Annals of word retrieval: in promiscuous positions

(Warning: embedded in this posting is a bit of — just barely euphemized — taboo vocabulary and the image of a hunky guy in his underwear.)

From Sim Aberson on 10/29, from WSVN, channel 7 in Miami FL:

BSO deputies arrest Dania Beach man in child porn case

Dania Beach, Fla. (WSVN) – Deputies have arrested a Dania Beach man on numerous child pornography charges.

The Broward Sheriff’s Office arrested 66-year-old Roger Aiudi on Thursday following a months-long investigation by the agency’s Internet Crimes Against Children task force. Investigators said Aiudi had 13 pornographic images of children and dozens of other images showing children in promiscuous positions.

Well yes, not promiscuous ‘having or characterized by many transient sexual relationships’, but provocative ‘arousing sexual desire or interest, especially deliberately’ (NOAD definitions). This is a very likely sort of word retrieval error, since the words are similar phonologically (sharing the accent pattern WSWW and sharing the initial syllable /prǝ/) and morphologically (both ending in Adj-forming suffixes, –ous vs. –ive) as well as semantically.

In fact, it’s possible that for the investigators who reported images of children “in promiscuous positions”, the word they produced was in fact the word they were aiming for. That is, for them, what was probably originally someone’s retrieval error has now become internalized. From the point of view of standard English, this would be a word confusion, but for them it wouldn’t be an inadvertent glitch that they would correct if they noticed it or you pointed it out to them; it would be what they think the appropriate word is. In time, the word confusion might even spread, with the result that promiscuous would develop a widely available new sense ‘arousing sexual desire or interest, especially deliberately’ that dictionaries would list. The word confusion of flaunt for flout has almost completed this course.

Even as a word retrieval error, the sort of thing I might fall into (but would correct if I became aware of it), promiscuous for provocative is of interest, because it straddles what are usually thought of as two distinct types of retrieval error: semantic errors and phonological errors (aka Fay-Cutler malapropisms). Sometimes the distinction is clear: from my files,

noun cluster for consonant cluster and teaching assistant for research assistant are straightforward examples of semantic errors

a preposition of brutal masculinity for a presentation of brutal masculinity and air traffickers for air travelers are relatively straightforward examples of phonological errors

But not infrequently both effects are operative — as in this example reported by Ron Butters in ADS-L on 2/15/08:

There were two restaurants in Durham, NC, named “Fowlers” and “Fosters.” People misspoke, miswrote, and misremembered them.

They are quite similar both semantically and phonologically, so are prime targets for error.

promiscuous and provocative. The condensed versions, from NOAD:

adj. promiscuous: 1 having or characterized by many transient sexual relationships: promiscuous teenagers | they ran wild, indulging in promiscuous sex and experimenting with drugs. 2 [a] demonstrating or implying an undiscriminating or unselective approach; indiscriminate or casual: the city fathers were promiscuous with their honors. [b] consisting of a wide range of different things: Americans are free to pick and choose from a promiscuous array of values and behavior.

adj. provocative: [a] causing annoyance, anger, or another strong reaction, especially deliberately: a provocative article | provocative remarks about foreign policy. [b] arousing sexual desire or interest, especially deliberately.

Note: NOAD orders senses roughly according to their frequency in current usage — not according to their historical development. The point is that a sexual sense is highly salient for promiscuous, but less so for provocative — tipping the scales towards retrieving promiscuous for the intended meaning.

[Digression. The semantic connection between provocative and promiscuous goes beyond mere reference to sexual activity. Part of the sexual folklore of our culture is that someone who behaves in a (sexually) provocative fashion, for instance by posing for racy photos, will be assumed to be making themselves available for sexual connection — that is, will be assumed to be promiscuous. Provocative implicates promiscuous.

This assumption, and the language surrounding it, is almost always applied to women, women being taken to be the vessels of sexuality. Only rarely do we talk about men being sexually provocative (aggressive, yes, but provocative, not so much) or being promiscuous (horndogs, yes, and players, but not promiscuous, certainly not sluts). But, of course, in contexts where male homosexuality is salient, the language of female wantonness can be imported wholesale as applying to men.

Which brings me to this week’s excellent underwear find, the Andrew Christian FUKR Provocative Brief:

AC sells very high-end playful homowear; this item is the Provocative model from his FUKR collection. From the AC website, this little hymn to Provocative briefs:

Our FUKR Provocative Brief is screaming your name. You’re pretty provocative yourself. In bright, fire-engine red fabric with the look and feel of Latex, this brand new style features sleek black contrast trim and our slimming FUKR print waistband. And wearing this new pair will feel like you’re not wearing any underwear at all. Its revolutionary hang-free design is anatomically correct with no hidden cups, straps or padding, and gives you extra room in front, just where you need it. When you pull it on, your package will fall naturally into the super soft snuggle pocket to create a truly enjoyable, unique wearing experience. We’ve virtually eliminated sticking, squashing, re-adjusting, sweating and chafing. Sexy and shiny, you need this limited edition style.]

Back to lexicography. Extracts from the longer version for promiscuous, from OED3 (June 2007):

A. adj.
1. a. Done or applied with no regard for method, order, etc.; random, indiscriminate, unsystematic. [the earliest sense, closest to the etymology; 1st cite 1570]
…  c.  spec. Of a person or animal: undiscriminating in sexual relations. Also (of sexual intercourse, relationships, etc.): casual, characterized by frequent changes of sexual partner. [1st cite 1804]

To which I add two senses that are metaphorical developments of the sexual use, which I include because of their linguistic interest:

… 3. Chiefly Grammar. Of common gender; of either sex, of both sexes. Cf. epicene adj. 1. rare. [1st cite a1637 … 2003 V. Law Hist. Linguistics in Europe iv. 71 There are epicene or promiscuous nouns, such as [Latin] passer, ‘sparrow’.]
..  6. a.  Biology. Of a protein, organism, etc.: able to infect or interact with, or bind non-specifically to, a variety of hosts or targets. [1st cite 1972; the image is of something that will hook up with whatever is available in the context; this is parallel to a linguistic use I’ll comment on in a moment]

The earliest senses of promiscuous continue to be used in scientific contexts on occasion, to describe apparently random, rather than systematic, arrangements of things. Rocks promiscuously arranged within a stratum, for example.

And then in linguistics, we get a sense development way at the end of the scale, parallel to the biological ‘binding to a variety of hosts or targets’ use. Now routine in treatments of clitics and similar elements, when they are said to exhibit promiscuous attachment — attaching indiscriminately to whatever they are adjacent to. For example, English possessive Z in things like whoever you were talking to’s ideas ‘the ideas of whoever you were talking to’, where Z attaches to, forms a word-like unit with, the preceding word to. Z is happy to hook up with all sorts of words.

The technical terms promiscuous and promiscuity go back decades. I have no idea who used them first; the metaphor, though playful, is so natural that several people might have come up with it independently.

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