Some words make me salivate, they’re so saucy and delicious. This is one such. It doesn’t hurt that it has a naughty tone that I deeply appreciate, but even less lubricious words of its sonic ilk – featuring voiceless tongue-tip fricatives and perhaps a liquid – are a pleasure on the tongue: salsify, loquacious, sausages, lissome, saucy, luxurious, Alsatian, shillelagh, relishes, English usage, Carol Fisher Saller…
Who is Carol Fisher Saller? She’s an editor, the author of The Subversive Copy Editor. I am put in mind of her not just because of the sound of her name (though that comes into it) and not just because I have a durable case of lust for words, but because when I think of salacious I think of words. Specifically, I think of a book of salacious poetry about English usage: Songs of Love and Grammar.
No, I’m not making that up. I’ve already made it up – it’s written and lain out and is at last available on Lulu.com. It’s my new book. I’ve already used one poem from it here, “My veil of tears.” Herewith I would like to present another. In case you were uncertain whether it was possible to be indelicate about a split infinitive, I’ll let you judge for yourself:
To sweetly split the infinitive
by James Harbeck
A fetching young virginitive
sought out a buff grammarian
both lusty and contrarian
to split her sweet infinitive.
She said, “Please do it neatly –
I’m sure ’tis not a sin
to slip an adverb in
to split an infinitive sweetly.”
He asked, “Where would I fit it?
It seems an imposition
’twixt verb and preposition.”
But she asked him sweetly to split it
before her mood had passed,
“for all the best writers do it.”
So together they went to it
to sweetly split it at last!
Ah, there it is. And I assure you some of the poems are more salacious than that (others merely deal with romantic and grammatical highs and lows, and a few just play with words).
But let us return for just a moment longer to salacious. What kinds of things are usually called salacious? The Corpus of Contemporary American English tells me that we most often read of salacious details, salacious material, salacious allegations (lovely sound, that one), salacious stories, and salacious gossip, among a few others.
And what other words may be seen to have similar senses? By Visual Thesaurus, one branch touches obscene, lewd, raunchy; the other ramifies to lustful, lubricious, prurient – I like that better: those are pricier words, even if their common nexus is the sense “characterized by lust.” Oh, but lust is my favourite deadly sin. Gluttony leaves you full and fat, sloth leaves you sleepy and fat, greed and envy eat at you, pride comes before a fall, and wrath is just plain old unpleasant. But a dirty mind is a constant source of entertainment… as long as you don’t go trotting after it wherever it leads.
Where does salacious come from? From Latin, of course, the tongue of Catullus and Martial, two noted Romans of lubricious loquacity. Its source is not so salty; it is rather a salto, a sally, a flying leap – salire, “leap” (verb). Yes, prone to leaping. If you know what I mean. Well, the Latins did: it was they who went from salire “leap” (also “jump, spurt”) to salax and salacius “lustful”, the immediate etymon. It is suggested that it is related to the sexual advances of male mammals.
But that’s all so beastly and brutish in its literal sense. I much prefer the literary sense. There are many tricks a well-trained tongue may get up to…