The Grammarphobia Blog

Why we suck

Q: I often notice the word “suck” used when I think it’s inappropriate. The comedian Denis Leary, for example, has a book called Why We Suck. And a kid may tell a teacher, “I think Catcher in the Rye sucks.” This makes me cringe. My understanding is that “suck” here refers to oral sex. Am I being priggish?

A: The verb “suck” is a very, very old and perfectly acceptable word, dating back to Anglo-Saxon days. The slang use of it to refer to oral sex is relatively recent – and perhaps short lived.

“Suck” has been in the language since around the year 825, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Its original meaning: “To draw (liquid, esp. milk from the breast) into the mouth by contracting the muscles of the lips, cheeks, and tongue so as to produce a partial vacuum.”

All the other meanings (to suck something or someone dry of money, for example) stem from this one.

The OED also lists the oral-sex definition, labeling it “coarse slang,” and dates that usage from 1928. (Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang dates it from the mid-17th century, but I haven’t seen the evidence.)

Separately the OED lists “contemptible or disgusting” as slang meanings of the word, and dates that usage from 1971.

Is this negative sense of the word derived from the oral-sex usage? The OED doesn’t indicate that one sense comes from the other. Perhaps the only connection between these two modern meanings is the original, 1200-year-old verb.

In fact, the word “suck” may be losing its oral-sex meaning these days. Although the entry in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) does include “to perform fellatio on,” the entry in Merriam-Webster‘s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) doesn’t.

Are you being priggish? The short answer: yes.

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