Mangling the prostidude

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The Associated Press reports:

America's first legal gigolo leaves rural brothel

LAS VEGAS — America's first legal male prostitute has left a rural Nevada brothel after a two-month stint that generated plenty of attention but fewer than 10 paying customers.

Brothel owner Jim Davis said Friday his Shady Lady Ranch had parted ways with the nation's first "prostitude."

Prostitude? Really? That caught the eye of Amy West, who read the wire story in The Boston Globe and posted about it on the American Dialect Society mailing list. Amy rightly suggested the blend should be prostidude.

You can easily find reporting on the prostidude or prosti-dude, including local coverage from The Las Vegas Review-Journal. Some news outlets even managed to correct the AP story by using prostidude instead of prostitude, like The Nevada Appeal and The Globe and Mail. Cheers to them. But jeers to syndicators of the wire story who either repeated the error or compounded it, Cupertino-styleCBS News, The Canadian Press, and several others must have run the AP's prostitude through their spellcheckers and miscorrected it to prostitute, resulting in this surprising sentence:

Brothel owner Jim Davis said Friday his Shady Lady Ranch had parted ways with the nation's first prostitute.

So much for the oldest profession!

There's another Cupertino error that results in prostitute, by the way. Here's something I wrote in a 2005 post on spellchecker miscorrections (before I knew that this phenomenon had been dubbed the Cupertino effect):

Back in 1996, this example was noted by a contributor to the Usenet newsgroup alt.usage.english:

This happened a few weeks ago to the menu of a well-to-do restaurant here in San Francisco.  The menu was spell-checked, printed, and a copy displayed in the window of the restaurant (as is the custom here). Nobody noticed that the spell-checker turned "warmed spring salad greens with prosciuto" into "warmed spring salad greens with prostitutes."

I'm guessing that the restaurant menu actually had singular prostitute in place of the intended prosciutto (or prosciuto, if the writer missed the extra t) — amazingly enough, the custom dictionary in my copy of MS Word accompanying Office XP still doesn't recognize the spiced Italian ham and suggests prostitute instead. (There's a Sopranos joke in there somewhere.) Others have fallen prey to the same unfortunate replacement, as in this recipe appearing on a message board for Italian food:

Crumble bread sticks into a mixing bowl. Cover with warm water. Let soak for 2 to 3 minutes or until soft. Drain. Stir in prostitute, provolone, pine nuts, 1/4 cup oil, parsley, salt, and pepper. Set aside.

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35 Comments »

  1. Ben Bolker said,

    March 28, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

    too bad that wasn't a recipe for pasta putanesca …

  2. John Emerson said,

    March 28, 2010 @ 12:19 pm

    Long ago autocorrect changed a couple dozen appearances of "Hsi Hsia" (the name of a semi-Chinese dynasty) into "His Hsia". I changed it back 2 or 3 times. That was how I learned what autocorrect was.

  3. John Lawler said,

    March 28, 2010 @ 1:22 pm

    It'd been fixed by the time Mac Word 2008 came out, at least. My spellchecker, faced with prosciuto, offers me a choice between prosciutto and prosciuttos.

  4. Zwicky Arnold said,

    March 28, 2010 @ 1:28 pm

    Just a note that gigolo and male prostitute are not synonyms, though they overlap (and gigolo is sometimes used as a polite replacement for male prostitute/hustler). A gigolo can serve as a paid escort without providing sexual services to his client (whereas a male prostitute is paid specifically for sexual services, though he might also provide non-sexual services, escorting or non-sexual massage, in particular); a gigolo might also provide sexual services, of course. And a gigolo's clients are female (and usually older women), while a male prostitute's clients can be of either sex — most commonly, but not necessarily, men (and these clients can be of any age, and of any age relative to the hustler).

  5. Yuval said,

    March 28, 2010 @ 1:51 pm

    The original mistake sounds like a missed intervocalic /d/, automatically perceived as [t]. Word-final voicing is indeed more detectable.
    About the amplification Cupertino – when will spell checkers ever learn to treat words in quotes with some respect? At least don't have the same authorization mechanism, or auto-correct…

  6. Emily said,

    March 28, 2010 @ 2:52 pm

    Well, I wanted it to be brostitute

    [(bgz) Reminiscent of sorostitute...]

  7. John Cowan said,

    March 28, 2010 @ 3:09 pm

    Yuval: Whyever? People are just as likely to make typos in quotation marks as elsewhere.

  8. Robert Coren said,

    March 28, 2010 @ 4:38 pm

    Years ago, a friend reported that his partner's restaurant menu had ended up offering "baked brie with Carmelite onions". I assume that the original had the common misspelling "carmelized".

    These days, anybody who doesn't check their spellchecker deserves what they get.

  9. figleaf said,

    March 28, 2010 @ 4:45 pm

    And of course coining "prostitude" or "prostidude" just because the sex-worker is male seems as redundant as calling a woman MD a "doctress." It might not be redundant since a lot of people don't seem to be able to imagine non-female sex workers, and so for those people it's necessary to add a gender modifier (e.g. "male prostitute" or "prostidude") to specify the worker's sex in a way it wouldn't be necessary to specify, say, their geographic origin (e.g. "Ohio prostitute" or "prostipennsylvanian.") See also the evident need to specify gender in the blend "manny" for men who provide in-home childcare or "male nurse." (Would the AP reporter refer to the latter as "murses?")

    As for the odd blend "prostitude" I think there may be a typing muscle-memory component in the sense that every time I've tried to type "prostidude" in this comment (including the instance in this sentence!) I've first mistyped "prostitude" instead.

    figleaf

  10. Will said,

    March 28, 2010 @ 7:14 pm

    figleaf, i think you're right about the muscle memory of typing the word. the "prostitude" in the AP article may in fact have been a genuine typo, but since the writer expected the spell checker to mark it as wrong, they didn't notice it. of course this is speculation, but it sounds plausible to me.

    but regarding "doctress" vs "prostitude", the analogy doesn't make sense. with medical doctors, the sex of the person has very little to do with the job, and the gender gap is ever decreasing. the immediate jump to thinking of medical doctors as male is because of long-standing cultural sexism that is only relatively recently starting to change.

    but with prostitutes, the sex of the person has *everything* to do with the job, and prostitutes will always be mostly women–the simple fact is that the market for female prostitutes is much larger than the market for male prostitutes. this is not because of some cultural sexism, but biologically driven. the motivation for coining a male-specific version isn't because people can't imagine a male sex worker; it's because someone says 'prostitute' it's a mistake to *not* assume it's a woman unless otherwise indicated.

  11. Will said,

    March 28, 2010 @ 7:16 pm

    and i just noticed i mis-typed "prostidude" as "prostitude" in my second paragraph above — a genuine typo…

  12. IrrationalPoint said,

    March 28, 2010 @ 7:31 pm

    but with prostitutes, the sex of the person has *everything* to do with the job, and prostitutes will always be mostly women–the simple fact is that the market for female prostitutes is much larger than the market for male prostitutes. this is not because of some cultural sexism, but biologically driven.

    What an extraordinary worldview.

    It's certainly the case that the majority of sex workers are women, but I'm with Figleaf on this one: it's hardly news that male sex workers exist, any more than it's news that some nurses and childcarers are male.

    However, claiming that women being the majority of sex workers is not a socially-produced state of affairs is really quite a step. In order to make such a claim, you'd have to establish that it just happens to be the case that the sexualisation of women is such a prevalent social phenomenon, and that sexism is so prevalent, and that women make up the majority of sex workers. That is, you're committed to the co-occurrence of these being sheer coincidence.

    –IP

  13. figleaf said,

    March 28, 2010 @ 8:51 pm

    Speaking of muscle memory, perhaps because I write less about transportation and more about the sociology of sex I routinely mistype, for instance, "turn left at the traffick light" when sending directions.

    If I was better-versed in the Language Log arts I'd probably be able to point to studies of occupational dialects and/or vocabularies vs. general populations, and possibly even verbal and typographic errors common to those occupations.

    I might even be able to name the parts of speech and/or implied pronouns that create the difference in understanding between Will and I, related to his being able to use the same words to correctly say that "male prostitutes ([of female customers])" are scarce at the same time I can equally correctly say that "male prostitutes ([of female and male customers])" are by far common enough that gender qualifiers are as unnecessary for prostitutes as they are for doctors.

    I'm not able to make those language distinctions but as always I'm in awe of those who can

    figleaf

  14. Will said,

    March 28, 2010 @ 9:21 pm

    IrrationalPoint, of course it's a socially produced state of affairs, but I don't think this particular social state of affiars is a result of cultural sexism as much as it's a result of human nature. I believe that men are simply more likely to desire sex with strangers than women are, as a biological rather than cultural phenomenon, and that this is reflected in cultural institutions (and since the majority of men are attracted to women, the majority of prostitutes are women). We could go on to have this discussion in depth, but this really isn't the right forum for that–it would get very off-topic quickly. Suffice it to say that I am making an assertion about human nature with absolutely no evidence, and admit that I might be completely wrong about this. I certainly don't hold this worldview with much conviction.

  15. Katherine said,

    March 28, 2010 @ 9:30 pm

    I was going to say what IrrationalPoint said, but IP said it so much better than I was going to. IP: unfortunately it isn't a very extraordinary worldview: plenty of people believe this sort of thing unfortunately. What I find most amusing is that a commenter on Language Log (known for its anti-prescriptionist ways) is a believer in biological determinism.

  16. Will said,

    March 28, 2010 @ 10:00 pm

    i don't see how biological determinism and linguistic descriptivism are at odds with each other.

  17. Will said,

    March 28, 2010 @ 10:02 pm

    besdies, i would definitely not call myself a biological determinist. i mildly (without much convision) support a weak version of it — that biological factors can affect cultural institutions. i certainly don't support a strong version of it.

  18. Will said,

    March 28, 2010 @ 10:13 pm

    but i'd also like to reiterate once more that the one biologically determinism assertion that i made — that i think men are more likely to desire sex with strangers than women as a fact of nature not culture — i made with no evidence. it makes intuitive sense to me, but as we all know intuition is not always reliable, and i would not be terribly surprised to discover i was wrong about this point.

    sorry for the series of posts, but i just feel like i'm was attacked on multiple fronts as being illogical or bigoted, and i don't think either are true.

  19. Neal Goldfarb said,

    March 28, 2010 @ 11:36 pm

    @Ben: "amazingly enough, the custom dictionary in my copy of MS Word accompanying Office XP still doesn't recognize the spiced Italian ham and suggests prostitute instead."

    Prosciutto isn't spiced. You're probably thinking of capicola—or gabbagool, as Carmela would say.

    MSWord's spellchecker is flummoxed by gabbagool, and it does about as well on capicola as it does on prosciutto. (It doesn't recognize sopresatta, either.) Among the spelling suggestions it gives for capicola are calicle and cubicula, neither of which is anywhere as useful as capicola. Or as tasty.

  20. Karen said,

    March 28, 2010 @ 11:42 pm

    It's also fairly true most places that women who want sex with strangers don't have to find someone and pay for it…

  21. Roger Lustig said,

    March 28, 2010 @ 11:43 pm

    @Neal: does it recognize soppressata?

  22. IrrationalPoint said,

    March 29, 2010 @ 5:20 am

    one biologically determinism assertion that i made — that i think men are more likely to desire sex with strangers than women as a fact of nature not culture — i made with no evidence. [...] i just feel like i'm was attacked on multiple fronts as being illogical or bigoted, and i don't think either are true.

    The reason it's bigoted is that your claim commits you to sexism and prostitution (in its current form) being entirely coincidental, and it also commits you to some pretty dodgy consequences of naturalising some kinds of behaviour that I suspect you didn't really intend to commit yourself to. If your claim is that men are naturally more inclined to display certain kinds of sexual behaviour, then you also have to explain why that sexual behaviour is not benign (and the sex industry is frequently not benign. Very high levels of violence against sex workers are reported), and think about whether you really want to commit yourself to saying that men are naturally inclined to display or participate in sexually abusive behaviours, and what the consequences of that claim might be.

    It's quite a claim to make on the basis of (by your own admission) no evidence.

    What is certainly the case is that male violence is often "naturalised" — it's excused as being "natural" even though we have no reason at all to think it is, and plenty of reasons to think it is not. It would be a coincidence of fantastic proportion if it just happened to be the case that sexism (and for that matter, institutionalised heteronormativity and homophobia) and sexual oppression co-occurred, but had no causal connections with each other.

    In any case, if you wish to entirely discount social factors, you really ought to have some evidence, since those social factors are pretty well-documented, and it does sound a bit bigoted to do some handwaving and say "that stuff doesn't matter — it's all in your genes", because that sort of claim can't be ideology-neutral.

    –IP

  23. Nick Lamb said,

    March 29, 2010 @ 6:22 am

    "your claim commits you to sexism and prostitution (in its current form) being entirely coincidental"

    I'm not sure his claim does any such thing. It seems to me that the situation in which differences in use of prostitutes by gender follows from a biologically determined group difference could either causally or in parallel occur with a sexist society, meaning they aren't necessarily coincidental, but they may just as well be causally linked in the reverse direction to that you've supposed.

    "whether you really want to commit yourself to saying that men are naturally inclined to display or participate in sexually abusive behaviours"

    This also seems like a plausible claim, but you seem dead set against it. Perhaps you're having trouble with the is/ought distinction? I think that life is naturally nasty, brutish and short, but I don't condone that state of affairs, indeed I fight it with every fibre in me.

    It is unfortunate that "natural" is seen by so many people as a synonym for "good", leading to any number of misfortunate decisions.

  24. Will said,

    March 29, 2010 @ 6:31 am

    IP, you are putting words in my mouth. I never said a thing about violence, I never said "it's all in your genes", and I never said that the dominance of females in the sex worker industry was solely a result of natural sex differences. It's sounds like you're taking the ideology of biological determinism and framing as though I was being a zealot for it, when in fact I think it is for the most part bullshit.

    Society and culture are, in my option, responsible for nearly all behaviors. But they are not 100% responsible. They are to a small degree affected by human nature (which I think does exist), and I do believe that when it comes to sexuality, human nature can differ (in terms of broad generalizations) between men and women.

    If your claim is that men are naturally more inclined to display certain kinds of sexual behaviour, then you also have to explain why that sexual behaviour is not benign (and the sex industry is frequently not benign. Very high levels of violence against sex workers are reported), and think about whether you really want to commit yourself to saying that men are naturally inclined to display or participate in sexually abusive behaviours, and what the consequences of that claim might be.

    I never said that men are naturally inclined to display violent sexual behavior, all I said is that they are more inclined to desire sex with strangers, and to a degree high enough that prostitution will always be a female dominated occupation. The violence documented against sex works is not a consequence of this natural inclination, but of a deep societal problem.

    What is certainly the case is that male violence is often "naturalised" — it's excused as being "natural" even though we have no reason at all to think it is, and plenty of reasons to think it is not. It would be a coincidence of fantastic proportion if it just happened to be the case that sexism (and for that matter, institutionalised heteronormativity and homophobia) and sexual oppression co-occurred, but had no causal connections with each other.

    Here you are definitely putting words in my mouth. I never said anything about male violence being natural. I also never said that sexism, institutionalized heteronormativity, homophobia, and sexual oppression were not highly interrelated. And neither did I say the female-dominated sex worker industry isn't connected. Of course they are all interrelated–it would foolish to assume they otherwise.

    if you wish to entirely discount social factors

    So you take my one assertion about human nature and extrapolate that I want to "entirely discount social factors"? It's clear to me that you have a preconceived notion about my ideology that really doesn't match it all.

  25. Nick Lamb said,

    March 29, 2010 @ 6:32 am

    s/his/their/, once again in the absence of a picture of the person I'm talking to everyone looks like me.

  26. IrrationalPoint said,

    March 29, 2010 @ 6:53 am

    Actually, Will, my point is that prostitution is not just "sex with strangers". I have no idea what your views are on biological determinism, nor any wish to assume what they might be. But the claim that men might want more sex with strangers is not the same as claiming that there is a natural tendency for the majority of sex workers to be female, precisely because sex work is not the same enterprise as "sex with strangers", and sex work is not coincidental with structural sexism and heteronormativity. Your claim more or less assumed that sex work identical to or as was as close to "sex with strangers" as made no difference, hence the problem.

    –IP

  27. Dan T. said,

    March 29, 2010 @ 11:10 am

    I don't think anybody has been claiming here that prostitution is identical to "sex with strangers", or that it's the only or the best manner in which sex with strangers might take place. However, if in fact there is a human-nature-derived tendency for men to desire sex with strangers more than women, then there would be a greater lucrative market for women as sex workers than men, and thus by economic incentives (also promoted by human nature) more would tend to exist. This says nothing one way or the other about the quality, conditions, or exploitativeness of their work.

  28. Larry K said,

    March 29, 2010 @ 11:39 am

    figleaf said, March 28 — between Will and I,

    Will said,March 28 — i don't think either are true.

    Nick Lamb said, March 29 — any number of misfortunate decisions.

    Will said, March 29 — It's sounds like you're taking the ideology

    I would have expected a higher level of grammatical purity in a blog about language!

  29. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    March 29, 2010 @ 12:09 pm

    I know this is a digression, but remember that women can get pregnant and men cannot. That's biological, not cultural. This is one possible reason that there could be a cross-cultural tendency for men to desire anonymous sex more than women do. In any case, I don't think the possibility can be dismissed out of hand, and I don't think it's right to assume that when people assert (rightly or wrongly) that biological differences between the sexes can influence society, they're part of a sexist conspiracy.

  30. oliver said,

    March 29, 2010 @ 4:57 pm

    I don't know the business hours of the brothel in question, but ala "lady of the night" there's an obvious reverse available in "gentleman of the night." Or for when we're feeling opprobrious, why not "man-whore"?

  31. vanya said,

    March 29, 2010 @ 6:31 pm

    Well, humans are animals. We are the products of evolution and biology. Most of our actions are by definition biologically determined. Sad and pathetic, perhaps, and as humans we like to believe we are special. Still it is an act of incredible hubris, or at the very least religious faith, to declare that humans are not subject to the same laws of nature every other species on the planet seems to obey. There are real and measurable biological differences between male and female homo sapiens that, on average, hold true – bone density, height, hormone production, etc. etc. The devil of course lies in the details – on average means just that, and any given individual of the species can have characteristics that vary wildly from that average. It is also true that attempts to use biology to explain fairly loaded and nebulous concepts such as "sex drive" or "promiscuity" usually reflect ideology more than science. But to deny the role of biology out of hand seems like wishful thinking to me.

  32. Graeme said,

    March 30, 2010 @ 9:36 am

    The socio-political debate here is inevitable, but off the point.

    The reason for having more than one word for 'person who sells sex or intimate company' has nothing to do with gendered assumptions at some macro level, but everything to do with market information. If you are the sex worker or the 'client' you rather want to know the gender of the other party, and to signal limits.

    Zwicky's early post implicitly made this clear.

  33. figleaf said,

    March 30, 2010 @ 11:53 am

    @Larry K: "figleaf said, March 28 — between Will and I … I would have expected a higher level of grammatical purity in a blog about language!" Bwahahaha. You shouldn't expect it from I. :-)

    figleaf

  34. Dunl said,

    March 31, 2010 @ 8:57 pm

    Re: some outlets' correcting, repeating, or compounding the AP story's errorInteresting. On an October afternoon back in 2002, I was reading a story on the Chicago Sun-Times website when I came across the sentence, “Ashcroft accused Arnaout with deceiving Muslim Americans who gave to the organization as a religious gesture.” I sent them an e-mail suggesting they might want to change that to “Ashcroft accused Arnaout of deceiving … ”Their webmaster e-mailed me back and explained, “Unfortunately, we retrieved this story from the Associated Press, and we are not allowed to alter its content.” I had always figured that meant there was something in the AP contract disallowing corrections.

  35. Altissima said,

    April 4, 2010 @ 9:37 pm

    Yuval said (March 28, 2010 @ 1:51 pm),

    …About the amplification Cupertino – when will spell checkers ever learn to treat words in quotes with some respect? At least don't have the same authorization mechanism, or auto-correct…

    John Cowan replied ,(March 28, 2010 @ 3:09 pm)

    Yuval: Whyever? People are just as likely to make typos in quotation marks as elsewhere.

    I agree with John that people are just as likely to make typos within quotation marks as outside. However, quotation marks are often used to indicate that the writer recognises that the usage or spelling is unusual or non-standard (a bit like using "sic"). Thus, language contained by quotes are more likely to have deliberate misspellings, so for this reason, Auto-correct should treat words in quotes differently.

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