Etymology is the history of language. It shows concepts, history and culture. Reading the words in Mark Morton's book, some of which were (wink, wink) forbidden, some sly, witty, euphemistic or just plain coded, one gets a thorough overview of the mores of politics, nature, education, spirituality that created the sexual slangs of the English language.
Non word-lovers might wonder why anyone would dedicate his life to finding out the exact time a word entered the English language. And the prudish might assume that Morton's study of sexual words in particular is a perverse way of discussing forbidden subjects. This is intellectual dalliance (no pun intended) at its very best. Reading The Lover's Tongue, a reader cannot help but search for those private words the author should have included in his list. Where for instance is the American word, "Moby"?
Mark Morton has created a fun readable and informative book which will delight word-lovers. The Lover's Tongue examines history, biology, commerce, the effects of cultural cross-pollination and the meeting place of science, wit and cultural attitudes. Morton dissects all the separate aspects of sex, near sex, forbidden sex: words for nakedness, smut words, words of love, lust, desire, endearment, objectification, copulation; words of body parts, words of sexual acts. Whether distasteful, holy, taboo or prurient, since the beginning of history sex in all its different aspects has interested humans, who always want to know what their neighbors are doing in bed, or at the very least to know how to discuss sexuality about them. Morton's research is copious and panoramic. Weaving in literary quotes, snippets of history, linguistic word studies, especially of mishearings and mis-translations that create the history and concepts of English-language sexuality. Who knew that climax and client came from the same Greek word which means to lean? Morton has definitely studied the historical, artistic, political background necessary to write a book like this and his writing style is conversational.
The book is a good addition to etymology. An assistant professor and a language columnist, Morton is obviously a lover of curiosities. His previous book is the Julia Child Award-nominated Cupboard Love: A Dictionary of Culinary Curiosities. He knows his stuff. One minor quibble is that he is more of a researcher and a maker of lists than an examiner. This is not to say that he doesn't delight the reader with meaty digressions. He does engage in digressions, as in the section on the physical deformities brought on by Onanism (masturbation). But, for this reader, the book sometimes fails when Morton merely lists the origin of a phrase, shows linguistic interconnections and a word's family history but doesn't probe much further or step into the foreign culture that produced the phrase. This lapse doesn't occur often, but when it does -- although the lists and interconnections are informative -- the reader feels as if a fuller explanation of a phrase is needed. For example Morton writes, "‘speaking in tongues' dates back to the sixteenth century, where it arose as the popular name for what is technically known as glossolalia, the sputtering of seemingly incomprehensible words by someone inspired by the Holy Spirit. And as for the idiom ‘the cat's got your tongue', it appeared in the mid nineteenth century to describe a person who is made speechless, often in response to hearing some surprising information." The problem here is that the term "speaking in tongues" is not some mere popular name but a phrase found in the King James Version, a direct translation of a Greek phrase which meant speaking in an earthly or unearthly language unknown to the hearers. As for the "cat got your tongue," I found myself wondering why he just didn't tell the reader why and how such a concept as cats taking someone's tongue ever came into being. But this is a small nit that only the persnicketty might be troubled with. Most readers will love the book.
The Lover's Tongue is a treasure trove, and the only limitations of this copious volume are the natural limitations of the compiler. That is, the author is male, white, and lives in a specific province named Winnipeg in a country called Canada. Thus, in a book about the lover's tongue the author has created chapters around concepts that interest him, words important to men. Hence, while a chapter exists on anal sex, no chapters about menstruation or pregnancy exist, concepts which a woman would definitely have included in their own chapters because such for women at least such matters affect sexuality. The author is well aware that many slang words might be only Canadian terms, (Note his comment on Eric Partridge and the use of the word ‘dink') but seems bent on proving that they really aren't. He does this well and heads off any reader who might declare that some slangs are Canadian and provincial. And yet, the geography and race of the author does affect the book: the research looks backward to European countries but loses the opportunity for fun guesswork about the future of the English language on other continents. For instance, the author includes "A friend of Dorothy" in his section on homosexuality but all but ignores the contribution African-Americans have made to English sexual language. After all, where oh where is the bootylicious? Or, for that matter, what are the Australian slangs for some of these words? The book is copious and yet limited. The book should have been longer, perhaps. However, I highly recommend it.