March 17, 2008

Cavorting and frolicking

In a cartoon I've been saving for several months, Zippy asks the difficult question: cavort or frolic?

What, in fact, is the difference in meaning, if any, between the two verbs?  And how do we decide such questions in general?

Eventually, I'll get to this, but in this posting I'll note a sexual sense for both verbs, a sense not yet recognized in the OED (though it's in NOAD2, and probably in other recent dictionaries), and then, we'll be led, once again, to Eliot Spitzer.

The cartoon:

Novo Nordisk first.  This is a real name, but not of a person -- rather, of a Danish company that specializes in diabetes treatment.  Bill Griffith uses intriguing proper names from everywhere in his strip.

Now to the Spitzer connection.  [Sidebar: the NYT Week in Review managed to have an entire survey of the week (always at the top of page 2) devoted to men behaving, or accused of behaving, badly in sexual matters: Eliot Spitzer (New York), Kwame Kilpatrick (Detroit), Reza Zarei (Tehran), Sharpe James (Newark), and Mike Allen (Ohio).]  First, it's clear that both cavort and frolic have developed sexual senses.  NOAD2:

under cavort: jump or dance around excitedly ... informal  apply oneself enthusiastically to sexual or disreputable pursuits

under frolic: play and move about cheerfully, excitedly, or energetically ... play about with someone in a flirtatious or sexual way

and googling pulls up a fair number of examples from the media (so that I haven't bothered to check how many dictionaries other than NOAD2 have this sense; the OED doesn't yet have it, but it's obviously current).  Among these are headlines with sexual frolic:

Spygate: Bob Kraft Frolicked With Olsen Sister  [from]

Call girl who frolicked with Ralph Fiennes lined up for Reality TV ...  [from]

and with sexual cavort:

Rudy Giuliani Cavorted With Ex-Mistress Judi Nathan On NYC Taxpayers Dimes.   [from]

including the appalling

Dr. Laura: Basically, It Is Silda's Fault That Her Husband Cavorted With Whores.  [from the New York magazine site on 3/11/08]

[For those of you who are blessedly out of these things, "Dr. Laura" (Schlessinger) issues, as therapeutic pronouncements, sternly moralizing judgments about human relations.  There's a lot that could be said about Dr. Laura's opinions and about the writer's choice to refer to Mrs. Spizer as Silda and to use the blunt whores, but I'm after other things in this posting.]

You can see how the sexual sense of cavort/frolic developed.  Our current English vocabulary for talking (especially in print) about incidental sexual relations is unsatisfactory.  There are very direct descriptions, using taboo vocabulary or only slightly deflected alternatives:

Kim fucked/screwed (with) Sandy.

Then there are remarkably indirect, technical, or euphemistic (or just slangy) alternatives:

Kim had sexual relations with Sandy.
Kim had intercourse with Sandy.
Kim did Sandy.
Kim did it with Sandy.
Kim had sex with Sandy.
Kim made love to Sandy.
Kim slept with Sandy.

(and many others).

And of course there are ways of talking about (at least somewhat) more enduring connections, though most of them are unclear about the sexual side of things:

Kim is romantically involved with Sandy.
Kim is Sandy's partner/Xfriend.
Kim is Sandy's main squeeze.

and many others -- but all describing a more continuing relationship than the ones we've been trying to allude to.

The question is: how do you report occasional sex in the media?  This is where cavort and frolic come in.  They convey both activity and pleasure (unlike, for example, sleep with) and, in combination with with + NP they are infrequent enough that context can probably guide you away from more innocent senses, so that

The boss cavorted/frolicked with the secretary in the main office.

can be taken to convey sexual activity and pleasure.  Then, as so often happens, conveyed meaning gets upgraded to conventional meaning, and cavort and frolic develop subsenses with specifically sexual content.

Final note: dictionaries often fail to flag the prepositions selected by (particular senses of) intransitive verbs.  Just so with the sexual senses of cavort/frolic, which select with.  Examples like

Kim cavorted/frolicked alongside/around Sandy.
Kim cavorted/frolicked in Sandy's company.

are fine, but don't have the sexual sense.  It takes with to do the trick.  This fact isn't explicitly noted by NOAD2, though with appears in its examples.

To come: distinguishing cavort and frolic.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at March 17, 2008 11:37 AM