and a television show, all treating adolescent sex.  Flanagan notes "the genuine and perplexing rise of oral sex among teenagers--specifically of oral sex performed by young girls on boys" (p. 173).  Their parents are horrified, of course.

Once again, we've moved from words to acts, and there's not a lot of work for a linguist to do, qua linguist.  As a final reward, though, here's the delightful AHD4 account of the history of the word toady:

The modern sense... has to do with the practice of certain quacks or charlatans who claimed they could draw out poisons.  Toads were thought to be poisonous, so these charlatans would have an attendant eat or pretend to eat a toad and then claim to extract the poison from the attendant.  Since eating a toad is an unpleasant job, these attendants came to epitomize the type of person who would do anything for a superior, and toadeater (first recorded 1629) became the name for a flattering, fawning parasite.  Toadeater and the verb derived from it, toadeat, influenced the sense of the noun and verb toad and the noun toady, so that both nouns could mean "sycophant" and the verb toady could mean "to act like a toady to someone."

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at January 31, 2006 05:27 PM