The Lover's Tongue was reviewed by Michael Posner in Canada's national newspaper, The Globe and Mail on October 20, 2003. Here is the text of that review:
The word "clitoris" made its first appearance in the English language in the early 17th century. Now that I have your attention, let me add that its spelling is a straight anglicization of the Greek word "kleitoris," which likely evolved from another Greek word meaning "hill" and, in turn, from an even older Indo-European word, "klei," meaning "to lean or slope" (and from which some modern words, like "recline" and "decline," are derived).
The word "penis," on the other hand, is Latin, and means, for obvious reasons, "tail." In common parlance, of course, synonyms for "penis" are frequently associated with weapons. In fact, the Hebrew word "zayin," a slang word for "penis," actually means "weapon." Not incidentally, the letter zayin -- the seventh letter of the Hebrew alphabet -- is shaped like a rod with a crown on it.
I learned much of this thanks to The Lover's Tongue: A Merry Romp Through the Language of Love and Sex (Insomniac Press), a new book by Mark Morton, a mild-mannered assistant professor of English literature at the University of Winnipeg. I'm not sure how merry it is, but it is certainly exhaustive, a complete inventory of how words like clitoris, penis -- and scores of others that respectable family newspapers are not in the habit of printing -- arrived in the language.
Morton, who earlier wrote Cupboard Love: a Dictionary of Culinary Curiosities, as well as The End, a book about how previous eras celebrated the end of their millennia, says he was drawn to writing a book on the etymology of sex for a simple but compelling reason: He thought it would sell.
"I don't see much reason to write scholarly articles that nobody probably is going to read," says Morton. "But I like taking the academic research and making it accessible to people. Everyone is interested in sex and even people who don't know what etymology means are interested in it."
But, as he prudently notes in his introduction, it's a book that best lends itself to an occasional, well, probe, rather than an extended sitting. Dipping in and out, one can learn that the origin of the infamous f-word is probably not, as is commonly thought, an abbreviation of For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, but more likely derives from old Scandinavian words "fukka" (Norwegian) and "focka" (Swedish) meaning "to copulate."
Similarly, you may be both surprised and enlightened to learn that the word "orchid" comes from the Greek "orkhis," which means "testicle." And "orkhis" itself evolved from an older Indo-European word "ergh," meaning "to mount." Thus, explains Morton, who for 10 years has also been resident etymologist on CBC Radio's Definitely Not the Opera, do we have the modern English word "orchestra" -- evolved from the Greek "orkheisthai," meaning "dance" -- perhaps owing to how dance simulates sex.
There are dozens of such linguistic jewels sprinkled through Morton's breezily readable text. He spent three months writing it, another nine months researching, a task greatly facilitated, he says, by the Internet. The Oxford English Dictionary is available on-line, which allowed him to rummage through its entire data base in quest of words with sexual connotations.
Other books on language, of course, have taken titillating aim at the subject of sex. There are densely academic three-volume sets to be digested on sex in English literature under the Stuarts, for example, as well as myriad titles taking a popular approach to sexual slang. But The Lover's Tongue may well be the most comprehensive etymological treatment. Anal, oral, body parts -- it's all here in what amounts to a linguistic history of smut.
Some words now effectively taboo in civilized discourse were once in common usage, including the vulgar term for the female sex organ. The precise origins of that well-known c-word, Morton concedes, are obscure, with possible Greek, Latin, Arabic, Germanic and Sanskrit antecedents. Morton posits that it may also be related to the word "quaint," which was used in 14th-century England to mean "intricately designed," and which in turn developed out of the Latin "cognitum," meaning "knowledgeable."
And in modern times, at least, he notes, many common descriptives of the vagina carry decidedly negative associations, including "gristle-grabber," "snatch," "red snapper" and "dick muncher." "They're all manifestations of what Freud called the vagina dentata."
Working in the basement of his north-end Winnipeg home, Morton says, he found nothing remotely erotic about the enterprise. And it shows: His tone throughout combines detached bemusement with scholarly, straight-ahead explication. "Even if you're dealing with a word that denotes extremely erotic activity, you're thinking about it in a way that somehow blunts all that. But now that I read it, I'm sometimes shocked, even to the point of thinking, 'I don't know if I want my mom to read this.' I don't know if she'll be buying copies and sending it to friends."
Even Morton's colleagues at the U of W, he hints, are having some trouble with it, though that may be less a function of its salacious content than the fact that so commercial an exercise strays dangerously off the traditional academic paths.
There is little in Morton's background that would make him an obvious candidate for writing a book of sexual etymology. He grew up on a wheat farm outside Weyburn, Sask., a vast, treeless plain that prompted the young Morton to wonder about his own origins and how he ended up there. "I think that's somehow related to my interest in etymology."
And although there was no library in the house, there was "a big, old dictionary which even as a child, I remember poring over." He taught himself Latin phrases and tried to learn Greek at 12. "The fascination with language is very deep in me."
Now, he intends to broaden his range with his next book, a cultural history of emotions. Says Morton: "I think it's a much bigger subject than just etymology."