“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.


Things on my corkboard: Fortune cardboards.

Several (probably nigh on a half-dozen) years ago—when I was first applying to grad school, actually, a round of applications that were all rejected (edit: I think it was before this, but really I have no fucking idea—who remembers shit like that? Not me)—I’d purchased a few cases of Jones Soda for some party or other that we were having.

A bottle of Jones Soda has a fortune printed inside the cap, but since cans don’t have bottle-caps, Jones prints (or printed at the time—I think the packaging has changed?) the fortunes on the cardboard case the cans come in.

On this day, whenever it was, two of the fortunes jumped out at me as particularly significant (though I know, of course, that their significance is primarily a function of my decision to see them as significant—as relevant to my specific situation, &c, whatever).

They were: “You are headed in the right direction” and “Ask yourself why.”

I cut them out. They went, as a pair, onto my corkboard. They helped me get through the application process and the soul-crushing stack of (six) rejection letters that the process resulted in. They were, also, a factor in my decision to go through the application process again—successfully, this time.

At some point, I took the corkboard off the wall, took everything off of it, and bagged it up: the wall space in the room it was in had been … redistributed.

When I got (more-or-less) permanent office space on campus—in the fall of 2010, a full nine months before I started writing this post, and more months than I want to count before the actual posting (with some revision) of this post—the corkboard had a new home, and (almost) everything went back up on it. New things, too, as I acquire or unearth them (like a one-armed LEGO ninja that I found on the sidewalk, and a Return-of-the-Jedi-era stormtrooper action figure from my childhood).

One thing that didn’t make it was the “You are headed in the right direction” fortune: it disappeared somewhere, into the æther, into nonbeing, into the trash, who knows. I no longer know if I’m headed in the right direction—most days I’m not even sure what direction I’m headed in at all. I still have the other one, though, and it’s still on my corkboard. “Ask yourself why.” I try to, and I try to teach my students to do the same. Never stop asking, even when you get answers—the answers should just produce new questions. Ask yourself why.

It’s fucking exhausting, just like when a kid does it to you.

Day 197: Improve your signature.

Originally scheduled for Saturday, July 16.

I did this a long time ago, sort of. I improved my signature into illegibility.


My signature used to look like my name — I mean, one’s signature is supposed to look like one’s name, I get that, but what I mean is that my signed name looked no different than my name when I was just writing it down. That was unacceptable, and so I improved my signature into an illegible scribble. It’s a forceful and manly scribble, but it looks nothing like letters. Occasionally this causes people to look askance at me — but the paperwork all gets filed and the checks all get cashed, so I don’t guess it’s that big a problem.

My signature needed improving in the first place because I can no longer write in cursive. I learned how somewhere during grade school, and then promptly forgot when I was no longer required by my teachers to use it. (Aside: when I took the GRE, I had to copy out an I promise that I didn’t cheat and that I won’t talk to ANYBODY about what was on this test statement in cursive, and it took me twenty minutes, where it would have taken five if I’d been allowed to print it.)

Cursive is an outmoded technology. When you’re writing with a quill and ink, you want to lift the quill as seldom as possible, to avoid smudges and blots and boils and all that sort of thing. That’s not the case with a ball-point pen, though, so why bother? Nostalgic affectation, that’s why.

It’s probably hypocritical of me to dismiss cursive out of hand while also judging people with bad handwriting, but I do it anyway. Cursive might be an outmoded technology, but writing isn’t, or not yet — and people with terrible handwriting are inferior in important ways to those of us with clear, legible handwriting (and those people who write in cursive are either old, hipsters, or fops). For the record: my handwriting is not so good.

Of course, I do more typing than writing, so maybe handwriting is closer to being outmoded than I’m comfortable admitting. Also, just because cursive is outmoded isn’t a good enough reason to dismiss it: listening to music that’s been etched onto big wobbly pieces of plastic is also outmoded, but I still do it occasionally. I just don’t like cursive, and I’m trying to justify my dislike.

I’m not sure I have a point. My signature used to be legible, and then I fixed it, and now it’s not.

Day 184: How memorable is your everyday conversation?

“Find out by writing down everything you say. Highlight your wittiest phrases.”

I don’t have to write down everything I say to know that my everyday conversation is so far from memorable that even I forget what I’ve said almost as soon as I’m done saying it.

Even my wittiest off-the-cuff moments are not that witty — and on those rare occasions when I stun my audience (myself included) with a flash of rhetorical, punning brilliance, merely writing down the one thing I said would not do the moment justice.

Context is important: no matter how funny the punchline, it’s not funny at all without the setup, and impromptu punchlines — bons mots — are the hardest to recreate, because nobody’s really paying enough attention to the setup to reconstruct it after the fact.

Most wit doesn’t keep. Some of it does, of course — none of mine, but that of wittier folks — but what wit does keep is kept in writing, and wit that is written down is embellished and refined in the writing. Something like that.

The small amount of conversational wittiness I do have is in my taciturnity — because brevity is the soul of wit — and so I’m going to spend the rest of this post recounting the parts of my conversations today when I could have said something, and didn’t:






Day 169: Speak only in clichés.

“Never use seven words when four will do.”

I hate clichés. I hate them with the fire of a thousand suns. I hate them with an unquenchable hatred. When I find myself employing them, in speech or writing, I wash my mouth out with soap and put a dollar in my cliché jar. Then I take the rest of the day off, drink too much, and pass out on the bathroom floor.

There is a picture of George Orwell in this post because, in 1946, Orwell published an essay — “Politics and the English Language” — which contains a paragraph that captures quite nicely how I feel about clichés:

A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically “dead” (e.g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed. Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a “rift,” for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying. Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written as tow the line. Another example is the hammer and the anvil, now always used with the implication that the anvil gets the worst of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would avoid perverting the original phrase.

I wasn’t entirely sure what that first one — ring the changes on — meant, so I looked it up, and it apparently has something to do with bells, but I don’t exactly understand what: the long and short of it is that ring the changes on is a stupid cliché, which is sort of my point about all of them.

The English language is capable of amazing and ridiculous images and metaphors, and settling for dried cans of beige paint when you can have the love-child of Jackson Pollock and Henri Matisse throwing liquid color at your face is just sad.

Of course, sometimes things get out of hand.

Day 148: Leave a note on someone’s car windshield.

Notes that get left on car windshields are always mean – passive-aggressive or aggressive-aggressive, or frighteningly violent – and I didn’t want to leave that kind of note. What to leave, though? Something “affirming,” but not too affirming.

“You’re doing a fine job. Keep it up.”

My friend Nathan and I say this to each other. If I remember correctly, it’s something his boss or a co-worker used to say to him – or maybe something he used to say? At any rate, it’s both affirming and sarcastic. The adjective changes: “adequate” is my favorite, I think, and occasionally one of us will use a “terrible” or a “pathetic” or something like that. We also only use it when the other is doing something really simple, like putting forks on the table or making coffee or just walking down the hall.

I made nine or ten of these. I put one on Carl – Carleton Livingstone Butterworth Goldsmith I, Duke of Somerset – who lives with my brother and his wife. I left a few on random windshields around Hampden, but windshields got boring pretty quickly.

I left one in a copy of Machine of Death in Atomic Books. I left one with (not as, because that’s not right) the tip for our waitress at 13.5% Wine Bar, where we drank beer instead of wine, because bottles were half off, and they had good bottles (I had a Brewdog Hardcore IPA and an Orkney Skullsplitter; my brother had a Petrus Aged Pale Ale and a St. Bernardus something-or-other). I left one on a bicycle – a nice vintage Peugeot – in front of a Rite-Aid (when I came back out of the Rite-Aid, the owner of that bicycle was preparing to ride off; the note was gone, so he’d obviously seen it, but it would have ruined the effect to have said anything).

I have one left, which I’m going to deploy somewhere in NYC tomorrow. I’ll keep you posted.

Day 146: Famous last words: prepare yours ahead of time.

I am going to be eaten by zombies.

It’s the year 2047, and I’m not as young as I used to be. Shit, I’ll be 65 for most of 2047 – the part I survive, that is – and 65 is fucking old during a zombie apocalypse.

Anyway. This zombies-walking-the-earth thing has been going on for a few years, and we’re surviving pretty well: we’ve got a fortress-commune going, out in a rural area, with good walls and hedges and ha-has and whatnot. We grow our own food, we raise some livestock, and we all get along pretty well, which is pretty good, considering that there are fifty-odd of us. We keep our heads down, and the zombies – and the roving motorcycle gangs – leave us alone.

That changes, though. A wandering pack – drove? horde? herd? what do you call a group of zombies? – a wandering whatever of zombies finds our commune. They can’t get in, but the incessant wailing attracts other zombies, and soon we’ve got a veritable army of the undead at our gates, and it just keeps getting bigger.

We discuss ways to kill them. Nuking them from orbit isn’t an option. Fire’s a possibility, except we’re likely to torch ourselves, too. Blow them up? Feed them poisoned livestock? Hope they go away? None of these sound like good plans.

We could lure them away. There’s a crater a few miles away – long story – and if we can get them into it, we can burn them before they can get back out. It’s a good idea, with one significant flaw: it’s a suicide mission.

I volunteer. I’m the oldest one in the commune, and I’m going to be a burden on everyone else sooner rather than later. This is a good way to go, a valiant and honorable way. Some people protest, but just for show: nobody else wants to do it, and nobody can think of a better plan.

We manage to get an old jeep running; it probably won’t run for long, and it doesn’t want to go much above 20 mph, but that’s enough. We kill a goat, strap it to the back, and slit its throat: to leave a trail for the zombies. They’ll follow me, down into the crater. I’ll have a flamethrower and a half-dozen grenades, and none of them will get out alive (not that they’re really alive to begin with).

As I’m leaving, someone says to me: “What if it doesn’t work? We’ve heard rumors that the zeds are developing intelligence.”

“Don’t worry,” I say, patting my flamethrower. “I’ll give them something to chew on.”