The Grammarphobia Blog

Sex education

Q: I teach sex education at an inner-city school. Over the last few years, I’ve learned more new sexual slang than I care to recount. But my question is about one of the older terms. My students would like to know when “blow job” was first used to mean fellatio and whether it’s one word or two. School is out for the summer, but I’d like to have an answer for them when they return in the fall.

 A: Things have certainly changed since we were in school—Pat in Des Moines and Stewart in Yonkers. But you’re the teacher (yes, we checked her out and she is), so here goes.

Let’s begin with the easy part: one word or two? The two standard dictionaries we usually consult differ on this.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) prefers one word, while Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) goes with two.

We’ll let the Oxford English Dictionary be the tie-breaker: it uses two words, and we will too.

Now for the etymology. The slang term “blow job” isn’t quite as old as you seem to think.

The earliest published reference in the OED is from a poem by Anthony Hecht published in the Hudson Review in 1961 (we’ve expanded the excerpt):

“I have been in this bar / For close to seven days. / The dark girl over there, / For a modest dollar, lays. / And you can get a blow-job / Where other men have pissed, / In the little room that’s sacred / To the Evangelist.”

But perhaps the OED isn’t the first place we should look to find the origins of “blow job.”

The new three-volume Green’s Dictionary of Slang traces the noun phrase back to around 1948, when it appeared in an underground comic strip featuring the McCarthy-era figures Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss.

The slang dictionary cites Tijuana Bibles, a book of explicit comics collected by Bob Adelman, and includes an excerpt in which the Chambers figure apparently tells Hiss that “you give such good blow jobs!”

The noun phrase “blow job” may be a relative newbie, but the use of the verb “blow” in a sexual sense is much older, dating back to the 1600s, when Green’s says it meant “to bring to orgasm.”

However, the earliest citation for this sense in the dictionary, from an anonymous 1650 song, uses “blow” only obliquely to suggest sex:

“Limping Vulcan he came, / As if he had been jealous, / Venus follow’d after him, / And swore she’d blow the bellows.”

The use of the verb “blow” in the sense of fellatio or cunnilingus didn’t appear in writing until the 1930s, according to the slang dictionary.

The first published reference is from a book, Nell Kimball: Her Life as an American Madam: “The Greek contractor wanted me to blow him in the bundle room.”

Although the book was originally published in 1970, Green’s dates its composition from around 1930.

The work presents itself as a confessional memoir introduced and edited by Stephen Longstreet, a man of mystery, according to a website devoted to unraveling the mystery.

We hope you and your students find this informative. We surely did.

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