Contamination by association

(Regularly skirting or confronting sexual matters, so perhaps not to everyone’s taste.)

Yesterday’s Wayno/Piraro Bizarro takes us back to the Garden of Eden:

(#1) (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 4 in this strip — see this Page.)

The bit of formulaic language for this situation is a catchphrase, a slogan with near-proverbial status (YDK, for short):


The leaves are conventionally associated with modesty, through their having been used to cover the nakedness of Adam and Eve in the Garden — a use that then associates the leaves with the genitals, from which the psychological contamination spreads to the entire plant, including the fruits. You don’t know where that fig has been.

From the McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs, 2002:

You don’t know where it’s been: Do not touch something or put it in your mouth, because you do not know where it has been and what kind of dirt it has picked up. (Most often said to children.) Mother: Don’t put that money in your mouth. You don’t know where it’s been. Bill: Okay. Take that stick out of your mouth. You don’t know where it’s been.

YDK is the second part of a two-part speech act, crucially involving a taboo object. The first, set-up, part is an injunction — typically an admonition against doing something with the taboo object (not to touch it or, worse, put it in your mouth or, still worse, take it into a sexcavity) — but it could be an instruction to stop doing something with the taboo object (put it down, let go of it, spit it out of your mouth).

The second part is the pay-off, some version of YDK, which provides a conventional reason for the injunction, appealing to contamination by association: the taboo object is unclean (hence dangerous), by virtue of a history involving its association with something that is conventionally unclean (dirt, unwashed hands, genitals, bodily fluids, excrement, and so on).

A whimsical version in an ecard:

(#2) The relay race; the baton has of course been in many other hands, most of them sweaty

The penis as taboo object. The penis is conventionally unclean, dirty, so it is the object of YDK warnings: you probably don’t know where that penis has been before it comes to you — to be stroked, sucked, or taken into a sexcavity — so you might be contaminated by it. (In this case, The News for Penises might not be good.)

That makes it fodder for YDK jokes. As in this chirpy ukulele song written by actor William H. Macy:

(#3) Macy at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, performing “You Don’t Know Where That Dick Has Been”; the words are very hard to make out (I haven’t found any site with the lyrics), but the chorus is clear

Notice that in a sufficiently rich context, YDK could stand by itself, leaving the hearer to reconstruct an injunction by implicature. As a result, You don’t know where that dick has been can be understood on its own as a warning not to have anything to do with it. In fact, Do you know where that dick has been? can be read as implicating that you don’t know (a separate implicature from the YDK one, seen in examples like Do you know that your hair is on fire?, implicating that you don’t know, and informing the addressee of that fact), which in turn can be read as a warning not to engage with it.

The wider field of cultural contamination. YDK is just one item in a much larger field of contamination by association. From my 2/11/11 posting “Cultural contamination”, starting with a woman who said

that after she read that the “Ode to Joy” was Hitler’s favorite piece of music, the work lost all of its attraction for her.

It had become contaminated by the association with Hitler.

This is an extreme version of the mechanism by which some people are put off artistic creations (art, literature, music, film) because of the character, personal beliefs, behavior, or actions of their creators…

An example of cultural contamination from a different domain. Some years ago I was shopping in at hardware store at the same time as a woman with a young son, maybe 4. The child was examining, touching, and picking up various objects, including some housewares. No problem until he picked up a toilet brush — at which his mother shrieked at him to put it down, it was dirty!

Mind you, this was brand-new, unused toilet brush, objectively as clean as anything else the child had touched. But its cultural function was to brush out excrement, and that function contaminated it.

(In a similar vein, some people are disgusted when others use toilet paper — perfectly clean toilet paper, fresh off the roll — to blow their noses.)

In still another domain, many have noted that the intense distaste that some people have for same-sex sexual relations (especially between men, especially anal sex) contaminates everything associated with homosexuality: people who have come out as gay (and so are to be avoided), displays of same-sex affection (even just holding hands), pride events and lgbt organizations, symbols like the rainbow flag and the pink triangle, all of it. To the point where I have seen complaints about the flying of a rainbow flag in a neighborhood where children could see it (and so, in the minds of the complainants, be exposed to same-sex sexual acts).

The fig leaf chronicles. Returning to fig leaves and figs in #1, there’s a wide-ranging treatment of the topic in my 5/20/15 posting “Fig time”. The relevant bit of Genesis 3 (in the KJV):

1 Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LordGod had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:

But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.

And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:

For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.

And inside those aprons, the offending bodyparts.

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