concupiscence

The Oxford English Dictionary gives this charming quote from Catholick Christian Instructed by Richard Challoner (1691–1781): “Q. What are the ends for which matrimony is instituted? A. For a remedy against concupiscence.” My immediate thought was, “If you’re married to an exceptionally attractive person (as I am), it doesn’t decrease carnal desire (= concupiscence); it just increases its fulfillment.” (Francis Bacon, in his New Atlantis, had already accounted for this: “marriage is ordained a remedy for unlawful concupiscence; and natural concupiscence seemeth as a spur to marriage.”)

But concupiscence doesn’t always mean plain old sexual lust. It is sometimes used to refer to not only the lust but its fulfillment; but it is also at times used to refer to other strong material desires. But what nearly all of its uses have in common is that they are high-toned condemnation; they speak against it, it is a trap, a fetter, a distraction. They wish to toss a porcupine into the lustful bed, to conk the hot one as cold as a cucumber or a fish, to knock him into sense and out of sensation. To decompose concupiscence to conk + porcupine + cucumber + fish + sense.

I did say “nearly all” – Arlene Prunkl tells me I epitomize lexical concupiscence, and I have to assume that she didn’t mean that in condemnation. Nor would she and I be the only people who fancy that a lust for words is a perfectly delightful thing; Mark Peters, a euphemism collector for Visual Thesaurus and a blogger for Oxford University Press, tweets as @wordlust and blogs at wordlust.blogspot.com. I don’t see anyone self-presenting as verbal concupiscence, but I’m sticking to Sesquiotic anyway.

Did you notice that I used word lust but verbal concpusicence? If you still don’t have enough evidence that English (like many languages) is not really a unitary invariant code but rather a language system with many variations and levels of play (English is the Dungeons and Dragons of languages, but there is no dungeonmaster), here’s another bit. Concupiscence is a high-toned word; it is suited for texts that partake of an air of erudition, clarity, precision, dryness, or some parody thereof. (I have used it in my notes on iniquity and avarice, greed, cupidity; I leave it to you to determine why I chose it.) And so it automatically goes with the more high-toned modifier – not a monosyllabic Germanic attributive noun (word) but a proper Latinate adjective (verbal). This is a word that exists expressly to move people away from Anglo-Saxon monosyllables.

So, thanks to the different register, we easily overlook the “conk” and “piss” we hear in it. We do, of course, hear the percussive voiceless stops, /k/ /k/ /p/, followed by hisses /s/ and /s/ – as though the lust were some overinflated thing that is being hit until it pops and lets out its excess air (the nasal before the second /k/ giving a sense of weakening, and the nasal before the second /s/ giving a sense of more complete deflation). We see this monster of a word as a unit, a big cold fish in your bed. And not just any cold fish: a coelecanth, a prehistoric beastie with its fins c c c c and p (and maybe i as well).

What it’s not is cute like Cupid. But it has the same root: cupere “desire” (verb). The con here does not literally mean “with” (concupiscence can be, and often is, a solo experience); it’s just an intensifier. So it’s Latin for “really wanting something”.

And if you really want long words (excellent words!), well, your concupiscence is fulfilled with this one. But is it sated? Or whetted?

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One response to “concupiscence

  1. Your first paragraph reminds me of the wonderfully unenthusiastic explanation of the purpose of marriage in the 1662 Anglican Prayer Book: ‘It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry …’.

    This is based on the even more forbidding remark of the ascetic St Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:8-9: ‘I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn. ‘

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