[Originally appeared in The Danforth Review]
*The Bald-Headed Hermit & The Artichoke: An Erotic Thesaurus
compiled by A.D. Peterkin
Arsenal Pulp Press, 1999
Where would we be without sex? Nonexistant, obviously. More importantly, however, we would be without many of the words which make everyday speech poetic and ripe with extra-linguistic possibilities.
A.D. Peterkin, therefore, has provided a most essential service by compiling a garden's full of literary delights, a listing of all the dirty words you've ever heard of - and dozens more you can add to your vocabulary.
The introduction even includes an invitation to send in your own submissions to be included in subsequent editions, since "erotic slang, like sexuality itself, is in constant, frenetic, celebratory evolution, limited not by technology or actual practice but by sheer imagination."
The first word in the collection is "Abdomen": "A muscular abdomen has become a sexual status symbol and a source of obsession for millions of body-conscious men and women today." Alternatives include: "abs, alvus, Aunt Nelly, bay window, bazoo, front porch and gizzard."
The last word in the collection is "Wife": "Many of the terms for wife listed here show a playful ambivalence about married life - i.e., struggle and strife, awful-wedded wife." Alternatives include: "ball and chain, best piece, better half, block and tackle, chief of staff, lawful blanket, old bubble and partner."
Randomly selected from the middle of the collection (honestly!) is "Masturbation": "The 'hidden vice' is no longer hidden, as this rather lengthy list reveals." Alternatives include: "abuse, arm breaker, auto pilot, bachelor's delight, bananas and cream, blue-vein shuffle, cheesy rollback, cunt-cuddling, finger painting and four sisters on Thumb Street."
Many of the definitions are illustrated with photographs, most of which appear to have been taken in the early 1900s, thus adding a somewhat archaic, lost-in-time tone to the book - which is at odds with the "celebratory" tone of the introduction - suggesting any discussion of sexuality needs to be displaced into "history" before it can be safe, codified, controlled.
But then, is this a book about sexuality, or a book about language, or a book about the marriage of the two? From the above list, the latter must be the choice, though other interpretations are possible - and perhaps more interesting. From Dr. Johnson's first English dictionary in the 18th century down to the current day, every listing of words and definitions includes an implied ideology. The Bald-Headed Hermit is no exception.
What is its ideology? It is something more than celebrating sexuality as normal, natural and complex. It is something more than revealing the abundance of human creativity in relation to sex words.
Upon closer inspection it is perhaps an argument about the central role sexuality plays as inspiration for creative acts.
Sometimes, as Freud said, a cigar is just a cigar; at other times, however, a pen is more than just a pen. Words more than words. And the bedroom is the location of elaborate cultural productions....