The perils of euphemism

Michael Quinion returned yesterday to his weekly World Wide Words column (#813, 1/5/13) after a month’s absence, offering us (in the “Sic!” section, on errors and infelicities of all kinds) this entertaining item:

The London Mail online was visited on [December 14th] from New Zealand by John Neave, who found this report: “He told Cardiff Crown Court that he suffers from ‘sexomnia’ and has a history of trying to sleep with partners while asleep.”

What makes this funny is the juxtaposition of euphemistic sleep ‘have sex(ual relations) with’ and literal asleep, producing an effect similar to oxymoron.

And as a bonus we get the technical term sexsomnia (in the spelling variant sexomnia, orthographically recognizing the phonological reduction of medial /ss/, with one /s/ from sex and one from the base somnia, to a single /s/).

The euphemism sleep with is as old as the English language; OED2 treats it as merely a specialized sense of sleep:

Implying sexual intimacy or cohabitation. Also, with around: to engage in sexual intercourse casually with a variety of partners; to be sexually promiscuous (colloq.).

Old English has the preposition mid ‘with’ in these usages; the preposition with takes over in Middle English, and the OED then gives cites of sexual sleep with from the early 19th century on, for instance:

1819   Shelley Cenci i. iii. 15   Whilst she he loved was sleeping with his rival.

Later we get sexual sleep together and sleep around. A couple recent examples of sexual sleep with, involving sex not in beds or bedrooms (or, of course, going to sleep):

I just read a confession about a woman who slept with two guys behind her husbands back. I mean the MARRIED woman met a guy online and spent the hours having crazy sex with him and then the same day went to a dinner flirted with an old man and slept with him in the back seat of her car. (link)

They became more and more attracted to each other and eventually couldn’t resist each other. Yana engaged in an affair with Les and slept with him in the living room, only to be seen by Cilla’s son, Chesney Battersby-Brown. [about the soap opera Coronation Street] (link)

Of course, literal sleep with survives, in things like The dog sleeps with us every night, but the sexual content of the euphemism is likely to override almost any context.

Now, on sex(s)omnia, from Wikipedia:

Sleep sex, or sexsomnia, is a condition in which a person will engage in sexual acts while still asleep. This condition falls within the broad classes of sleep disorders known as parasomnia. Sexsomnia includes fondling, heterosexual and homosexual intercourse, masturbation, and oral sex. In extreme cases sexsomnia has even been alleged as the cause of rare instances of sexual assault and rape.

… The first research paper that suggested that sexual behavior during sleep may be a new type of parasomnia was published in 1996 by three researchers from the University of Toronto (Colin Shapiro and Nik Trajanovic) and the University of Ottawa (Paul Fedoroff). The term “sleepsex” was used in a 1998 case report by David Saul Rosenfeld, a neurologist and sleep specialist from Los Angeles. The term ‘sexsomnia’ was coined by Colin Shapiro in a case report published in June 2003.

Shapiro CM, Fedoroff JP, Trajanovic NN (1996). “Sexual behavior in sleep: a newly described parasomnia”. Sleep Research 25: 367.

Rosenfeld DS, Elhajjar AJ (June 1998). “Sleepsex: a variant of sleepwalking”. Arch Sex Behav 27 (3): 269–78. PMID 9604116.

Shapiro CM, Trajanovic NN, Fedoroff JP (June 2003). “Sexsomnia – A New Parasomnia?”. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 48 (5): 311–7. PMID 12866336.

Parasomnia is an invented technical term using the ‘sleep’ base somnia found in insomnia (with the prefix para- of paraphilia), and then sexsomnia was created on a similar basis.

(The Latin somn root mostly functions as a prefixal combining form somn(i)-, as in somnambulism, somnifacient, and somniferous.)

An extra: some notes on the (primarily) North American euphemism go to the bathroom (often doubly euphemized to simple go by omission of the place reference). What makes it primarily North American is the use of bathroom. What makes the euphemism so useful is that it’s neutral as to which act or acts of elimination are being performed; everyday English has a lexical gap here, in that there’s no ordinary-language verb covering the semantic domain of the semi-technical euphemism eliminate.

(Speakers of American English seem to differ on the question of whether go to the bathroom is simply neutral as between urination and defecation, or whether it’s consistent with either but biased towards defecation. But I don’t trust speakers’ self-reports on the matter, and empirical studies of usage aren’t easy to carry out.)

In any case, euphemistic go to the bathroom is consistent with specifications of all sorts of places other than toilet appliances or rooms designated for elimination, just as euphemistic sleep with is consistent with specfications of all sorts of places other than beds or bedrooms. Right up to North American go to the bathroom in one’s pants.

The OED has no (sub)entry for the euphemistic idiom go to the bathroom, but it has plenty of relevant cites, among them:

1949   M. Mead Male & Female xii. 263   ‘Why,’ asks the uninhibited American child of 1949, ‘does no one ever go to the bathroom in a book?’

1956   A. Huxley Adonis & Alphabet 260   The Prince of Venosa could never go to the bathroom (cacare non poterat) unless he had first been flogged.

1965   C. Brown Manchild in Promised Land iii. 80   For the next two weeks, K. B. was Claiborne’s yardbird. He had to go everywhere Claiborne went from morning till night. He even had to ask Claiborne when he wanted to go to the bathroom.

1973   Nevada State Jrnl. 29 Apr. 54/1   ‘I have to go to the bathroom.’ ‘Ok. OK.’ Potty seat on.

1992   Toronto Star (Nexis) 18 June d3   Chest-hugging bodyshirts for men. (Though how many men are willing to unsnap a bodyshirt in order to go to the bathroom?).

2003   Orlando (Florida) Sentinel (Nexis) 29 June f1   Campbell has a pained expression on his face, as if he really, really has to go to the bathroom.

This case is much more complicated than the case of sleep with, for a variety of reasons, including the fact that (outside of the unusual case of sexsomnia) sexual sleep with is inconsistent with literal sleeping, while eliminatory go to the bathroom very often involves literal motion to a place devoted to elimination of bodily wastes — but doesn’t require it.


3 Responses to “The perils of euphemism”

  1. rjp Says:

    “sexomnia” sounds more like it means “has sex with everything”.

  2. Robert Says:

    Many of us probably remember the scene in the dramatization of _I, Claudius_ in which Augustus asks one nobleman after another “Have you slept with my daughter?” and one of them replies, “Not *slept*, Caesar.”

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