May 25, 2006

Not old enough for sex, by half

I was surprised to find that a linguistic point was front and center in Dan Savage's widely published raunchy sex advice column ‘Savage love’ last week.

"I'm a straight guy, 17-and-a-half", wrote an advice-seeking reader whose "Catholic Christian girlfriend" is "still a virgin" and has stubbornly not agreed to have sex even after "more than four months" of dating. Is four months of "stalemate" too long? Should he hold or fold? "Please help", he says.

And Dan Savage (not one of your feelgood, I'm-OK-you're-OK therapists) comes roaring down on him, armed with a crucial linguistic piece of evidence: one who gives his age as "whatever-and-a-half" is mature enough to be having sex himself, much less sitting in judgment over someone else's decision not to have sex.

Dan's quite right, as far as my linguistic intuition goes: there is some vaguely delimited age at which you stop counting your age in steps smaller than one year, and the age at which it seems reasonable to say that a person is truly mature enough for the responsibilities that go along with sexual activity seems (forgive me, sexually active junior high-schoolers) to be broadly located somewhere after that point. I hadn't explicitly noticed that before, but I think Dan has identified a reasonable rule of thumb.

To make it depend on something more robust than my linguistic intuitions, or Dan Savage's, let's look at the Google hit counts for a few relevant phrases. Some will be bad hits (like across sentence boundaries, or followed by "months"), and at 22 there is a bad data point because of a much-quoted historical reference, but the pattern is a descending one from 18,900 hits for two and a half down to zero at twenty-five and a half. It's very clear from a graph on a logarithmic scale:

The raw data follow:

aged two and a half
aged three and a half
aged four and a half
aged five and a half
aged six and a half
aged seven and a half
aged eight and a half
aged nine and a half
aged ten and a half
aged eleven and a half
aged twelve and a half
aged thirteen and a half
aged fourteen and a half
aged fifteen and a half
aged sixteen and a half
aged seventeen and a half
aged eighteen and a half
aged nineteen and a half
aged twenty and a half
aged twenty-one and a half
aged twenty-two and a half
aged twenty-three and a half
aged twenty-four and a half
aged twenty-five and a half

Endnote: I am expecting to get a certain amount of joshing around the corridors of Language Log Plaza, and perhaps a certain amount of mail from impudent strangers, over what exactly I was doing reading a sex advice column in Boston's raunchiest free weekly, The Dig. The answer is that it is the duty of the Language Log staff to scan the widest possible array of popular media to provide you with the hard, penetrating (oops, 'scuse the metaphor) linguistic analysis you have come to expect. For us, all human linguistic life is worthy of study. There is nowhere that Language Log will not go to find linguistic insights for your interest and reading pleasure: the casinos of the Las Vegas strip; the pages of 18th-century pornography; the sleazier side of the psychological study of transsexuals; graffiti in men's bathrooms... There is nowhere we will not go, nothing we will not read, if it is in the service of linguistic science.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 25, 2006 06:50 PM