So important are words to our understanding of the world that, according to the Big Three religions, in the beginning was the word. They can tell us so much about the storied histories of our everyday speech, and studying them can offer insight into the deepest roots of a word’s truest meaning.
Sometimes it’s most interesting when the root of the word can’t be traced. No one knows where the word ‘mushroom’ comes from, for example. All we can conjecture is that the first part of the word might be related to ‘moss’, and that it’s likely pre-Latin, but more than that we know not.
One word that’s got my attention recently is ‘masturbation’. Such a technical-sounding word must surely have an easily identifiable etymological history, right? It seems easy to imagine that this particular word was handed down from a definite Latin root, probably reaching back to Ancient Greek.
But as with all things related to masturbation, the truth just isn’t that simple. Let’s take a look.
Masturbation is loosely defined as “deliberate erotic self-stimulation”, and it first appears in English by that spelling in 1711. But there’s an earlier spelling too, attested from the 1620s but probably earlier, as ‘mastupration’. This comes from the French, so we can imagine that it was available in English from around 1200 onwards.
The French inherited it, along with most of their language, from Latin, in this case from ‘masturbari’. So the word has largely kept it’s modern form for a couple of thousand years at least – but before Latin, the trail goes cold. We simply don’t know where each element of the word comes from, and since it appears in Latin fully formed, it’s hard to find ancestral recordings of it.
The longest-standing explanation of the word’s murky roots is that it’s an alteration, through the influence of the word ‘turbare’ (“to disturb”, therefore satisfyingly linking the word ‘masturbation’ with the word ‘turbo’) from the supposed ‘manstuprare’, in which the syllable ‘man’ is derived from ‘manu’, or ‘hand’. Added to that is the component ‘stuprare’, which means in this sense ‘defile’ which is related to words like ‘stupified’ and ‘stupid’.
In other words, translated literally, according to this theory, an interpretation of ‘masturbation’ could well be, ‘to make one stupid by hand’. A pretty damn accurate assessment, I’m sure you’ll agree.
There’s a secondary theory that states the ‘mas’ part of ‘masturbation’ comes from a much more ancient term for ‘penis’, ‘mazdo’, but little evidence exists to support this. I think the previous theory is much more likely, since it has always applied to women too, not just penis-havers.
In the course of researching this article, I uncovered an 1898 dictionary of slang that included a number of other terms for masturbation that were in use in the US over a hundred years ago. I’d like to share them with you just for fun.
Farmer & Henley’s 1898 dictionary lists among the slang terms for “to masturbate” or “masturbation” frig (which they trace to Latin fricare “to rub”) to bob; to box the Jesuit; to chuff, to chuffer; to claw; to digitate (my absolute favourite and how I will be referring to masturbation from now on); to fight one’s turkey (Texan); to handle; to indorse; to milk; to mount a corporal and four; to dash one’s doodle; and they note that it was “sometimes known as keeping down the census.”