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Thursday, Feb. 12, 2004 04:09 am

If you feel meddlesome, it may be time to sample the crumpets

A Lover’s Tongue: A Merry Romp Through the Language of Love and Sex By Mark Morton, Insomniac Press, Paperback, 2004, 240 pages, $16.95

Janet Jackson's brazen bust-baring before millions of football fans, dubbed by one pundit "a tempest in a C-cup," got me wondering. Not about the fall of western civ as we know it, but about where the word boob comes from. Or, for that matter, tits, or knockers, or hooters (beforeHooters became a fast-food franchise). Lucky for me, Mark Morton, a Canadian with a similarly twisted curiosity, and time on his hands -- those northern winters are longer than ours -- has written an etymology of lust. For those non-English majors who have gotten this far in the review, etymology is not a "dirty" word, though there are lots of them in Mr. Morton's self-described "merry romp through the language of love and sex." Nor is it the study of bugs. It is, from the Greek etumon, the study of the origin and development of words.

The Lover's Tongue is a book that makes you laugh while you learn. Morton, who holds a Ph.D in 16th century literature, lived for a while in France (well, that explains a lot) and then settled down to teach at the University of Winnipeg. Before venturing into the linguistic world of ribald rhetoric, he wrote Cupboard Love: A Dictionary of Culinary Curiosities, nominated for an international Julia Child Award. Morton's investigative penchant for tracking words plays as well in the bedroom as it did in the kitchen. Like the old game of Clue, it doesn't matter if Colonel Mustard were meddling Mrs. White in the hallway or the beefcake butler were sampling Miss Scarlett's crumpets in the conservatory; it's all good fun in the end. As a bonus we find out why beefcake means the guy's a hunk (where did hunk come from anyway?) and when exactly crumpets came to mean more than goodies on the tea table.

Morton's scholarly brush paints a wide canvas. He covers language associated with love and sex, but also with body parts, beauty, sexism, obscenities and taboos, gays and lesbians, and words about love that come from the world of food and animals. Because language and its development are integral to culture and customs, it is natural for him to discuss such topics as why love letters are often signed with X's and O's. In the mid 18th century the letter X came to denote the kiss, probably because of its shape, like four arms meeting at a point. More recently it was coupled with the O, representing the hooped arms of an embrace.

In a couple of days we will be celebrating our favorite holiday for lovers. If you really want to impress your date over dinner, casually drop into your conversation how Valentine's Day came to be. Tell your honey-bun that, in Chaucer's poem, the Parlement of Foules, it is the day when birds choose their mates. When your sugar pie coos that you are just so smart, smile and say, "It's nothing. I just happen to have The Lover's Tongue."

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