Wordplay: The 23 Ejaculations of Sherlock Holmes

Everything you ever wanted to know about a word that just oozes the idea of sex.

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Let me tell you about the last time I ejaculated. I was watching TV when it suddenly happened. The resulting outburst was quite surprising, both to me and to the people I was watching the program with.

But do not get alarmed, and don’t you ejaculate at me now. The following is intended to be a very tame column, with very little, if anything, to do with matters sexual, but a lot to do with language.

We all know what the “F word” refers to. It is, as the term clearly implies, a word starting with the letter F, not to be uttered in polite society, and certainly not F-fit to print. If you do not know what word I have in mind, let me give you a hint: It is a four-letter word.

Our brain stem, which is our so-called “reptilian brain,” controls our ability to breathe and have a heartbeat without having to think about it. It also controls our baser instincts, those essential to our survival as a species and summed up by undergraduates as “the four Fs”: feeding, fighting, fleeing and reproduction. Yes, “reproduction” does not start with “F,” and it has more than four letters. It is a stand-in for the F-word that is not fit to print.

In close alphabetical proximity to the F-words, we have also the E-words, and those are not only fit to print they are fitter than print, and already on the way to replacing it. They include email, e-book, e-ink. The “e” here stands for “electronic,” which just goes to show you how old and out of date the term is. We could be talking about “d-mail” or “d-books,” with “D” meaning “digital,” or about “v-mail” and “v-books,” with the “V” referring to “virtual.”

The “e” in the verb “to ejaculate,” however, does not stand for “electronic,” but rather is a Latin prefix meaning “out [of].” Prefixed to the rest of the word, which is itself based on the Latin “jaculare,” it results in a combination that means in English, according to the OED, “to dart or shoot forth; to throw out suddenly and swiftly, eject.” In the same way you “eject” something (a disc, from your disc player), you can “reject” something (a submission for a column). Another combination with “-ject,” the word “object,” though, is a subject fit for a column of its own.

So, now is the time to tell you what had made me ejaculate, as I mentioned in the first paragraph. I was watching the brilliant (to my mind) BBC-TV program “QI” (the acronym stands for “quite interesting”), when the inimitable host Stephen Fry shared with all the following comment: “Watson ‘ejaculates’ twice as often as Sherlock Holmes in Conan Doyle’s stories. There are 23 ejaculations in total, with 11 belonging to Watson. On one occasion, Holmes refers to Watson’s ‘ejaculations of wonder’ being invaluable; on another, Watson ejaculates ‘from his very heart’ in the direction of his fiancee. Holmes is only responsible for six ejaculations, although it is not clear which of the two men ejaculate in the passage below: ‘So he sat as I dropped off to sleep, and so he sat when a sudden ejaculation caused me to wake up, and I found the summer sun shining into the apartment. The pipe was still between his lips...’ A chap called Phelps ejaculated three times during the story of ‘The Naval Treaty.’ The only other ejaculator is Mrs. St. Clair’s husband, who ejaculates at her from a second-floor window in the story ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip.’”

I ejaculated with mirth or burst out laughing, if you will when I heard Fry and his panel having a field day with the e-word, for the not-so-simple reason that the said word both in its noun and verb form has a double meaning in English, both of them dating to the same time. According to the OED, “ejaculate” in the sense of “to eject fluids from the body” was used by J. Banister in his “History of Man,” vol. VI, in 1587, in the phrase “To eiaculate seede into the matrice.” “Ejaculation,” in the sense of “A short hasty emotional utterance,” can be found in a poem by T. Gokin, “Thou takest recreation In... one eiaculation,” from 1624.

However, the thing that matters most with words and their meaning is not when and in what sense they have been used first, but what happened with their usage and meaning over time, and why. The entries for “ejaculate” and “ejaculation” in the OED have not been updated since 1891. Dr. Samuel Johnson, in “A Dictionary of the English Language” (1755), defines the word in its verb form as meaning, “to throw, to dart,” and the noun as “a short prayer darted out occasionally, without solemn retirement.” Not a word from the pen of the good Doctor about emission of fluids, bodily or other.

My assumption as to the usage history of “ejaculation” would be that there are meanings that become a vogue for a word, while their “doubles” fall into disrepute, and there are reasons for both developments. As the circumstances in which the human being deals with his bodily fluids are not ones that are bandied about in so many words in polite society, the usage of the word in its physiological sense was restricted to medical treatises and or sex manuals or “smut” literature, even as in newspapers and books, men and women kept ejaculating words freely and frequently.

The easiest way to test the preceding assumption is to check the usage of the verb and noun of the e-word in a newspaper of record, such as The New York Times. From 1851, and until today, people have “ejaculated” on the pages of the NYT many times. On September 18, 1966, for example, a sports story described “the marvelously proficient performance of Cartwright, who at times evoked ejaculations of delight.” On October 16 of that same year, a story headlined “British church gets sex report” told the readers that “neutral terms like ‘penis,’ ‘vagina’ and ‘ejaculation’ are becoming more generally acceptable.” From then on, the verb is used in crime and court and medicine news stories in a nonverbal (but by no means non-oral) context only, among other things in the reports about President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.

The usage of the past-tense “ejaculated” and the present form “ejaculate” changes in the same way: Both denote exclamation until the mid-1960s, but from the ’60s on, the usage proliferates in a sexual-medical-criminal context only. Why, and why then?

Cole Porter wrote in “Too Darn Hot” (from the 1948 musical “Kiss Me, Kate”): “According to the Kinsey report / ev’ry average man you know / much prefers to play his favorite sport / when the temperature is low / but when the thermometer goes way up / and the weather is sizzling hot / Mister Adam for his madam is not / cause it’s too too / it’s too darn hot ... ”

Both of Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s (and others’) reports, on “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” (1948) and “Sexual Behavior in the Human Female” (1953), changed popular perceptions of sex and sexuality, and slowly but surely it became a subject fit to print and to talk about.

The adjective “gay” changed its orientation in a similar way, from “light-hearted, carefree, bright” to referring to homosexuality (especially among men) about 10 years later, in the mid-1970s. By the ‘90s you could if you felt like it ejaculate gaily almost anywhere you wanted about ejaculation both gay and straight.

Or could you? There’s not only the matter of using the right words at the wrong time. One can also make the mistake of uttering the wrong words in the right place. And that is why Ron Weasley, Harry Potter’s friend in the J.K. Rowling series, “ejaculates” in the American edition of the fifth book in the magical saga, the one about the Order of the Phoenix, and “exclaims” the same words on the same page in the British version.

In order to avoid confusion, the linguistic morass sorted itself out in print and in the minds of writers, viewers and listeners as follows: Both meanings of the word, in its verb and noun forms, are legitimate, but to be on the safe side, and unless you wish to cause a stir, you’d better not ejaculate at all in public, in print or on paper. Mind your e’s and p’s, please.

Stephen Fry. He and his panel had a field day with the e-word.

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