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Sexigraphy.

The meaning of a word-its linguistic essence, so to speak--is encapsulated in its dictionary definition. Can one learn more about a word by repeating this process? In "Dictionary Symphony" in the August 1990 issue, Dave Morice proposed replacing the essential words in a definition (typically the nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs) with their definitions, to create a second-level definition that would enhance the first-level one. In turn, the words used in the second-level definition can each be replaced with their definitions, and so on..

Let us see how this works with the archetypal synonym for "copulate", as given in Webster's 10th Collegiate: Lexigraphy, according to Webster's Third, is "the art or practice of defining words" so the following exercise can plausibly be called sexigraphy.

1. to ENGAGE in COITUS with ...

2. to TAKE PART; PHYSICAL UNION of MALE and FEMALE GENITALIA accompanied by RHYTHMIC MOVEMENT ...

3. JOIN, PARTICIPATE, SHARE; of or relating to the BODY; an ACT or INSTANCE of JOINING TWO or MORE THINGS into ONE; of or relating to the SEX that PRODUCES GAMETES which FERTILIZE the EGGS of a FEMALE; of or relating to the SEX that BEARS YOUNG or PRODUCES EGGS; the ORGANS of the REPRODUCTIVE SYSTEM; marked by or MOVING in PRONOUNCED RHYTHM; CHANGE of PLACE or POSITION or POSTURE ...

The descriptors increase rapidly, from 2 to 9 to 32. Dave Morice commented on the recursive definition of WORD:
 At the fourth level, the meaning of WORD verges on magical. At the
fifth
 level, it approaches mystical. After that, the definitions extend
beyond
 all preconceived limits of language. "Ineffable" hardly
begins to
 describe it; "incomprehensible" is putting it mildly. By
the 26th level,
 so many words are generated that counting them would take light
years. If
 they could be written on atoms, one word per atom, there
wouldn't be
 enough atoms in the universe to hold them. There is no final
definition;
 WORD dissipates into an infinity of words, to which the only response
is
 silence. 


In the August 1970 Word Ways, Dave Silverman observed that recursive definitions inevitably lead to the Chasing-one's-tail phenomenon. As one proceeds down the ever-lengthening list of definitions, one will eventually encounter a word which uses in its definition only words which have already appeared in the list. Early printings of Webster's Second Edition offered an outstanding example of such circularity; RAFTMAN a raftman (the editors meant "raftsman"). The only way out of this paradox is to decide (as mathematicians do) that there are certain undefined terms which are used in various combinations to define all others.

In his privately-published book, The Wordtree, Henry G. Burger proposed that every transitive verb can be split into two components that capture the essence of the original, such as LOVE = LIKE + DESIRE Or CRY = SOUND + EMOTIONALIZE. In turn, each of these components can be split, and so on, producing a family tree of words which, in some sense, collectively describe the original. To avoid infinite regress, Burger lists 86: words (43 paired opposites) which cannot be further reduced. These are listed below:

in-out

ploy-deploy

whorl-spiral

septuple-seventh

halve-halfhalve

agree-differ

need-unneed

partner-solo

odize-immune

front-unbare

gather-ungather

spatialize-void

fit-unfit

free-unfree

center-uncenter

horizon-vertical

materialize-dematerialize

speck-bestrew

quintuple-quinquesect

maximize-minimize

equal-unequalize

convex-concave

levorotate-bedrug

pluralize-singularize

emotionalize-deemotionalize

temporize-detemporize

straighten-courb

relate-disrelate

subjectify-desubjectify

up-down

enring-rosette

linearize-dispunct

triple-third

ascertain-uncertain

point-dispoint

port-starboard

integrate-disintegrate

enter-vacate

greaten-lessen

change-unchange

power-weaken

order-disorder

back-unback

One can think of these as linguistic elements analogous to the 100-plus chemical elements. Each transitive verb is then a specific mixture of these. For example, WAG = DIRECTION + ALTERNATE is a mixture Of 9/32 CHANGE, 5/32 RELATE, 4/32 SPATIALIZE, 4/32 STRAIGHTEN, 4/32 UNBARE, 2/32 FIT, 2/32 ORDER and 2/32 PLURALIZE. (However, I doubt that anyone given these proportions would be able to conclude that the word they characterize is WAG!)

The closer the elemental mix, the closer the meaning of the underlying words? It doesn't seem to work in practice. Take TUNK (to tap on a burial chamber wall, so the archeologist can detect a hidden void on the other side) and AUSCULTATE (to tap on a patient's chest, so the doctor can hear the echo through his stethoscope). At the third level, TUNK generates STRIKE, FORCE, DEENERGIZE, DISCONTINUE, USE, DISBELIEVE, DEFINE, ASCERTAIN but AUSCULTATE generates MEET, RELATE, ELECTROPHONE, SENSIZE, INQUIRE, ITERATE, DEBUNK, UNINVENT--not a single, component verb in common.

As the 86 irreducibles suggest, Burger is not above converting other parts of speech to nonce-verbs when he needs them. One is reminded of a January 25 1993 cartoon in which Calvin informs Hobbes "I like to verb words ... I take nouns and adjectives and use them as verbs. Remember when 'access' was a thing? Now it's something you do. It got verbed." Some verbifications are idiosyncratic, creating hapax legomena: CRADLESNATCH, POTSMOKE, MOUSEBURGER. (That last word is the fusion of INSTRUCT and PERSEVERE, in case you wondered.)

It's time to return to our knitting--how does Burger's system treat the sex act? We start with his verb COIT, apparently a back-formation of COITUS. (Alternatively, we could have started with BRIMMER, from BRIM which has as its primary meaning "a pig in heat". However, Burger unhelpfully splits BRIMMER = FILL + UNFILL.) The first five steps of COIT are given below (COIT = COPULATE + UNVIRGIN, COPULATE = COUPLE + COMPLETE, etc.). Irreducibles have been capitalized.
 coit copulate couple pair double GATHER
 increase
 direct RELATE
 STRAIGHTEN
 right FIT
 ORDER
 complete fill FIT
 close discontinue
 limit
 perfect make halfmake
 form
 finish END
 close
 unvirgin touch contact meet near
 affect
 RELATE
 sense resonate vibrate
 synchronize
 Morse encode .
electrify
 utilize adapt CHANGE
 FIT
 use activate POWER
 INTEGRATE
 destine ORDER
 direct 


Sexual overtones are certainly present in the first and second stages, but have been largely replaced by more abstract verbs in the third one.

Six out of the 16 fourth-stage verbs are irreducibles, as are seven of the remaining 20 fifth-stage ones. Most of the rest-terminate in a few more stages; however, one verb that doesn't terminate quickly is ENCODE. This branch runs: into a glitch in Burger's classification system--the verbs LIKE and DISLIKE eventually return to themselves:

DISLIKE-deaestheticize--deculturate--disaccustom--dishabituate-deemotionalize immune differentiate halt

enigmatize--unpattern--indart--misrepresent--blunder--misbehave uncharacter flaw immaterialize re-present

nill--unwill--DISLIKE transhumate absent

Because of this, the table of components of COIT never ends.

It is a daunting task to characterize COIT by its irreducibles. There are at least 40 different ones represented, including a number of paired opposites which, at least in part, cancel each other. The most important irreducible appears to be RELATE, with a proportionate weight of at least 45/256 (but 8/256 of which is canceled by DISRELATE). The next three irreducibles are CHANGE (at least 44/256), FIT (at least 30/256) and STRAIGHTEN (at least 20/256). Perhaps Burger is on to something here--in sexual intercourse, a man and a woman RELATE to each other, CHANGE their positions (from vertical to horizontal), cooperatively FIT his penis into her vagina, and complete their intercourse after the former has been suitably STRAIGHTENed!

A. ROSS ECKLER

Morristown, New Jersey
COPYRIGHT 2013 Jeremiah Farrell
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Title Annotation:lexigraphy
Publication:Word Ways
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2013
Words:1365
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