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 very old, dating back to Anglo-Saxon days, and it’s perfectly acceptable in most of its senses.
“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. [Note: A later post on the uses of “suck” appeared on the blog in 2017.]
The OED also lists the oral-sex definition, labeling it “coarse slang,” and dates that usage from 1928. However, Green’s Dictionary of Slang has two citations from the 17th century, including this one:
“O that I were a flea upon thy lip, / There would I sucke for euer, and not skip … / Or if thou thinkst I there too high am plast, / Ile be content to sucke below thy waste” (from The Schoole of Complement, a 1631 play by the English dramatist James Shirley).
Separately the OED lists “contemptible or disgusting” as slang meanings of the word (as in “he sucks” or “it sucks”), 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. But we assume that the two senses are related.
Are you being priggish? Perhaps. Most dictionaries label the negative usage as slang or informal, though Merriam-Webster says it’s sometimes vulgar.
[Note: This post was updated on April 25, 2020.]