Lexiculture: nymphomaniac

Christen Helper

Wayne State University

Cite as:  Helper, Christen. 2014.  Nymphomaniac.  Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 1, article 4. http://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/nymphomaniac.pdf

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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In the 1960s there was a new wave of feminism rising in American culture; women were rallying against the homemaker image and pushing toward a more modern, independent, and influential image.  During this time there was a ‘Sexual Revolution’ making an imprint on American culture; women were becoming more open and proud about their sexuality.  They viewed themselves and their actions as liberated and powerful, but to outsiders they were viewed as the new-age deviant nymphomaniacs. Nymphomaniacs, women who express and pursue an excessive amount of sexual activity, have felt a strong backlash for centuries to the cultural norms and gendered expectations of women in Western cultures.  But where did the rise of the nymphomaniacs begin, and how did they become such an iconic taboo in Western cultures and societies?  As our society strives to make steps toward more progressive and accepting ideologies, will women have to continue to keep their sexual identities hidden?

History and Etymology

The origin of nymphomaniac can be traced all the way back to ancient Greece; the word nymphe means “bride” or “young wife” (www.etymonline.com).  The word then goes on to give rise to the Greek mythological characters with the same name; The Nymphs.  According to Classical mythology, the nymphs are minor female deities and protectors of springs, mountains, and rivers; they are represented as young, beautiful girls (Mythica).  There are five different types, each named for the landmark or location they were entrusted to protect: celestial, water, land, plant, and the underworld.  They never grew old or died from old age, and in some legends they gave birth to demi-gods.  These free spirits were set apart from the common, mortal woman of Classical Greek life because they could not be tamed by men; they never married.  The gods and goddesses most commonly associated with nymphs are Artemis, Apollo, and Dionysus.  Figure 1 is a classical painting of nymphs.


Figure 1: ‘Bathing Nymphs’ – Palma Vecchi, c. 1525-28.

This is an Italian artist’s representation of what mythological nymphs could have looked like.  An important feature of these women is their comfortable appearance and body language; they are creatures of nature.  Their nudity isn’t meant to create the poster image for sexual desire or promiscuity, but to display the most natural state for all humans and divine beings.  This portrait captures the original meaning behind the word nymph.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, nymph went through a semantic shift.  Doctors began to add the suffix mania to form “nymphomania”; a disease in which women suffer through an excessive sexual desire (Dictionary).  Women accused of being nymphomaniacs were often sent to hospitals or asylums where doctors would treat these patients with series of traumatic and violent procedures; most commonly hysterectomies, lobotomies, and various other techniques that by today’s standards would be considered cruel and unusual.  Unfortunately many of the accused women did not have any form of a mental disorder or cognitive impairment; they were usually sent away by fathers or husbands for not conforming to archaic cultural norms for women’s behavior.

Nymphomaniacs and Satyriasis

Figure 2 displays the Google Ngram comparison of the words nymphomania and satyriasis.  Just as nymphomania refers to the excessive sexual urges in women, satyriasis is the excessive sexual urges in men.  This word also takes its roots in Greek mythology as well as having a similar semantic shift involving psychiatry.; however, around 1880 nymphomania appears to be used almost three times as much as satyriasis in literary publications – but why?  If both words are used to describe a person with excessive sexual compulsions and with identical symptoms, why is the female diagnosis much more commonly used and recognized?


Figure 2

One hypothesis reflects the differences in the names themselves.  When one hears a word that includes the suffix mania, it is automatically associated with a mental or cognitive impairment.  This then leads one to start associating other characteristics of what one might know about other manias; mood swings, aggression, erratic behavior, etc.  In general, abnormal behaviors.  When a woman is diagnosed as being a nymphomaniac, she is immediately stigmatized as having a sort of immoral, uncontrollable and irrational behavior; she is a danger to society and possibly threatens the moral guidelines for other women she may come in contact with.  On the other hand, if a man is diagnosed as having satyriasis, the name doesn’t do as much as to trigger a preconcieved notion as to what that might entail.  The suffix sis in medical terms is usually associated with a physical ailment, such as dialysis or neurofibromatosis, or even a biological event (meiosis or biogenesis).  Its name doesn’t automatically trigger thoughts of abnormal or uncontrollable behavior, but more of an abnormal condition involving bodily function.  This still leads to question why one gender is left with a much more burdening stereotype of the same state.

Nymphomaniacs and Literature

A part from the tragic, medicinal history behind the term nymphomaniac, there is another event that launches the use of the word; the 1955 novel Lolita.  Written by Vladimir Nabokov, it is the controversial story of a middle-aged man who becomes infatuated with a twelve-year old girl.  He eventually seduces her and begins a sexual relationship with the girl, despite her fragile, young age.  The protagonist, Humbert Humbert, has had a longstanding interest in pubescent-aged girls; he refers to them as nymphets.  Throughout the novel Humbert frequently uses this term, as well as a few others, to justify is his sexual advances of a young girl.  By giving his love interest a title that suggests that she is sexually promiscuous or has insatiable sexual appetite, he is drawing attention away from his own perversions.  Lolita is then portrayed in a completely different way; no longer is she an innocent adolescent, but now is a vixen and antagonist using adult behavior.  While it is clear that in the novel the young Lolita is objectified and sexually exploited by a much older man, the words associated with her character have an oppositional view.  Around the time of Lolita’s publication in 1955, a dramatic increase occurred in the usage of the words nympho and nymphet, as shown in Figure 3.  Although the context of the two words is not specified in the NGRAM search, it is rather coincidental that their sudden gain in popularity runs along the same time as the release of what is considered to be one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.


Figure 3

Notice that until approximately 1950 nymphet was virtually nonexistent; nympho also takes a dramatic increase in use around the same time.  Could this be a direct influence from Lolita?

Figure 4 compares the same three terms, but also introduces the term hebephile, a type of chronophilia in which one is primarily or exclusively sexually interested in pubescent individuals approximately eleven to fourteen years of age (Wikipedia).  Humbert is described in character analysis as being a hebephile, as throughout the story he is fufilling his sexual fantasies with Lolita; yet it is the words associated with her character analysis that transpire into culture and common vocabulary use.  Could this be due to gender gaps in society at the time of its release?  Even though adult-child relationships were considered morally unethical and taboo, did society still dissect Lolita’s character as being an explicit character, despite her age, simply because she is a young, unorthodox female?


Figure 4


As we progress further into the 21st century, the gender isolating terms of the past are taking on new names, as well as new identities.  Women are breaking away from the Victorian Era stereotypes of being the silent, restrained housewife and bridging the gender inequality gap.  Nymphomania is being replaced with more neutral terms such as hypersexuality and sex addiction.  This neutralization of nymphomania reduces the shame and attention that was once predominately geared toward women.  Hypersexuality, defined as a dysfunctional preoccupation with sexual fantasy for a period of at least six months (Weiss), is a part of sex addiction.  Figure 5 shows the increase in these new expressions as they begin to replace the older in cultural aspects of the English language.


Figure 5

The term sex addiction does not appear until the early 1980s, peaks in the 1990s, and then drops back down around the turn of the century; within the past five years it has regained some of its popularity within its use in pop culture.  The recent trend has been for celebrities (mostly male; Tiger Woods, David Duchovny, etc.) to come out as having sex addiction issues after a scandalous event or failure in personal relationships are covered by the media.  Since American culture is greatly intertwined with media and pop culture, this could be a huge contributing factor in the eradication of the use of nymphomania and satyriasis.  Media is one of the biggest contenders in the ways that language shapes culture (whether it’s subliminal or not); the words that are chosen for today’s news reports and magazine articles are the words that will be repeated in tomorrow’s conversation.


Dictionary, M.-W. (n.d.). Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online. Retrieved November 2013, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nymphomania

Mythica, E. (n.d.). Nymphs. Retrieved Novemeber 1, 2013, from Encyclopedia Mythica Online: http://www.pantheon.org/articles/n/nymphs.html

Weiss, R. (n.d.). Hypersexuality: Symptoms of Sexual Addiction. Retrieved November 2013, from http://www.psychcentral.com: http://psychcentral.com/lib/hypersexuality-symptoms-of-sexual-addiction/00011488

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved November 2013, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hebephilia

http://www.etymonline.com. (n.d.). Retrieved from Online Etymology Dictionary: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=nymph&allowed_in_frame=0

Picture Credit : http://spenceralley.blogspot.com/2011/12/masters-of-venice.html

What’s so improper about fractions?

Yesterday, as part of the Wayne State Humanities Center brownbag series, I gave a talk entitled, “What’s so improper about fractions? Mathematical prescriptivism at Math Corps”, based on my long-term ethnographic research in Detroit.   For those of you who might be interested, you can watch the video below (or on Youtube itself), and the powerpoint is available for download here.

AAA itinerary

For the next several days I will be at the American Anthropological Association annual meetings in Chicago, Illinois.  Unfortunately I am once again ridiculously over-committed with committee work and departmental service and other such fun things, but if any of my readers are going to be there, feel free to track me down.   On Friday afternoon, you could check out my panel, Thinking and Talking about Metalanguage and Metacognition (Conference Room 4C).  Friday evening at the Society for Linguistic Anthropology business meeting, my student Sarah Carson will be receiving the SLA’s undergraduate essay prize (announced here).  Saturday from 10am-2pm, you could come to the exhibit hall where I’ll once again be hosting the Wayne State table at the Graduate School Fair (now with more swag for eager passers-by).

There are so many panels of interest (and so many opinions on what counts as interesting) that I can hardly list all the ones I wish I could go to (see above re: horribly over-committed).  But I do want to draw your attention to one really great panel of interest to the subject matter of this blog, unfortunately tucked away on Sunday morning: More than an Utterance: Indecipherable Scripts and the Materiality of Communication (Conference Room 5G) featuring a thoughtful slate of cross-cultural work on undeciphered and indecipherable writing systems.

I’ve promised myself this year to use my Twitter account to good effect, and so if you’re not already following me @schrisomalis, you could follow me and give me a little extra incentive to actually follow through.

09/26 report 2013

Once again, this year, I am continuing my longitudinal tracking of job postings at the American Anthropological Association website, which I note on September 26 each year.  As a proxy for the health of the job market in anthropology, though, the AAA listings are ideal, since, at least historically, most tenure-stream positions in the discipline get listed there.  So here’s the figure … (drumroll) …

2006: 190
2007: 186
2008: 168
2009: 78
2010: 112
2011: 117
2012: 109
2013: 125

So that’s pretty good, a clear sign of health, but nowhere near the peak of 2006 – 2007 (I got my tenure-track job in the 2007 cycle).    However, having seen where things are at, I think this is the last year that I’ll track jobs as of September 26.  It’s always been a bit ridiculous to measure using only one yearly data point, and I think that over time, the 09/26 date has become increasingly irrelevant.    Really what is needed is a set of data points (perhaps every week in the three-month period from 08/15 to 11/15) which could then show the timing of job postings and better reflect the overall market during the main (tenure-track and senior) job cycle.     Of course, I don’t have nearly enough time to do anything of the sort … but someone should.

CFP – Society for Anthropological Sciences – Albuquerque, NM – Mar 18-22/14

Call for Papers

Society for Anthropological Sciences Annual Meeting

March 18 – 22, 2014

Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Society for Anthropological Sciences (SAS / SASci) will be holding its 10th annual meeting from March 18 – 22, 2014, at the Hotel Albuquerque at Old Town, in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  We invite scholars from any subdiscipline of anthropology, or from allied social sciences, to submit abstracts for papers, posters, or full sessions on any topic in anthropological science, broadly conceived.   

The Society for Anthropological Sciences, as both an independent organization (SaSci) and a section of the American Anthropological Association (SAS), promotes the scientific understanding of humanity through comparative, cognitive, quantitative, and evolutionary approaches. The Society seeks to fulfill the historic mission of anthropology to describe and explain the range of variation in human biology, society, and culture across time and space.  You may join SAS through the AAA website as a section along with your membership, or if you are not a member of the AAA, visit http://anthrosciences.org/csac/signup.xsp to join SaSci for $10 / year.

This year the Society will be a co-sponsoring organization in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA).  SAS/SaSci allots 30 minutes including discussion for each oral presentation.  Registration for the conference must be done through the SfAA site at https://www.sfaa.net/sfaa2014/2014instruct.html , and includes access to all activities at the conference.  Abstracts should be 100 words maximum and should similarly be submitted through the SfAA online system.  The deadline for online registration and submission of abstracts through the SfAA site is October 15, 2013.  When registering for the conference and submitting an abstract or session proposal, it is critical that you select SAS as the co-sponsoring organization to ensure that your proposal is reviewed by our program committee.   

(Note: I am an executive of SaSci and a member of the program committee – please feel free to comment, or email me, if you have any questions.  We especially want to welcome submissions from new members and from students.)




Selfishness in language and culture

Well, with regard to the study of California language diversity I talked about a few days ago, my students rightly think that using contemporary satellite images of California vegetation overlaid with potentially-unreliable  colonial-era ethnolinguistic data is probably not a good way to figure out why people 12,000 or 8,000 or 1,000 years ago moved where they did.  And I haven’t even taught them anything about the perils of glottochronology yet.    Also worth noting: no linguists were involved in the writing or evaluation of that paper at any stage, as far as I can tell.

So for those of you following along at home, on Thursday in class we’re going to be tackling yet another rather dubious piece of scholarship (and scholarly reporting) from last month: Patricia Greenfield’s research using the Google Ngram Viewer to study trends in personality in British and American societies as expressed through word frequencies; the study is ‘The Changing Psychology of Culture from 1800 to 2000‘ from Psychological Science and the news article is “Language in books shows how we have grown more selfish” from the Telegraph.   Advance feedback in comments is welcome.

Explaining Californian language diversity

A recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, summarized in a Los Angeles Times news article, argues that there is a strong correlation between the linguistic diversity and ecological diversity of various parts of prehistoric California.   Using satellite images of plant growth in different areas of the state and comparing it with known or hypothesized distributions of linguistic groups, the authors, Brian Codding and Terry Jones, argue that to understand the density of languages in some areas of the state and the relative sparseness of languages in others, ecological variables such as environmental productivity need to be taken into account.   Specifically, they argue that waves of migration to ecologically attractive areas produce dense areas of language diversity, whereas ecologically unproductive environments are less diverse.

Now, I should say right up front that I’m not convinced by this study or by the media account of it.   I’m not going to go into all the reasons here (yet), because my students and I are going to talk about this study on Tuesday.  I think it embodies some of the more serious problems with studies of the language-culture intersection, and some of the more serious problems with science reporting.   Figuring out how to ask relevant analytical questions about material like this is, I believe, a critical step in advancing not only anthropology in the media, but the science as a whole.

Human Expeditions: Inspired by Bruce Trigger

small title imageHuman Expeditions: Inspired by Bruce Trigger

Stephen Chrisomalis and Andre Costopoulos, editors

Human Expeditions: Inspired by Bruce Trigger, which was published recently by the University of Toronto Press, is a book that Andre Costopoulos and I envisioned shortly after the death of our friend and mentor Bruce Trigger, who was my dissertation supervisor.  In helping to sort through his papers, we became aware that he had developed, over several decades, a network of eclectic and important scholars, including many of his own students, whose work did not fit into conventional theoretical or disciplinary categories or whose serious ideas had not received adequate attention.  We also were reminded of how unconventional much of Trigger’s own work was, with articles such as ‘Brecht and ethnohistory’ and ‘Akhenaten and Durkheim’ among his eclectic works.  But the book was created not as a sterile memorial to Trigger, but rather, as a way to think about scholarship that is, “unfinished, unbegun, or even unthinkable, in the present intellectual climate”.

Human Expeditions is a decidedly ‘unfashionable’ book, and we are proud of that fact.  We identified people whose work is poorly characterized by ‘isms’, and asked them to share work that filled gaps in present thinking.  The contributors to the volume come from the philosophy of science, history, and Egyptology as well as anthropology and archaeology.  The result, we hope, will give greater depth to anthropological insights and greater conceptual breadth to the humanistic social sciences.  A number of contributors are very senior figures in their fields, but we believe it is just as critical to include contributions from early-stage scholars, including several who were students of Trigger in his final years.  At minimum, we want to provide immediate venues for important scholarship that lies outside disciplinary norms.  At its most utopian, Human Expeditions allows us to envision, “an alternate history of the social sciences in which conformity to convention is not an expectation,” and to think about different configurations of disciplines than those currently in fashion.   We think that Trigger would have approved heartily.

Plants (humans?) are incredibly cool, but don’t do math

There’s a fascinating article on BBC News today, about a really interesting study that proposes that an internal mechanism in the Arabidopsis thaliana plant (which is used widely in scientific experiments as a model organism) regulates starch consumption in the absence of sunlight in a way that requires the plants to be able to mathematically “divide” the numbers of two different types of cells.  Now I’m not a botanist and I can’t say whether the result is correct, but I do take issue with the claim that “They’re actually doing maths in a simple, chemical way”.  The last quote from the article is more accurate: “This is not evidence for plant intelligence. It simply suggests that plants have a mechanism designed to automatically regulate how fast they burn carbohydrates at night. Plants don’t do maths voluntarily and with a purpose in mind like we do.”

All sorts of natural processes can be modelled using mathematics – so, for instance, Fibonacci patterns appear in a variety of plants in the operation of phyllotaxis (the arrangement of leaves on stems).    We don’t say that these plants ‘do math’.    And the same principle applies above to the new finding above.  It’s incredibly cool that these mathematical patterns emerge, and it’s a very interesting question why they emerge biochemically.  But that raises an even more interesting question: what do we mean when we say that humans ‘do math’?

Humans are organisms and thus part of the physical world, and so lots of the things they do unconsciously or without explicit reflection can thus be modelled mathematically.    But this is not the same as saying that all humans do mathematics.  This seems to be what is being suggested in the last quotation: that ‘doing math’ involves conscious, explicit, purposeful reflection on the mathematical aspects of reality.    Being able to throw a curveball is not ‘doing mathematics’; being able to model the trajectory of a curveball is.  And the overlap between the sets of humans able to do each task is minimal.

Let me give another example related to the plant study above.  A child has a pile of 23 candies and wants to divide it among some gathered group of five kids including herself.  She starts to her right giving one candy to each friend, continuing to pass them out until they’re all gone.    When the process is complete, each child will have 4 candies and the three to the right of the distributor will have 5 each.  We could, if we wished to, define ‘division’ as ‘the process of dividing up a group of objects among another group’ and then say ‘thus, the kids are dividing 23 by 5 and getting 4 with a remainder of 3′.  But I think most of us would be reluctant to argue that the first child understands division, or knows how to divide.    Even though distributing the candy is a conscious decision, and even though it requires some general process (one candy to one child), it does not require that the child be able to do mathematics.

For the same reason, I sometimes have some skepticism when my colleagues in ethnomathematics describe the mathematics of some human activity in terms of fractal geometry or the Fibonacci series.   It is, of course, possible that people have some awareness of the processes behind their activities, and ethnographically, when they can talk about that, it is very interesting.   For instance, if the child above says “Well, I know I have 23 candies and so they won’t go evenly, so there are going to be some left over at the end,” then we do indeed know that the child has some explicit knowledge of division.    I worry, in fact, that because so many natural processes result in such sequences, that we confuse the result with the conscious awareness of the process.  In doing so, we fail to investigate the explicit mathematical knowledge that humans do actually encode in all sorts of things they do, and we falsely attribute a sort of explicit consciousness to activities that have no explicitness underlying them (in humans, animals, plants, and even in nonliving things).

Lexiculture thanks

Thanks to all those, either in the comments or elsewhere, who helped with additional suggestions for my Lexiculture project for my undergraduate course this fall.  I now have over 50 words on my long-list for the students to choose from, which should be enough, but more ideas are, of course, welcome, especially if I decide I want to assign this project multiple years.