Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Unfortunate Ejaculations

What is the English language coming to these days? Doesn’t anything mean what it used to mean anymore?

A former student of mine sent me a Facebook message with a link to a photo of a TV screen of a fire somewhere, with the closed-captioning saying “Firefighters to deal with not just the fire with people in the middle of the road ejaculating.”

Forget for a moment that the sentence isn’t constructed very well, and could use a comma and the word “but” after the word fire. The reason that this picture caused such an uproar on Facebook was because of the word ejaculation. Over 200 people who responded to this posting had the image in their heads of a crowd of people becoming suddenly sexually excited at the scene of the fire. Many people commented on the inappropriateness of it, and blamed it on everyone’s favorite enemy: over-zealous predictive autocorrect.

One wit wrote, “This just in from Intercourse, PA.”

But one, and only one, person took the time to point out that the word “ejaculation” could indeed be appropriate there.

“What’s this?” you ask. How on earth could you possibly use "ejaculation" appropriately in that context?

It’s really quite simple. “Ejaculate” and “ejaculation” are words that once had other meanings before they took on the more familiar biological definitions. A quick check at Wiktionary shows that it can mean to eject abruptly or to say abruptly. These uses have fallen out of favor in recent years as the biological definition has overshadowed them, but one of them is undoubtedly what the person who spoke them on TV meant.

My question is were the people in the middle of the road throwing stuff or shouting things.

And as I think about it further, I wonder if at one time “ejecting abruptly” and “saying abruptly” were the more common and predominant definitions of “ejaculation,” before it became a euphemism for something else…a euphemism which made perfect sense. And once ejaculation started being used euphemistically, it was “game over” for its use in everyday life.

Just look at the word gay. Once upon a time – within my lifetime, in fact - anyone could say that they were feeling gay, and not have a single eyebrow raised by anyone. Now if you say you’re feeling gay, people are wondering just who you’re feeling.

And let’s talk about the passages in Matthew 26:34 where Jesus tells Peter that before the cock crows, he will have denied him three times. Now there’s a term you don’t hear used to describe male chickens anymore. Most modern Bible translations use the term rooster precisely because nowadays the term “cock” will elicit tons of little giggles from adolescents and those who act like them.

So while “ejaculation” may have been an unfortunate word choice for the reporter that day, it was not totally inappropriate. The reporter just had a better grasp of the English language than most viewers.

Still, I can’t help but think of the following sentence:
“Wow, Jack sure is a jerk,” ejaculated Dick.
That’s definitely one to raise the eyebrows.

But wait! This just in.
As I searched for a copy of the picture to illustrate this post with, I found out that the story was covered at my favorite urban legend website: Snopes.com. And, apparently, I know more about the English language than I did about the circumstances of the actual story. The picture didn't tell you much, but the story at Snopes was that this was from a newscast covering the Malibu fires of 2007, and that the announcer was talking about how the firefighters were prepared to deal with the fires themselves, but not the people who were trying to evacuate.

"Oh!" as the old joke goes, "That's the word!"

Apparently, the computer-generated captioning, a close relative to the over-zealous predictive autocorrect, brought the story to a totally different climax.

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