Featured Image: Goya La Maja Desnuda 1797-1800, Oil on Canvas, 97 x 190 cm, Prado, Madrid
Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 1 December 2019
Sensual Words in English
A Thought Experiment
The idea came on me suddenly. I thought of words as visual entities and wondered what a beautiful word would look like. From that it was a small leap to imagine sensual words.
A list came to mind and for some reason the first three were words beginning with ‘l’. In a couple of minutes I had a list of eight ‘l’ words, one of which I wasn’t sure about:
Luxurious Languid Lipid Lascivious Liquid Limpid Lucent Langorous
I thought I was being objective. But, then I wondered whether I was merely being subjective. I needed to treat the subject more seriously somehow. I came up with an experiment. But I would restrict my investigations to ‘l’ words only. Else, things might quickly spiral out of control.
Sensual and Sensuous
Sensual and sensuous are two words that in modern English have converged. I was interested in sensual words and not sensuous ones, but I felt a need to clarify.
John Milton (1608-1674) was an English poet and intellectual. Milton created more new words than Shakespeare or anyone, with Geoffrey Chaucer, Ben Jonson, Jon Donne and Sir Thomas Moore up there as well.
Milton is thought to have invented sensuous in 1641 to avoid the sexual overtones of sensual. Sensuous is the more neutral term meaning: relating to the senses as opposed to the intellect. Sensual relates to the gratification of the senses, especially sexually. Sensuous in Milton’s sense is becoming rare in modern English.
Is Objectivity Possible?
Another class of words in English is onomatopoeia (Greek of course), which means the formation of a word from the sound associated with what is named (e.g. cuckoo, sizzle).
Most people would agree on what were onomatopoeic words in English. However, when one compares onomatopoeia in different languages things get tricky. Even with meow, which is very similar across a number of languages, it is quite different in some. Other onomatopoeic words are simply not the same across languages, for example a dog’s bark. (You Tube examples are given below.)
But, at least in English onomatopoeia would seem objective. Although, perhaps not quite rigorous in a scientific sense.
I can, however, imagine a psychologist setting up an experiment with volunteers showing them long lists of words and asking them to press a button whenever a sensual word appeared. With a large enough sample one could expect to define sensual words within a confidence limit. For example, within a null hypothesis of .05 or a 95% confidence limit. I have no intention of being that rigorous.
Nevertheless, onomatopoeia words in English do seem reasonably objective. My next step was to consider dictionary research. I chose the single volume Macquarie Australian Dictionary rather than the two-volume Shorter Oxford Dictionary for simplicity (or laziness).
I went through the ‘l’ words and chose those I thought were sensual or might be sensual. I quickly found when I looked for sensuous words in addition that this was too random, too subjective and just too difficult.
With sensual words I came up with three lists: 1 definites, 2 maybes and 3 possibles. The possibles were all rejected on a slow perusal or second look and merely form a grey area between the sensual and the non-sensual. A blurred boundary.
The definites were easy. I am including one or two of variants on the same word together, but only when they fit the criterion of sensual.
My definites list is included below. Lipid has been demoted, leaving 7 originals. And, apart from Lipid and including variants, I am not ecstatic over the new list, except perhaps for lustre. The new list including variants is now 16. If one doesn’t include variants this drops to 10.
Langourous, Langour, Languid Loquacious Luminance, Luminescence Lascivious Lubricate, Lubricious Lustre Liquid, Liquify Lucent Luxuriance, Luxurious Limpid
The maybes are more difficult and I have grouped them into categories. The maybes are a much more difficult list and I am unsure about them. Even the categories seem arbitrary. Lesbian connotes to me Lesbos and Sappho. The water or flow is arbitrary and is merely a carry over of four words possibly related to water or liquid from the definites list with another four. The interesting sound category (including lingerie, which might fit into the sexual list) here consists of words from Latin or French. Should I have looked at the entire dictionary this might have expanded to the category of romance languages.
|Sexual connotation||Water or flow connotation||Lesion|
|Loose, loosen||Interesting sound (tend to be Latin, French)||Lozenge|
Although I have included the maybes category. I’m not fully happy with it.
Let’s look at statistics. The ‘l’ category in my Macquarie Dictionary comprises about 3100 words. My definites list comprises 16 words (plus one I missed = 17), my maybes 23 words and the possibles that I rejected comprised, 56 words.
What others think
In a most casual way I used Google to see who else had written about sensual words. In my far from comprehensive survey I found two sources.
1 Sharla Rae in her interesting blog Writers in the Storm shared her Sensual Word Menu and also asterisked the verbs. Her intent was to include sensual words that she uses for writing and it verges much more to sexual words than mine. Her list covers the whole alphabet with 811 words and she has 34 ‘l’ words. There are some commonalities, which help me with my claim of objectivity but also some surprising and useful differences. I commend her list to you.
She missed 5 of my definite words, but included one that I missed and should have got: Luscious. I think luscious should be a definite sensual word, which should take my total to 17.
She also included lacy, laving and lingering, which I could have added to my Maybes list. She had many more words that I could put in the sexy category but wouldn’t agree with. Alternatively, she wasn’t interested at all in words that sound sensual.
I am not being critical of Sharla Rae here. I think her list is terrific and useful. However, its purpose is slightly different from mine.
2 Annette Blair is also interested in sensual words for romance writers to spice up their writing in a workshop. Her list is similar in purpose to Sharla Rae but also quite different. Her list contains 30 ‘l’ words and 492 words in total.
She only included 4 of my definite words, but she also left out long words from her list. It was an American writing workshop after all! But, she also included luscious compounding my mistake! I think Annette’s list is also fit for its purpose and not for mine, but the overlap is also confirmatory.
In the absence of finding anyone attempting exactly what I am attempting, that is, trying to define sensual words in English objectively. I think that what I have found on the Net helps to confirm my idea that objectivity is possible, even if I haven’t fully obtained it.
1 I think that the definite category of sensual words is relatively objective (with some margin for error).
2 I think that the maybes category is an inextricable mix of objective and subjective.
3 The possible category is a grey area and not really of interest.
4 In terms of percentages the definite sensual words form 0.55% of English ‘l’ words. If one includes the maybes this rises to 1.3%. But, I don’t think the latter is helpful except to say, very roughly that at most the English language contains around 1% of sensual words.
5 If one adds the possible or grey area words to the other two, the percentage rises to 3.1% but I don’t think this is useful.
6 Even though I’ve only looked at ‘l’s, I suspect one can extrapolate to the whole alphabet statistically to give a rough idea of the sensual words in the language. This, of course assumes that the ‘l’s are representative of the alphabet. A not unreasonable assumption. Thus there is roughly one sensual word at most for every 99 non-sensual words in English (but perhaps as few as one sensual word per 180 non-sensual words).
I’ve enjoyed doing this. I hope this weird analysis makes you wonder about things and reflect that almost anything is open to scrutiny. One Sentence is a similarly quirky article about language at the beginning of books.
Key Words: sensual, sensuous, words, English, dictionary, objective, subjective
Sensual and Sensuous
Sadie Stein Ornate Rhetorick Paris Review 2 July 2015. The origin and modern day usage of sensuous. Gives a simple definition of the difference between sensual and sensuous and the origin of sensuous with Milton
English Grammar defines sensual versus sensuous.
Examples from Your Dictionary
Meow on Youtube (17 sec)
Dog bark on Youtube (8 sec)
Dog Noises in 9 languages on You Tube (33 sec)
A wide range of sounds (2.47 min)
Sensual words for Writers
Goya’s La Maja paintings
In Robert Hughes Goya 2003, Hughes suggests that the subject of la maja may be the mistress of Godoy, a spectacularly pretty and sexy Malagan girl named Pepita Tudo. It is plausible that Godoy commissioned two portraits of Pepita from Goya, one naked in and about 1797 and the later version clothed some eight years later (La maja vestida). Hughes goes on to say a peculiar feature of the Naked Maja is that her head doesn’t sit well on her body which is out of keeping with Goya’s superbly fluent hand. He suggests that the heads may be someone else’s head for propriety at a later date.
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