“Revenge porn” has recently been outlawed in California: the state’s governor signed a bill making it illegal (basically for bitter exes and disgruntled former lovers) to post explicit pictures of people online without their permission. In this case, there isn’t much question about what the word porn means in the context of its disqualification, with revenge — like its porn cousins child, gay, hard or soft — identifying the specific form of smutty erotica in question. But is porn losing its hard edge (if you’ll pardon the expression)?
Porn (short for pornography) means the description or exhibition of explicit sexual material designed for the purpose of sexual arousal rather than for aesthetic appreciation. And it’s the depiction of the material — rather than the act itself being filmed, photographed, recorded or written about — that the word describes. Pornography comes from the Greek word pornographos, combining porne meaning “prostitute”and graphein meaning “write”.
These days, porn is coming out of the shadows, at least linguistically. It’s no longer just the dirty word consigned to the proverbial top-shelf or password-protected imagery that it has historically described; the four-letter word has found a nice new home, nestling in the bosom of humor and parody. It has been hijacked by ironic hipsters in social (largely online) intercourse — as well as by clever marketeers — to mean more or less anything on whose image people are likely to gaze with acquisitive yearning. To capture or to encourage a craving for or fanaticism about an object of desire, the word porn with its suggestion of sexual arousal — although used with irony and exaggeration — ups the ante and bestows sex appeal on the most unlikely of products or commodities. In fact, the less sexual and the more inanimate the nature of the object, the more potent and witty the message. With everything from “food porn” (there’s even “burger porn”) to “fashion porn”, “car porn” to “record collection porn”, there’s some kind of innocent porn around every corner waiting to seduce us.
The “Bass Porn” page on Facebook is for lovers of that rhythmic instrument slung across a man’s nether regions, and if shoes get your pulse racing, you can oggle* them on one of Tumblr’s many Shoe Porn pages. New York magazine titillates the young and the restless with Real Estate Porn, and if hardware makes you hard (sorry), you can check it out or in and out in a Pinterest Hardware Porn corner. (It’s funny that hardware porn is OK for naming plenty of virtual destinations where you can go for enjoyment and gratification, but not so for software porn …). Want grammar porn? Check! (And come back to Glossophilia for more.) And here’s the silliest one of all: what has the capacity to make women’s tongues hang out, to drool with desire, to pant with anticipation without even a hint of sexual arousal? You’ve got it: wedding porn! (And no, that doesn’t refer to what happens on the wedding night.) You can find that all over the internet — and beyond …
This one really takes the biscuit. Arnold King, talking about economists with pseudo-knowledge in a blog on the Library of Economics and Liberty, complains that “the economics profession for the past thirty years [has] focused on producing stochastic calculus porn to satisfy young men’s urge for mathematical masturbation.” Hmmm … I’m not sure I want to think about that one too carefully, but let me just ask one question that King’s statement raises: what the four-letter-word is stochastic? Is that scholastic with a stick shift?
* One of my friends has pointed out that it’s spelled “ogle”, not “oggle”. Even though it’s pronounced “oggle”. You learn something new every day.