Cotton-picking — Real and Metaphorical

February 24, 2022
Posted by Jay Livingston

Words change. Usually the change in the literal meaning is so gradual that it's hard to see. More visile may be the change in the political and emotional meanings that surround a word, and those meanings often depending on who is using it.

“Get your cotton-picking hands off that” is what the substitute teacher at Farmington High in Michigan said. The Black student she said it to couldn’t believe his ears. “What did you say?” She repeated it and explained. “This kind of comment was a very common comment. And it was a very innocent comment. It was not meant to be offensive in any way.”

The verb tense is important. The adjective “cotton-picking” was very common. I don’t know how old the substitute teacher is, but on the video, she does not sound young. (You can hear her on the video posted to TikTok.) She probably thinks of the word the way it was used in the previous century. Fifty years ago, cotton-picking was a word intellectuals might use to make a statement seem down-to-earth. Milton Friedman in 1979: “before government and OPEC stuck their cotton-picking fingers into the pricing of energy.” A character on a sitcom  — a White, non-Southern character — might say, “Are you out of your cotton-picking mind?” It was funnier that way, believe me. It was a way of expressing disapproval but in a friendly, joking manner. White people used it as way to sound folksy and informal, perhaps in the way some well-educated, non-Southern people in this century have adopted “y’all.”

Google nGrams is not a good source on this one, but for what it’s worth, it shows cotton-picking as an adjective increasing till 1940 and declining steadily thereafter.

I suspect that nearly all of those instances from before 1950 were literal — things like references to cotton-picking machines. The metaphorical, disparaging cotton-picking came later. You can see this in the line for cotton-pickin’ since the dropped-g version would not have been used to talk about farm equipment. The earliest use the OED could find for this meaning was for this more colloquial spelling. It appeared in 1958, in the New York Post, which was then a liberal newspaper.* “I don’t think it's anybody’s cotton-pickin'’business what you’re doing.”

Of course, using cotton-picking this way worked only for people whose lives and world lay far from the actual picking of cotton.  That was the world of the Michigan substitute teacher, and she used the word without ever thinking about its origins, in the same etymology-ignoring way we all speak. But for the Black kid, the word evoked the history of slavery and post-bellum racial exploitation in the Jim Crow South. And there was nothing friendly, funny, or folksy about it.

The teacher later said that she now realized that the term was offensive, but she maintained that her motives and intentions were innocent if ignorant. If only she had been — what’s the word here? If only there were a word that means aware of racist aspects of US history, aware of how privilege even today has a racial component, and sensitive to the ways those things might look to Black people. Wait, there is a word — “woke.” Or maybe I should say that there was a word. The political and emotional connotation has changed rapidly; so have the people who use it. And the change has been rapid. The people who use woke now are White, and they are waving it about as something to be rejected.

*The joke back then was that a front-page weather story in the Post might run with the headline: Cold Snap in City. Negroes, Jews Hardest Hit.

Applied Sociology, the Zeitgeist, and Why I Am Not Rich

February 20, 2022
Posted by Jay Livingston

I wonder how  “Sex as Work” happened.  (For those who don’t follow this blog regularly, i.e., everybody, I discussed this 1967 Social Problems article by Lionel Lewis and Dennis Brissett in the previous post.)

I  imagine one of the authors mentioning, after a second or third beer one evening, that he had read a “marriage manual” not too long ago, whereupon his colleague confesses that he has too, though not the same one. “Not much fun in there that I could find.” “Not in the one I read either. What a letdown. I wonder if there are any others.” Thus are research studies born.

I’m surprised that “Sex as Work” ever got published. It has no statistical analysis, no quantitative data, not much data at all, just their take on fifteen “marriage manuals.” It reads more like something from a stand-up comic of the “observational” type. (“And what’s up with all this working on your technique? I mean, does anybody ever get off practicing scales on the piano?”) That and a really good title. In short, my kind of sociology. Yet it was the lead article in the flagship journal of the SSSP. Hey, it was the sixties.

Well, I said to myself when I had finished reading the article, that’s interesting and probably true, and it fits with other thoughts I have about American culture. And I closed the journal. 

But what anyone with half a brain — the half with the money-making lobe  — would have done is to call on their inner applied sociologist. And then they would have called on a publisher or literary agent. Here’s the elevator pitch:

The only sex-instruction books around are from the fifties or have a fifties mentality. We’re now in sixties. This is the decade that began with the pill. People in the book-buying classes are having more sex with more partners, and they’ve stopped kidding themselves about marriage. They’re having sex younger and getting married older. And there are lots more divorces. Is anyone really going to buy A Doctor’s Marital Guide for Patients? (Yes, that’s one of the books in the ”Sex as Work” bibliography).

What they would buy is a book whose attitude towards sex is that it’s fun, a book without a medicinal smell, a book that doesn’t turn sex into goal-achievement through dogged technical mastery, a book that instead offers a tasting menu of all sorts of sexual activities.
Alas, I did not make that pitch, I did not write that book or suggest it to a publisher, and I did not get rich. But not long after, someone did. Alex Comfort. The book was The Joy of Sex, and it was in the top five books on the New York Times best-seller list for about a year and a half. 

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

The cover, inspired by The Joy of Cooking, is just plain text. The table of contents includes entries like “g-string, bondage, foursomes and moresomes, soixante-neuf, etc., as well as more traditional topics covered in “marriage manuals.”

I’m not a big believer in the Zeitgeist, but The Joy of Sex was a book whose time had come. Actually, its time had come a few years earlier, around the time that some sociologists were writing “Sex as Work” in an academic journal and other sociologists were reading it.

Sex and the Work Ethic

February 18, 2022
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Climax as Work,” the Gender and Society article I discussed in the previous post, caught my attention for the obvious reason. But I had another immediate reaction, one that I suspect is unique.

What the title called to my mind was another article, one published in the sociology journal Social Problems in 1967, before the authors of “Climax as Work” were born. The title: “Sex as Work” by Lionel Lewis and Dennis Brisset.* It was a content analysis of fifteen “marriage manuals” as they were called at the time, published in the 1950s and early 60s..

The authors start from the observation that “fun” in American culture had become a requirement. Americans judged themselves and others on the basis of  what psychologist Martha Wolfenstein dubbed the “fun morality.” The irony is that making something a required part of the Protestant ethic largely takes the fun out of it. (See this post from sixteen years ago on how organizing kids’ sports inevitably crushes the fun.)  The authors quote Nelson Foote: "Fun, in its rather unique American form, is grim resolve. . . .We are as determined about the pursuit of fun as a desert-wandering traveler is about the search for water.” As the title of the article implies, when it comes to sex, these marriage manuals see work as an absolutely necessary prerequisite for fun.

The work ethic in these books first of all emphasizes technical skill. The word technique appears frequently in the text, the chapter headings, and one of the book titles — Modern Sex Technique. Learning technique requires work. The books give cautions like, "Sexual relations are something to be worked at and developed.” “Sex is often something to be worked and strained at as an artist works and strains at his painting or sculpture.”

Work to acquire the requisite technique means study and preparation. One book refers to “study, training, and conscious effort.” Another, “If the two of them have through reading acquired a decent vocabulary and a general understanding of the fundamental facts listed above, they will in all likelihood be able to find their way to happiness.” Is this going to be on the midterm?

Like work, sex must proceed on a bureaucratic schedule. This means  establishing a specific time for sex. But the manuals also break the sexual encounter into components much like an assembly line or  a schedule of work activities, sometimes even specifying the time allotted to each. "Foreplay should never last less than fifteen minutes even though a woman may be sufficiently aroused in five.” Lewis and Brissett don’t mention it, but the scheduling mentality was also the basis for what some of the manuals saw as the ideal product — simultaneous orgasm. The partners here are much like workers who must co-ordinate their separate activities to arrive at the same place at the same time. 

Lewis and Brissett also fail to mention other things that now seem obvious. First, these books are “marriage manuals” not “sex manuals.”  They imply not only  that sex is limited to married couples but that it is an obligation stipulated in the marriage contract.

Second, these books frame sex not just as technical and bureaucratic but as medical. Ten of the fifteen books have authors with M.D. after their name; others have Ph.D. Only three authors are uncredentialed. The M.D. or Ph.D. speaks from a position of authority, authority based on their own technical expertise. This too seems at odds with any notion of fun or pleasure. We rarely think of consulting a doctor as “fun,” perhaps even less so for consulting a Ph.D.

In any case, Lewis and Brissett had spotted the most important aspect of these sex books, one that nobody else seemed to have noticed. The insights of “Sex as Work” pointed to an obvious next step. Or maybe it wasn’t so obvious. If it had been, I might be rich. But I’ll leave that for the next post.

* The full title of the article is “Sex as Work: A Study of Avocational Counseling.” Social Problems, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Summer, 1967), pp. 8-18

Minding the (Orgasm) Gap

February 16, 2022
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Climax as Work.” The title of this Gender and Society article by Nicole Andrejek, Tina Fetner, and Melanie Heath is almost like the sign that says “SEX” in large letters, and then “Now that we’ve got your attention . . . .”

Yes, the article is about sex. But it uses and illustrates the more general perspective of  the social construction of reality. We rarely think that we are actively working to maintain a particular reality, a more or less arbitrary way of looking at the world. But  each time we make use of those taken-for-granted  truths, we are reinforcing that reality. Or as we used to say back in the sixties, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

The problem at issue is the “orgasm gap.” Among the men in the Andrejek/Fetner/Heath  survey, 86% said they had had an orgasm in their most recent sexual encounter; for the women the proportion was only 62%. That’s consistent with the results of most other studies on the topic. The authors start from this finding and move to two related points, one about the “work” in the title, the other about “labor,” or more specifically “gender labor.”

“Work” is a term that interviewees, both the men and the women, used in talking about women’s orgasm. While they saw the man’s orgasm as a matter of more or less doing what comes naturally, the woman’s orgasm took work. As one man put it, “It’s definitely easier for the male, that’s for sure. I think [for the] female, it takes more work and certain things have to be done, where a male is good for anything.” Similarly, a woman said that she enjoys, “if the man is behind me and he is able to pleasure me with his hands [but it takes] a lot more to work. It takes a lot more for me to get to that point where I’m going have an orgasm.”

It’s all about the clitoris. Attention must be paid. Ignore it, and the woman will be far less likely to come. There’s no mystery about it. Yet here we are, nearly a half-century after The Hite Report, a quarter-century after “Sex and the City,” and still a substantial segment of the population hasn’t gotten the message.

Our participants craft narratives that define regular sex as only penile–vaginal intercourse and sexual behaviors that prioritize clitoral stimulation, such as oral sex, vibrators, or manual stimulation, as “alternative” sexual practices. These alternative sexual practices to regular sex are depicted as more time-consuming labor and extra work for couples.

To avoid realizing the importance of the clitoris, or in the face of that realization to find reasons for not acting on that knowledge — that takes some mental effort. It is this effort that the authors, borrowing a term coined by Jane Ward, see as an example of “gender labor.” Of course the labor is mostly unconscious. We rarely think of ourselves, in bed or out, as laboring to, as A/F/H put it, “create a sex life that conforms to dominant narratives of ‘normal’ sexuality.” Even when we know that the sex could be better, especially for the woman, we don’t think of our explanations as reinforcing patriarchal hegemonic masculinity. We are just calling on “commonsense understandings of what constitutes sexual pleasure.”

I came away with the impression that the authors are calling for a revolution in sexual consciousness. The orgasm gap is not going away all by itself. Nor is it likely to disappear one clitoris at a time. “Our findings demonstrate the need to challenge the shared heteronormative meanings of what counts as sex.” We are left wondering about just how new meanings and ideas can diffuse through a population, especially when those meanings and ideas concern something that is not a topic of frequent, wide, or even audible discussion.

Valentines and Sentiment — Particularism vs. Universalism

February 14, 2022
Posted by Jay Livingston

For Valentine’s day when I was in kindergarten, we had to bring a Valentine’s card for every other kid in the class. Many years later, in my intro classes, I often used this as an example of universalism and particularism. We usually think of love as particularistic, something that depends on the particular people involved. We treat the other person according to the special aspects of the person and the relationship, not according to some universal rules that apply equally to everyone. But in Miss Carmen’s kindergarten, everyone said Be My Valentine to everyone else.

Maybe the same rule applied in first and second grade or beyond. I can’t remember. But at some point, we learn that a Valentine’s card and the sentiment it represents is for “that special someone,”

With friendships and friendliness however, we Americans are still kindergartners. Or at least that’s how non-Americans see it. When they come to the US they are often pleasantly surprised at how friendly and welcoming Americans are. Perfect strangers treating you so warmly. But after a while they are frustrated, for what passes as a friendship here seems superficial and temporary, so unlike friendships from their native countries. As a student from France told anthropologist Cathy Small,

Sure I have friends. It’s so easy to meet people here, to make friends. Well, not really friends. That’s the thing. Friendship is very surface-defined here. It is easy to get to know people, but the friendship is superficial. We wouldn’t even call it a friendship. In France, when you’re someone’s friend, you’re their friend for life

The other way I had of explaining particularism and universalism hinged on the idea of what something is worth. Usually, we measure that in the universalistic terms of money. A dollar is a dollar no matter whose wallet it’s in.  But I would glance around the room looking for a girl wearing a ring or necklace, one that looked special. An engagement ring was the ideal. “Where’d you get that?” I would ask, and often the answer was the kind I was looking for. “My boyfriend gave it to me,” or “It was my grandmother’s.”

We would come to some assessment of what its dollar value might be, and I would then ask if she would sell me the ring for double that. The answer was always No. I would then ask others in the class, “If you had bought this ring for $200 and I now offered you $400, would you take it.” Yes, of course. You could go back the store, buy one just like it, and pocket the extra $200. But to the girl wearing that ring, its value is particularistic, based on the particular people involved.

I would sometimes bring in the example from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” — the ring from a box of Crackerjacks, worthless to everyone except the two lovers — even though I knew that most students would not be familiar with it.* But it’s such a good example.

I was reminded of this by a segment of the Valentine’s episode of the Planet Money podcast. One of their economics reporters, Mary Childs said that she would give a Valentine to her favorite website, where entire estates are auctioned. She loves it because it is a perfect example of “price discovery” — finding out how much money something is worth. She also seems pleased that discovering the price has the sobering effect of deflating the particularistic value.

It turns out, a lot of this stuff is basically worthless. There’ll be a lot of lots that go for like two dollars or five dollars. . . . .When we’re alive we imbue all our possessions with all this importance and all of this meaning. . . But in the end it turns out that all this stuff — your precious stuff — is just stuff.

As Oscar Wilde said, “What is an economist? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” (OK, he didn’t say “economist”; he said “cynic.” But the difference may be hard to perceive here just as it is with the economic view of the “deadweight loss” of Christmas presents )


To Everyone

* Not all students were unfamiliar with it. One semester, when I referred to “the movie based on the Truman Capote short story,” I heard a girl off to my right mutter sotto voce, “novella.”

Did They Really Say That in 1882?

February 12, 2022
Posted by Jay Livingston

Language anachronisms in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and “Mad Men” often came through loud and clear, at least to my ears. The shows were set in 1960, a time when I was alive — speaking and listening. (See earlier posts here and here ) “The Gilded Age” on HBO is set in 1882, before my time. Still, some of the language in this week’s episode, “Face the Music,” sounded more recent. Julian Fellowes, who created the show and did much of the writing, came in for some criticism (here, for example) for the language anachronisms in his “Downton Abbey.” I can just see him chuckling now as he waves the title “Face the Music” to lure in the language police and then swats them back by having Mr. Russell say, “To employ a modern phrase, I'm afraid you must face the music.’”

OK, “face the music” was not a phrase before its time. But in 1882 it wasn’t exactly modern either. My own memory does not extend back to 1882. That’s why we (and that includes Mr. Fellowes) have the Oxford English Dictionary, and according to the OED, this “modern phrase” has one example from a newspaper fifty years before the Gilded Age and another from 1850: “There should be no skulking or dodging...every man should ‘face the music’.”

If you’re not watching the show, know that Mr. Russell is the nouveau-riche businessman. His adversaries who must face the music are the establishment wealthy. They have connived to ruin him financially, but Russell outwits them, using his own wealth to put them on the verge of financial ruin. He will have his revenge. “I didn't see this coming. I admit it. I thought you were honorable men. Not too honorable to miss the chance of a fat buck, of course, but not greedy, dirty thieves.”

He adds, “I thought I was the one who might throw a curveball.”

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

Curveball? By 1882, pitchers had been throwing curveballs for a decade. But they were literal curveballs. Metaphorical curveballs didn’t come into play for another half-century.

In an earlier scene, Russell’s daughter uses the phrase “the thing is.”

This too sounded modern to my ears, even if she did not use the double “is” that many people today  add, as in “The thing is is that it’s very recent.”  I may have been wrong. The OED finds Matthew Arnold using it 1873. “The question [of a state church] absolutely unimportant! The thing is, to recast religion.” I’m not sure that this is exactly the way we use it. The first clear example of that in the OED is from John Galsworthy in 1915. “Look here, old man, the thing is, of course, to see it in proportion.”

Finally, there was “identify.” Miss Scott has submitted her short stories to a newspaper. They are, the editor tells her, “beautifully constructed and executed.” The problem is that Miss Scott is Black and so is the main character in the story under consideration. The editor tells her that some adjustments will be necessary.

“The little colored girl would need to be changed to a poor white child.”

Why, she asks.  

“Our readers will not identify with a colored girl's story of redemption.”

I was mostly wrong about this one. Identify in this sense goes back at least to the early 1700s. But until the mid-20th century there was always a pronoun like himself or onesself  between identify and with. What the editor should have said is “Our readers will not identify themselves with a colored girl’s story.” In 1882, the reflexive pronoun was still required. Today, it has been absorbed into the word identify.

Trends in the Word Market

February 10, 2022
Posted by Jay Livingston

Kieran Healy tweeted recently about his 2017 paper “Fuck Nuance.”

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

I wondered again, as I wondered when I heard Kieran present this paper at the ASA meetings,* is nuance itself a recent thing, or is it just that the word has become fashionable? The Nexis-Uni database of news finds only seven instances of the word before 1975, the first coming in 1969. Before then, there was no nuance to fuck.

The word seems to have been put into play by theater critics. But surely there must have been performances in earlier decades that critics of the 70s and beyond would have called “nuanced.” Praise for scholarly writings as nuanced happens a decade or so later. But how might an earlier take on those same performances or writings have phrased it?

I don’t know.

Then there’s “sustainable.” How I wish I had bought stock in Sustainable in 1980. It would have been like buying Bitcoin in 2010. But in this case, I have a good idea of the word sustainable replaced: viable.

I associate the word with the Kennedy administration. It seemed that government higher-ups were always talking about “viable options.” Today we would call them “sustainable options.” For example, today’s Inside Higher Ed (here) quotes someone saying of a colleague, “the demands of both his role here and his elected position are not sustainable.” He means that the colleague can’t fulfill the demands of both roles. Or to put it in the language of 1965, continuing in both roles is not a viable option.

Perhaps “nuance” no longer be viable. It will see the fading of its cachet, and I will look back and wonder why I didn’t sell my Nuance shares as soon as I heard Kieran present that paper.

* The title was the first slide in Kieran’s presentation, and it remained on the screen as Kieran took care of technical matters at the podium. Then he clicked to the second slide, which, if memory serves, was “No, seriously. Fuck it.”