Nooky: Naughty or nice? (The Word, 2005)

IN A RECENT Globe Magazine essay, Shawn Peters wondered humorously whether his wife had any further need of him, now that their last child had been conceived. Would the final baby mean a new chapter in the relationship, the subhead on the story asked, or "the end of nooky as we know it?"

"Nooky?!!" responded one astonished magazine reader. "Appropriate language in a family newspaper? All I can say is #!*!!!???" And regular correspondent Robert Skole, who learned the word in the Army after World War II, e-mailed The Word to ask if he's on the far side of a generation gap. "Has nooky become kosher when I wasn't looking?"

The answer is a tale of two nookys, one naughty and one not -- but their use doesn't divide neatly along generational lines. Both have been around since the 1920s, when nooky (more often, these days, spelled nookie) appeared in the US slang lexicon. (The word may derive from "nook," or perhaps from a Dutch word for "copulate," but nobody knows for sure.)   

The rude nooky, which means a woman (or women) viewed as sexual prey, or sometimes just the female genitalia, is essentially synonymous with a word almost taboo in newspapers, though the James Bond movies sneak it past the censors in (im)proper names like that of the blonde bombshell in "Goldfinger." The nice nooky, though, merely means sex, or even just "fooling around," and it's something both men and women can want.

The Historical Dictionary of American Slang, a monumental work abandoned by Random House after Volume II but now, to the joy of lexies, resurrected by Oxford University Press, offers a wealth of citations for both sorts of nooky. For example, in "The Front Page," the salty 1928 hit play immortalized in four movie versions, a female character is greeted with "Well, well! Nookie!" But by 1934 there's a unisex sense: "A lady likes her nooky." And Toni Morrison, in "The Bluest Eye" (1970), treats it as a euphemism, writing of 1940s Southern girls who "do not drink, smoke, or swear, and ... still call sex 'nookey."'

Eric Partridge seemed to have heard it that way, too: In his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (first published 1937; eighth edition, 1984), he said nooky meaning "sex" was "middle-class and almost polite; certainly a kind of baby-talk." The Oxford English Dictionary agrees: Nooky for the woman as sexual object is "usually considered offensive," but nooky meaning merely sex is neutral. 

In current American dictionaries, though, the situation is murkier. For some, nooky means only sexual intercourse, and it's "vulgar slang" or "sometimes offensive." The New Oxford American Dictionary, so up-to-date you can load it onto your BlackBerry, says nooky is either intercourse or "sexual activity," but still, it's "vulgar slang." Merriam-Webster's Collegiate, the only one to mention both rude nooky ("the female partner") and nice nooky (sex), leaves some ambiguity by labeling both "often vulgar."

Such labels, of course, can't reflect every reader's feelings. Only two people protested the Globe's use of nooky, after all; the same number complained about a recent use of brown-nose, which most dictionaries label not "vulgar" but merely "informal" or "slang." If nooky is getting nicer, it may be a step ahead of the lexicographers.

In fact, Doug Most, the Globe Magazine editor who OK'd the word, says he had never heard the ruder sense of nooky till an older editor mentioned it. "To me it is a funny, lighthearted way of saying 'sex,"' he e-mailed, and most of the staff concurred.

But the widest usage gap, it turns out, is not generational but national.

Nooky is much more frequent in British publications, and not just in the entertainment pages: Earlier this month, The Guardian criticized Tony and Cherie Blair's "opting to discuss their red-hot nookie in an exclusive interview with the Sun." In a recent Nexis search of English-language sources for the past month, only three of 75 nooky citations were American.

So is a nooky wave roaring across the Atlantic, in the wake of gone missing and gobsmacked? Could be. Shag, after all, was officially vulgar slang when it first hit our shores, but thanks to its vehicle -- Mike Myers's goofy "Austin Powers" movies -- shag has shed that stigma. (Did any American newspaper censor the title of "The Spy Who Shagged Me"?)

And nooky, with its cute diminutive ending, is already inoffensive enough to serve as both a common personal nickname and the name of a Chicago restaurant chain. Considering the ubiquity of sex, there's a surprising dearth of agreeable words for it; we could do a lot worse than nooky.

Note: This column has not been updated or fact-checked since its original publication. Antedatings and corrections are welcome.

No comments: