Four approaches to sucking someone’s socks off

(Full of linguistic expressions referring to genitals and sexual acts, but not depicting these acts or treating them as cultural practices.)

A heavy-linguistics follow-up to my 11/5/21 posting “I want to suck your socks off”, which told the moving tale of a sexual encounter between the characters Alex and Jake, the center of which is a sub-episode beginning with Jake declaring to Alex:

I want to suck your socks off (A)

conveying, roughly, ‘I want to give you enormous satisfaction by fellating you to orgasm’, that is, ‘I want to give you a truly fabulous blow job’ — a vow that Jake then proceeded to make good on.

This posting isn’t about raunchy acts like Jake’s — I hope to, um, flesh out the tale of Jake and Alex in another posting — but about English VPs like the one underlined in (A), Jake’s raunchily colloquial

suck your socks off (B)

Call VP (B) syoso for short; I’ll have a lot to say about syoso. It turns out that it’s at least four-ways ambiguous, though in the sex-drenched context of the Jake and Alex story, you’re probably going to recognize only sense 4, sexual syoso.

The project. As a start, consider a range of invented examples similar to (A), all intended as illustrating sexual syoso: the underlined VPs in

Suck my socks off with your hot mouth, Jake!; Jake was sucking his socks off when the fire alarm went off (note that his here can refer to Jake himself only if Jake is skilled at auto-fellatio); Jake skillfully sucked Alex’s socks off; Jake loved sucking his buddies’ socks off; Jake will suck your socks off for 20 bucks; Jake sucks his husband’s socks off every morning; Sucking guys’ socks off is Jake’s greatest pleasure in life

I’ll be investigating the syntax of a larger set of English VPs , embracing sexual syoso and much more, VPs of the form

SUCK PossPro socks off (C)


—  SUCK is some form of the lexeme SUCK, in one of two V + Prt composites suck off: removal suck off and sexual suck off ‘fellate’; removal suck off can be literal, involving actual sucking with the mouth, or figurative

— PossPro socks is the Direct Object of SUCK off, with PossPro a possessive personal pronoun (my, your, her, his, its, our, their) serving as a Det[erminer] modifying socks and having either open reference (just picking out something in the context of speech) or necessarily reflexive reference (picking out the referent of the NP understood as Subject of SUCK off)

— and the socks of PossPro socks is understood either literally, as referring to a garment, or figuratively

Already we’re getting into some industrial-strength technical linguistics, but bear with me. The goal here is to recognize, first, that Jake’s original, (A), is at least three-ways ambiguous, and then, that this follows from an (at least) four-way ambiguity in the VP (B), and more generally, in VPs of the form (C). What’s going on isn’t a fact about just one example, the very stirring (A), but follows from the existence of several distinct patterns — idioms and constructions — in the way form and meaning are associated in English.

The four senses and the patterns they represent. In brief:

— 1 sock-removal syoso, with literal suck off (as a transitive verb) — ‘by sucking, cause socks to be off (something)’ — and literal socks (in the direct object): ‘remove the socks from your body by sucking’

Other examples of the fully literal construction: The vacuum cleaner sucked my socks offThe monster sucked Joey’s hands off, and then his feet.

A possessive Det in the DO is just one possibility; the DO can be without one — The vacuum cleaner sucked (the) grime off — or have one, as above.

— 2 exclamatory-predicative syoso: suck someone’s socks off as an idiom conveying roughly ‘be fantastic for or impressive to someone (by providing intense satisfaction to them)’ — a variant of the idiom knock someone’s socks off. The Oblique Object (referring to the affected person) is (obligatorily) expressed by a possessive Det.

Compare: This band will suck your socks off! ‘this band will impress the hell out of you’ i.e., ‘you’ll really love this band’; Her essay sucked my / Terry’s socks off!

Note that the Det in theoOblique Object doesn’t have to be a personal pronoun, but it does have to be possessive: *Her essay sucked (the) socks off!

On obligatory reflexives. They come in two types:

— reflexive pronouns (in –self, –selves) as Direct Objects (linked to the Subject), as in perjure / absent oneself : ✓I perjured myself, *I perjured me, *I perjured, *I perjured him / Joey

— reflexive possessive pronouns (i.e. possessive pronouns understood reflexively) as Det in a Direct Object (linked to the Subject), as in take one’s leave, speak one’s mind):  ✓I spoke my mind, *I spoke (the) mind, *I spoke his / Joey’s mind

The second type is the one in exclamatory-predicative syoso.

— 3 activity-intensifier syoso. Here conveying ‘suck [draw into the mouth] extremely hard’. This is an instance of what I’ll call the WOSO construction (with the type exemplar work one’s socks off) ‘to do something with a lot of energy or effort’, as in The cast work their socks off to give the audience a great experience.

Background notes on the parts of the WOSO construction.

— W is an intransitive verb of the Vendlerian activity Aksionsart, in fact an unergative verb: its argument is agentive and the verb is atelic (some typical verbs of this class: work, run, laugh, dance)

— S is a body N from a conventional set, which tends towards the rude and crude, but also has a lot of idiosyncrasy: from various dictionaries and searches:

[(PRIMARY) BODYPART] hands, fingers, head; [(PRIMARY) GARMENT)] socks, shirt, pants, shorts [(RUDE) TESTICLES] nuts, balls, knackers, bollocks; [(RUDE) BUTTOCKS] ass, arse, butt, tail, keister

(Note the oddness of, e.g., feet, toes, fingertips, elbows, knuckles; t-shirt, tank top, underwear, underpants, stockings, jockstrap, coat, trousers, jeans, sweater; testicles, testes; buttocks, derriere. You could probably work out in context what something like I worked my feet / jockstrap off was intended to convey, but the expressions don’t come “off the shelf”, as it were; and you can easily understand what I worked my testicles / derriere off were intended to convey, but you would view them as involving a rather ostentatious avoidance of (rather mildly) taboo vocabulary, akin to something like I scared the feces out of him.)

W and S are the two (relatively) open slots in the construction.

— the second element O is the Prt off, obligatorily separated from its V (*work off one’s socks, ✓work one’s socks off— cf.  throw off sparks, throw sparks off, where the Prt can be either solid with or separated from its V)

— the first element O is an obligatorily reflexive possessive modifying S: I worked my socks off  ‘I worked extremely hard’, with my — but I worked (the) socks off and I worked his / Joey’s socks off refer to actual socks and to their removal from something; and I worked his / Joey’s socks off refers to an actual possessor of those socks; while I worked my socks off  ‘I worked extremely hard’ involves no reference to any removal, much less to any socks or any sock wearers.

Activity-intensifier syoso has the (unergative) activity V suck in the W slot (paired with the fixed Prt off in the second O slot); and with a reflexive possessive your as Det (anaphoric to the Subject of the V) in the first O slot object, modifying the fixed N sucks in the S slot.

To see that this sense of syso is atelic, note: You sucked your socks off, but still couldn’t empty the glass (‘you sucked very hard, but …’), and similarly He sucked his socks off, but still couldn’t empty the glass

sexual syoso. Another idiom, like exclamatory syoso: ‘perform fellatio satisfactorily or enthusiastically’. Perhaps originating as a combo of sense 3 — suck your socks off  ‘suck with energy or effort’ (understanding suck transitively, as ‘suck cock’) — with the transitive sexual V + Prt suck off  ‘fellate’.

Two attested examples:

I’m available now so swing by and let me suck your socks off! (Escort Seattle listing)

Thick Dicks line up, I’ll suck your socks off (Cruising For Sex site)

[Digression on the Aktionsart of sexual syoso. Some cases of  V + Direct Object can be understood as either activity or accomplishment; in particular, suck someone’s cock can be. But suck someone’s cock off is usually understood as an achievement, so that sexual syoso would be as well.

From my 10/29/19 posting “Annals of burritio”:

[background:] Suck [takes] the full range of direct objects referring to a penis:

I sucked his (hot) cock / (big) dick / (thick) meat; the biggest one I ever sucked / ate; Suck that monster! I love to suck cock / dick …

Suck is also freely usable with direct objects referring to a man (understood as actually referring, metonymically, to that man’s penis):

I sucked him enthusiastically; the hottest guy I ever sucked; Suck my buddy! …

[then:] I also note that sexual suck is … an accomplishment verb in the Vendlerian scheme of aspectual classes (Aktionsarten) of verbs: it’s goal-oriented, but doesn’t entail that the goal is actually reached. The achievement verb corresponding to suck is suck offI sucked him for half an hour (but he never came; or, alternatively, until he came), but I sucked him off in half an hour (then he came).]

Appendix on WOSO in OED3. From OED3 (Sept. 2014) under the verb work (with cites with Prt out as well as off)

a. to work one’s brains (also eyes, soul, [bones, daylights,] etc.) out: to work extremely hard. Recorded earliest [1578] in to work one’s heart out … [20th-century cites:]

… -1920 Negro World 13 Mar. in R. A. Hill Marcus Garvey & Universal Negro Improvem. Assoc. Papers (1983) II. 257 The his soul out from morning to morn-out.
-2007 Blade (Toledo, Ohio(Nexis) 6 Feb. There’s nothing I can do about it except work my brains out and coach like hell.

b. colloquial.  to work one’s butt (also socks, fingers, balls, etc.) off: to work extremely hard… [hands, head, nuts, knackers, bollocks] [all cites:]

-1828 Ladies’ Mag. June 246 She would have worked her hands off before she would have parted with the dear little creature.
-1890 C. C. Harrison Anglomaniacs ii. 79 What man wants to work his head off to lay up money, and then see a fool and profligate walk away with it?
-1926 People’s Home Jrnl. Feb. 49/2 I’ll work—I’ll work my fingers off.
-1974 J. Wainwright Evidence I shall Give xxi. 102 He was working his nuts off.
-1982 P. Redmond Brookside (Mersey TV shooting script) (O.E.D. Archive) Episode 4. 53 The poor sods working their knackers off at the machines.
-1983 W. Goldman Adventures in Screen Trade 47 He obviously worked his buns off learning to be a hoofer.
-1989 Independent 15 Mar. 21/4 I don’t mind working my bollocks off.
-1992 Pract. Householder Nov. 5/1 Another time you’ll work your socks off and the results are terribly disappointing.
-1998 Boxing Monthly June 37/2 Despite working my balls off, I wasn’t getting any money.
-2010 Guardian (Nexis) 9 June 29   My friends..have worked their butts off to help increase the number of African Caribbean and Asian members of parliament.

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