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Orgies, Convoys, and Precision in Word Meanings

convoy-line-2 Apropos of whether the web is changing English, I discussed Choire Sicha’s writing, but not Katy Waldman’s example of it, which concerned the definition of orgy. Sicha riffs humorously on how many participants there must be, and I was reminded of two important but oft-forgotten facts about word meanings.

The first is simply that meanings change swiftly and radically over just a few decades. Fifty years ago dictionaries said orgies were ceremonies honoring ancient Greek deities with ecstatic singing and dancing, or derivatively, drunken revelry, excessive indulgence, or riotous display. Nothing about sex. Slowly the new sense of “sexual encounter involving many people” emerged and took over. The American Heritage Dictionary says an orgy is “a revel involving unrestrained indulgence, especially sexual activity,” which is on the cusp; but the sexual meaning now predominates. For Wikipedia an orgy is just “a sex party where guests freely engage in open and unrestrained sexual activity or group sex.” No drunkenness. The deity-honoring ceremonies are consigned to a link over to the article on the Greek term orgia.

The second reflection was provoked by Sicha’s numerological query. People often seem to assume that word meanings are exact, or ought to be; but human language is not built that way. It is replete with vagueness and underspecification.

Certainly two people cannot constitute an orgy: Two is just a couple who decided not to go. Three is just a threesome, and there’s a specific word for a four-person sexual encounter too: fourgy. Calling a threesome or a fourgy an orgy would be like calling a trio or string quartet a chamber orchestra. And in Sicha’s view five is merely two couples plus a hanger-on, and six is “gross”: too many for the neighbourly intimacy of a fourgy yet too few for the anonymous lustfulness of true orgies.

An orgy should clearly involve many people, not just several. AHD glosses the latter as “more than two or three but not many,” which definitely sounds below critical orgy mass. So what does many mean? “A large, indefinite number” says AHD.

And what’s large? “Greater than average,” it says. Average for what, in this case? The average for sex parties?

Maybe so: If you throw a sex party and several people arrive, it was just a rather quiet sex party, but if an above-average number of attendees breaks through the several : many barrier, you have an orgy.

At least, you do provided the guests have sex with each other. And although what counts as sexual relations is famously ill-defined, you might have thought that at least each other, the fundamental grammatical device in English for expressing reciprocal relations, has a precise meaning. It doesn’t.

It’s true that “A and B shouted at each other” is true if and only if A shouted at B and B shouted at A. But consider a case above the several : many threshold. If I say that at the last department meeting all the faculty ended up shouting at each other, does that mean that for each choice of distinct faculty members x and y, both “x shouted at y” and “y shouted at x” must hold? Of course not. If amid the general uproar and hollering Professor Witherspoon never shouted directly at Professor Mulgrave, the claim about the meeting could still be uncontroversially true.

Many papers on semantics have been devoted to the subtleties of each other. One elegant article by Mary Dalrymple and colleagues (Linguistics and Philosophy 21.2 [April 1998], pp. 159–210), building on pioneering 1978 work by D. Terence Langendoen, identifies various constraints that are ideally met in each other statements, and shows how competent understanders assume satisfaction of as many constraints as possible without contradicting requirements of the situation. If told to stack 50 plates on top of each other, you’ll know what to do; yet when you’re done, you will neither have stacked each plate on top of another plate (you didn’t with the bottom one) nor ensured that every plate has a plate stacked on top of it (the top one is the exception). But you came as close to meeting those ideal requirements as you could. Typical of the way human languages work.

Two or three trucks following each other is just a few truckers trucking, but break through the several : many barrier and we’ve got us a convoy. An orgy is a gathering with significant inter-guest sexual activity and sufficiently many participants that if they were trucks they could make a convoy. Don’t push for any further precision. This is a human language we’re talking about, and it doesn’t aim to tie things down precisely. It never did. We’re humans. We cope with vagueness all the time, and we’re cool with it.

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