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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Introduction

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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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Figure 4

Transition/Conclusion

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.

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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.

References

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.

Help ignite the Schwa Fire

A really exciting new digital initiative in linguistics journalism is on the horizon: Schwa Fire.    It’s the brainchild of Michael Erard, a Ph.D. in linguistics and a superlative science writer.  Erard is seeking to fill the gap between the language blogs (of which you’re currently reading one), where content is relatively short and the authors unpaid, and the literary and intellectual magazines like the New Yorker, where there are occasionally linguistic essays of some importance, but not nearly often enough or in enough detail.  Schwa Fire will be a low-cost ($1.99) ad-free digital magazine available on the web and for mobile devices featuring important ideas from people from across the linguistic sciences.

Erard is currently running a major Kickstarter initiative to get his project off the ground, and is over halfway to his $25,000 goal.  I supported it today and I would encourage others with an interest in seeing high-quality, long-form, language-related on-line non-fiction (perhaps with not so many hyphens) to do so as well.

A hithertofore unrecognized neologism

I got a note last week from a correspondent asking me about the word hithertofore, and whether or not it was a ‘proper word’.  I have to admit that at first glance I was very surprised, because of course it was a perfectly good word, and one whose meaning I knew well.   But when the correspondent said that she’d looked around and hadn’t found it, I looked at it again and realized that of course it wasn’t a word.  Or was it?

English has two words with a distinctly archaic flavour that mean ‘up to the present time’, hitherto and heretofore.    These synonyms also start with the same letter, are compounds containing to, and to top it all off, hither and here are also synonyms, so it’s not even semantically odd.   Neither word is especially common, and as you can see from this Ngram, hitherto and heretofore are really quite rare and becoming rarer.    It’s hardly surprising, then, that some speakers and readers might blend these two. Whether we think of it as adding -fore to hitherto, or substituting hither for here in heretofore, doesn’t much matter, as the result is the same, hithertofore.

What should perhaps be more surprising is that hithertofore hasn’t hithertofore been included in any dictionary, not even with a usage note.   It’s not hard to find in use in printed books; Google Books claims 67,500 works containing it (although that number is probably inaccurate) in lots of different genres.  There are plenty of words in big unabridged dictionaries that are far less common than that.   I’ve found it going back at least as far as 1708, and I didn’t have to look very hard. While it seems at a glance that a higher than average proportion of these works are authored by non-native English speakers, I also would argue that one has to be relatively fluent to even make such an error, conflating two already-unusual words.

Note, though, that its Ngram, rather than slowly declining from the 19th century until today like those of its two constituents, shows it to be largely a product of the mid-20th century, peaking around 1970.  This suggests, firstly, that perhaps it was at its most popular when its two constituents had declined enough in frequency that they had fallen out of regular use (and were thus prone to confusion), but were still common enough to be intermixed.   It hit its sweet spot half a century ago, but now the two well-accepted words themselves are falling out of use in favour of previously  or other terms, so hithertofore may actually have lost its chance to become another widely used variant (even at its most popular, it was less than 1% as frequent as heretofore).    I still think it’s a neat example of the way that memory, meaning, and phonology can lead to the appearance of nearly-invisible blends, and given that it is a relatively common error, it could probably use some lexicographical attention.

 

 

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.

‘False friend’ follies

Last week in my class, we were discussing loanwords as well as semantic change.    You couldn’t ask for a more perfect (although bothersome) news story incorporating these two aspects of linguistic change than this story about a  bilingual promotional campaign in Canada for Vitaminwater, in which random English and French words were paired on the bottom of drink caps.  But it all went horribly wrong when under one cap, the English word ‘you’ was combined with the French word ‘retard’ for ‘late’, as detailed in this article in the Province , and was then found by an Alberta family.   Another cap had the perfectly ordinary French word douche ‘shower’.  Coca-Cola (the parent company) has apologized profusely and cancelled the promotion (to its credit), and has said it was all a coincidence gone awry, although I still wonder whether it could be a rogue employee’s doing.

Learners of second languages are often warned to beware of ‘false friends’ – words that look like English words but in fact, in the other language, have a radically different meaning.  Obviously ‘retard’ has a very specific and highly offensive meaning for most English speakers.   But I’m a little surprised that, in the coverage of this story, there hasn’t been really any mention of the fact that ‘retard’ (with second-syllable stress) is not just a French word meaning ‘late’, but an English verb that, until recently at least, was in common use as a synonym for ‘delay’.     Of course, these days the offensive connotation means that the verb ‘to retard’ is becoming increasingly rare, although it’s not hard to find plenty of examples from recent news articles.     There is not a massive protest every time someone uses this verb in the customary way.   This leads me to conclude that in fact, the real troublemaking word on the bottlecap is not ‘retard’ at all, but rather, ‘you’, which immediately turns the following word from … whatever it was, in English or French … into an insult.  If the English word had been ‘kumquat’, I do not know whether we’d even have heard about this.