Concupiscence and the single lexicographer

William Hartston Tries to Learn about Sex from Three New Dictionaries
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I BONK, you bonk, he she or it bonks, but can I bonk you, or it is something we have to do together? After browsing through three new dictionaries in search of enlightenment, I am left with a feeling of lexico- sexual confusion.

The compilers of the much vaunted New Oxford Dictionary of English have spent six years browsing through a quarter of a billion words to reach the conclusion that the verb "to bonk" is intransitive: "bonk [no obj.] Brit. have sexual intercourse," it says, as clearly as one could wish. Well I have as little obj. to a bonk as the next man, but my occasional dabblings in the world of the tabloid press had convinced me that one could bonk an obj. Surely that headline only the other day was "Randy eunuch bonked his wife's best friend", rather than "bonked with his wife's best friend". I turned to the new edition of Chambers Dictionary for a ruling.

Bonk, they say is a vt, and means "to have sexual intercourse with". So according to Chambers, you can only bonk transitively. "We bonked" may be all right in Oxford, but in the more refined climate of Chambers' Edinburgh, we can only bonk each other. They do not approve of it, though. They call it "coarse slang" while the New Oxford considers it simply "informal".

I turned to Collins English Dictionary (Millennium Edition) for a casting vote, but that was no use at all. It agreed with Oxford's classification of "informal", but sat firmly on the transitivity fence, defining it as "to have sexual intercourse (with)". So according to Collins, you can bonk with or without an obj.

The dilemma seemed irreconcilable until a colleague suggested that a "shag" might be worth exploring. The entry in the New Oxford gave: shag: Brit. vulgar slang, verb (shagged shagging) [with obj.] have sexual intercourse with (someone)".

Now, I thought, we were getting somewhere. It's bonk without an obj. but shag with one. And while it's merely informal without an obj. its downright vulgar with one. But the role of that "someone" in brackets puzzled me considerably. What is the semantic difference between Collins's "sexual intercourse (with)" and Oxford's "sexual intercourse with (someone)"?

Collins confused the issue further by insisting that "shag" is not only Brit. slang but taboo, and means "to have sexual intercourse with (a person). So one cormorant cannot shag another cormorant, except possibly in the sense of to exhaust or tire ("often foll. by out; usually passive"). It also rather puts the dampers on using "sheep-shagger" as a term of abuse.

Chambers, however, appears to be quite happy (apart from its slang coarseness) with the concept of a shag shagging another shag, or two shags shagging, as they say it is vt and vi and means simply "to have s.i. (with)" (our abbreviation of s.i., not theirs). It's just as bad with "screw". Chambers insist that it is transitive; the other two accept also the intransitive usage. Is there no vulgar, slang or coarse term we can use with certainty?

I suspect that what we are witnessing here is a demotic revolution against intransitivity in matters sexual, and it all started with the verb "to snog". Not so long ago, the only accepted usage of the word was in such a sentence as: "He and she snogged". It meant simply to enjoy the act of kissing and embracing, and was firmly intransitive. More recently, however, the usage has spread to a transitive one. The New Oxford lists an example of each type of usage: "[with obj.] he snogged my girl at a party"; and "[no obj.] the pair were snogging on the sofa". Collins agrees, without giving examples, but Chambers insists that you can only snog without an object. They may have snogged on the sofa, but he definitely did not snog my girl.

For all their Corpora of English, and their billion-word databases, lexicographers must still make the final decisions on which words to include in their dictionaries, and what are the correct usages. In the end it all comes down to the compilers' feelings on what is the right and proper way to use a word, even if it is vulg. I just wish that I had been there when the head of the team at Oxford finally put his foot down, buttoned up his cardigan and said: "Ladies and gentlemen, we have discussed this matter enough. It is bonk [no obj.] and shag [with obj.]. Let that be the end of the matter."