Sunday Book Review language and sex

Two items from the NYT Sunday Book Review (the sex issue): the etymology of buddy and the grammaticality of zipless.

1. buddy. From Rachel Kushner’s contribution to the piece “Why is writing about sex so difficult?”:

It’s a nice image that the patchwork quilt at the Spouter Inn matches Queequeg’s patchwork-tattooed arms, but what distinguishes flesh from quilt is touch: a warm weight thrown over Ishmael. Some writer recently claimed somewhere that “Moby-Dick” has no sex in it. I find that idea strange. See what you want, Melville fan who is blind to buddy love. “Buddy” relates to “bunkie,” which means “bedmate,” and that is what Ishmael is to Queequeg, in their very first encounter.

A relationship between buddy and bunkie was a new claim to me. What OED2 says:

colloq. (orig. U.S.). Brother; companion, friend; freq. as a form of address. [from 1850 on]

Etymology:  Possibly an alteration of brother n. (compare bud n.3) or a variant of butty n.1

An alteration of brother is plausible if the word arose in child language. The dialect form butty (which I was unfamiliar with) is also a possibility. Three senses, plus an insecure etymology:

1. A confederate, companion, ‘mate’. [first clear cite 1865]

2. A middleman between proprietors of mines and workmen, who engages to work the mine and raise coal or ore at so much per ton. [first cite 1845]

3. In full butty-boat, a second barge or freight-boat in tow by a first. [first cite 1909]

Etymology: In sense 1 perhaps a corruption of booty adj. It is not clear whether sense 2 is the same word, but its identity seems not improbable; compare similar use of gaffer.

2. zipless. From Erica Jong’s piece “Unzipped”, about her book Fear of Flying and the zipless fuck:

I dumped it on my editor Aaron Asher’s desk and ran. But he adored it. “It has everything,” he said. “Of course it needs to be edited, and ‘zipless’ is ungrammatical, and the title makes it sound like nonfiction, but this is the book everyone needs to read.”

Well, zipless stayed, and so did the title.

As to what Asher meant by “ungrammatical”, I can see at least two possibilities. He might have been objecting to the word simply on the basis of its being an innovation, a fresh coinage, not in any existing dictionary. But new words are coined all the time, especially from existing morphological material (like zip and -less).

Or he might have been objecting to the combinatory scheme. The OED sees the word as a combination of the noun zip ‘zipper’ and the suffix -less — which would predict the meaning ‘without a zipper, ‘having no zipper’. That’s close, but not as specific as Jong intended. However, derived words (even innovative ones) are often not fully transparent semantically, so I can’t see objecting to zipless on this ground. In any case, Jong explained the sense of zipless fuck in her book.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: