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What's the Difference Between Kissing and Fucking?
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I'm almost done with Stephen Pinker's The Stuff of Thought, and I just finished the chapter called "The Seven Words You Can't Say On Television," which is all about taboo words.

And I'm not sure I buy some of his arguments. He draws a distinction between the group of words that refer to sex, based on their transitivity (whether or not they require a direct object).

Transitive (e.g. John fucked Mary):

fuck, screw, hump, ball, dick, bonk, bang, shag, pork, shtup

Intransitive (e.g. John and Mary made love):

have sex, make love, sleep together, go to bed, have relations, have intercourse, be intimate, mate, copulate

He points out that the polite versions have particular traits. For one, he says that since they lack a distinctive verb root, they "fail to specify an action with a characteristic manner of motion or kind of effect." I'm not sure I understand what he means by that. I would guess he means that "fucking" gives you a more specific idea of what was done than "having sex", but I'm not sure that's true.

Next he says that because the polite versions do not use a direct object "they specify no entity that is impinged upon or caused to change." Okay, but if the transitivity of the verbs describing intimate acts bears on the connotation of their politeness, shouldn't related verbs be affected?

Which of these constructions do you find more polite?

John kissed Mary.

John and Mary made out.

I don't know about you, but the intransitive form seems less polite to me. And think about other intransitive forms for kissing like necked and sucked face. They're even less polite. So color me skeptical, but I'm not buying the argument that the transitivity of the verb relates directly to its politeness.

Pinker also points out that the intransitive forms for sex are symmetrical, implying joint voluntary action. But I'm not sure I understand this either, since "fuck" can also be used intransitively, implying joint action:

John and Mary fucked.
Mary and John fucked.

These constructions certainly seem symmetrical to me, implying joint voluntary action.

He cites a study in which "fuck" is deemed grammatical only when the subject is the active party.

...Boris fucked Lionel is grammatical if Boris is on top, and in encounters between two women Cynthia fucked Gwendolyn is grammatical if Cynthia used a dildo.

This might be an interesting study to read, but again, I'm skeptical. It is probably the case that "fuck" is rated more grammatical if such details like who's on top and who's more active are actually available, but my guess is that since sex acts are generally private, when they are discussed in everyday discourse such details are usually not known. And it seems likely that we would find such constructions perfectly grammatical, even if the subject is not the more active participant or the one being impinged upon:

Did you hear Mary is fucking her boss?

Did Mary come home last night?
Nope, she left the party with John.
Uh, oh. She probably fucked him.

So basically I'm not really buying any of Pinker's arguments about why certain verb forms are more polite than others. The transitivity of the verb doesn't really seem to have anything to do with it. Made for interesting reading, though.

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