“dirty words in the dictionary”

I made a Twine game: “dirty words in the Dictionary” (click to play); here’s its IFDB entry. [post updated 11 June 2014; new words below]

First, a few things about the game itself:

I refer to “dirty words in the Dictionary” (hereafter #dwitd) as a game, although it lacks one of the more important features of games: it can’t be won or lost (maybe this makes it not-a-game; I don’t really care). Play continues as long as the player has patience.

#dwitd is an exploration of the gaps, omissions, lacunae, and loops in the definitions of sex-and-sex-related words in Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language. It is, literally, the Twine-enabled equivalent of flipping through a dictionary—and, like that activity, it is potentially endless.¹ Beginning with either fornication or debauchery, players “look up” the words used to define other words, building—at least ostensibly—a fuller picture of what it means to “commit lewdness.” Not every word in every definition is an active link to a new entry: only those words that I thought important to the task at hand have their own entry/passage.

#dwitd contains 73 playable passages, 69 of which are entries from the Dictionary; some passages contain multiple, related words. “CORRUPT,” for example, includes the definitions for three senses of that word (active [transitive] verb, neutral [intransitive] verb, adjective) as well as “corruption”—and it lists, but does not define, eight other derivatives of corruptWhoresensual, and lewd are also compound entries. The entries themselves are quoted directly from Johnson’s Dictionary (which is why he gets an author credit). I’ve omitted the etymological notes and the example quotations (with one exception), and sometimes omitted some of a word’s definitions. (I’ve retained the order of the included definitions, but the numbers don’t always match the numbers in the Dictionary.)

There are four words for which I’ve made the subtext explicit (under a horizontal rule, in a different font)—and, with two of these, I’ve made leaps that aren’t strictly permitted by the game’s internal logic: from sex to genitals, and from genitals to castration. With the first, I just wanted to include genitals—but the second leap was suggested by the supporting quotation included with genitals (the only one I included, and I included the fuller quote from which Johnson [or his source] edited the example).

So, why did I make this thing?

I’m working on a conference-paper-draft-of-a-dissertation-chapter about Johnson’s Dictionary and Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. I’m arguing (at least at this point) that each of those texts works against its own organizing principle. Here’s part of the abstract:

In the Preface to his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), Johnson writes that the lexicographer’s task is cultivation: he ‘toils’ to “remove rubbish and clear obstructions,” tending the language in order to preserve and prolong its earlier state of undefiled perfection. The Dictionary is, according to its compiler, an attempt to regulate and control an otherwise dangerously fecund and indiscriminate tongue. But in practice it is something else, containing as it does a number of “obsolete,” “low,” “vulgar,” and “cant” words; the lexicographer allows the language to remain defiled.

Sade’s 120 Days is structured, like the Dictionary, as a list: 600 perverse sexual “passions” are equally distributed under four major headings. But its ‘preface’ describes proliferation instead of pruning: it is the minute differences between two sexual acts that contain “precisely that refinement … which characterizes and distinguishes the kind of libertinage wherewith we are here involved.” The text works against its stated principle, however: with only 600 slots to fill, multiple variations on the same act are limited, and the ‘refinement’ necessary to pleasure is foreclosed. Indeed, where the lists are most in line with Sade’s theory of libertinage, they are the most monotonous.

Elsewhere in the abstract I write that I want to “read the Dictionary as erotica,” and that’s what #dwitd is an attempt to do.

It all began with the definition of “fornication”: to “commit lewdness.” Well, what’s lewdness? and what are lustfulness, and libidinousness? The Dictionary circles around “the physical act of love” without ever candidly defining it (even the words penis and vagina are absent). This circling can certainly be read as reticence and propriety on Johnson’s part, but it can also be read as lexicographic foreplay, a definitional tease-and-denial game. That’s the reading #dwitd foregrounds: clicking through the looping and intertwined definitions might be enjoyable (or not), but it offers no sense of closure or completion—there is no clear place to stop.²

I have no idea if the game is “fun” or not; I can’t play it for more than a few minutes at a time, but I also find myself clicking through it for no real reason. I built it as a way of visually organizing the connections between the words, because trying to sketch it on paper was insufficient. That didn’t quite work: with 73 passages and 228 connections, it’s hard to parse as a diagram:


[Also, Twine doesn’t count multiple links between passages: so debauch, for example, is only connected to corrupt and intemperate once each, despite each word appearing five times in the definitions for debauch and its forms.]

In the course of building #dwitd, though, I realized that a clearly parseable word-web isn’t really what I wanted; the image above is about as clear as I want things, because the game—like the dictionary—is something to get lost in.

1. With one exception: there is one word which doesn’t loop back into the others; finding that word is as close to a win (or loss) as #dwitd gets. There’s also one—I think just one—unescapable loop (unless one deploys one’s browser’s ‘back’ button).

2. Again, with the exception mentioned in the first footnote. This is an exception I may remove in a future revision, though I also like that the only word offering closure is a bit of a disappointment.

Day 86: Go to the wrong side of the tracks.

I’m tempted to pull the sort of thing with this phrase that I pulled with “hobby” a few weeks ago – or, rather, I was tempted to do so, until a bit of poking around in the vast soup of knowledge and nonsense that is the internet convinced me reconstructing the history of this idiom was going to require looking in actual books in a library somewhere, and I’m just not up for it tonight.

Not up for looking in books, that is: I’m just going to make this shit up as I go along.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the “tracks” are train tracks. The definite article in the idiom implies that there is only one set of tracks passing through the town – although there we’re assuming that the “wrong side” exists only where the tracks pass through some sort of community, and that the sides are neutral with respect to one another in those places that the track runs through the open countryside. I think it’s a reasonable assumption to make, but we need to be clear about it.

So. Train tracks. One set in town. I think we’ll have to assume that, especially if the town had a station, there must have been a few small spurs of track associated with the station, because practicality seems to necessitate such things. For the sake of the idiom, though, we won’t consider these separate tracks, but part of the tracks.

So. There’s one major set of train tracks running through town. How do you tell which side is the wrong side?

This is, I think, the crux of the matter. We all know that the “wrong side” is the “poor side” – the question is, as it seems to me, whether the less-than-nice side of the tracks was wrong or poor first. That is, is there something inherently undesirable about the wrong side of the tracks which means that the poor people have to live there because the bougies won’t, or is the poor side of the tracks “wrong” precisely because that’s where the poor people live?

One explanation – which I find highly dubious – is that the wrong side is wrong because it’s the side that all or most of the train exhaust ends up on, due to “prevailing winds.” It seems like, for this to be the case, the train tracks would have to run perpendicular to the prevailing winds. Right? Maybe not.

Furthermore, the immediate vicinity of the tracks on both sides are subject to air pollution and noise and hobos and stray railroad spike impalements and who knows what else – so why is it that one side is right and the other wrong, and not that both sides get “righter” the further from the tracks one gets?

This is all more or less pointless, as most places don’t just have one set of tracks anymore. Which particular set of tracks here in Sherman is the set that has a wrong and a right side? Wait, shit – if each set of tracks has a right and a wrong side, how does that work where they overlap? Can one area be really wrong, or both wrong and right and therefore neutral, or the right side of a lesser track and the wrong side of a major track and therefore wrong, but not as wrong as it could be?

Sorry, I got myself sidetracked. Wrong-tracked. Whatever.

We live only a few blocks from a set of tracks. It’s a relatively minor spur, but in the absence of an official pronouncement on the rightness or wrongness of sides of various sets of tracks, I’m going to say it’s the one. The one. And so: our house is on one side, and the Montessori pre-school Jack goes to is on the other side, and the tracks are roughly the halfway point. Either we live on the wrong side, or he goes to school on the wrong side, but either way, we visit both sides of the tracks five days a week – seven, actually, as the park, our church, and my parents are all also on the other side of the tracks from us.

So, dear Book, fuck you. I win this round.

Day 52: What is the meaning of life?

“Today solve that eternal problem by looking it up in the dictionary.”

Not just any dictionary will do, of course – there is only one dictionary that can be called “The Dictionary,” and that’s the OED. (Sorry, Dr. Johnson.)

The entry for “life” in the OED runs to five pages (with another three pages of compounds): big pages, with three columns and very small type. I’m not going to reproduce the entire entry, but here are some highlights:

I. The condition or attribute of living or being alive; animate existence. Opposed to death or inanimate existence.
1. a. The condition, quality, or fact of being a living person or animal; human or animal existence.
1. d. The condition that distinguishes animals, plants, and other organisms from inorganic or inanimate matter, characterized by continuous metabolic activity and the capacity for functions such as growth, development, reproduction, adaptation to the environment, and response to stimulation; (also) the activities and phenomena by which this is manifested.

That’s quite helpful, I think. Life is being alive. Mystery solved. What’s next?

Of course, if it were that easy, a lot of folks would be out of a job: philosophers, religious teachers, novelists, poets, painters, gardeners, advertising executives, fashion designers, bartenders. If the meaning of life is just “continuous metabolic activity,” then one of the Big Questions is off the table for people whose “job” it is to “explore” or “manipulate” the “human condition.”

“What is the meaning of life?” is not a question that can be – or ought to be – answered. Or, at least, not answered in a “the meaning of life is X” sort of way. There are many answers, but they’re all partial, local, tentative, provisional. The value of the question is in the asking, in the searching and exploration and reflection that come before the answering. The answer itself is useful, I guess, but only as the starting place for more asking.

The body is alive because it exhibits “continuous metabolic activity” – the mind is alive because it never stops asking the big questions.