It is not often that one comes across a human sexuality paper with a Biblical reference in the title, but lo, “Behold, I am Coming Soon! A Study on the Conceptualization of Sexual Orgasm in 27 Languages” does just that.
Published in the Journal of Metaphor and Symbol, the study examined linguistic expressions of orgasm in native speakers of languages representing over half of the world’s population. Their work included an investigation of words and phrases we use to describe one of our favorite biological pastimes.
As anyone watching the news knows firsthand, the way people talk plays a fundamental role in shaping our reality. It’s not that we can change basic facts of our physical world with language — calling a red ball blue doesn’t make it so — but the act of naming it red and ball creates the possibility for us to understand the ball, to contextualize it, to remember it exists, and to tell others about it. How we name things can reveal secrets about how we feel, while giving insight into the deeper recesses of our own psychology. This rings especially true when it comes to language that’s used to describe sex. Often mired in euphemism and wordplay, the way we describe sexuality tells of how we experience sex, or, at the very least, how we wish to. With that in mind, let’s take a stroll through the many ways people around the world describe the experience of orgasm.
Starting with the obvious, over half of the languages surveyed have adopted near-forms of the word orgasm, including orgazm (Turkish), orgasmo (Portuguese, Spanish, Italian), and oogasma (Japanese). But why?
The word orgasm gets its roots in the Greek orgasmos, which means “excitement, swelling.” This makes orgasm a metonymy, a figure of speech wherein a concept is referred to by something closely associated with it. Often confused with a synecdoche, where a part of a whole represents the whole, a metonymy represents a thing by using another closely related thing. For example, using the phrase the crown to represent authority is an metonymy. When it comes to orgasm, excitement, swelling doesn’t encapsulate the whole experience, but it does closely relate the psychological and physiological feeling of having one. Here, the meaning of the word tells us about some of the characteristics of an orgasm, of psychological excitement and sexual arousal, of genital swelling and increased blood flow, and of a quickened heart rate, all factors concomitant with coming.
Some languages have more specific ways to express this feeling of excitement, folding pleasure into the mix and establishing that this is a positive experience. Some examples include pracanda uttējanā (Bengali, “drastic excitement”), ezra shodan (Persian (Farsi), “satisfaction is happening”), and cực khoái (Vietnamese, “extreme pleasure”).
But not all orgasm descriptors are nestled so closely to the literal physical experience of having one. One popular answer was the conceptual metaphor of orgasm as a peak, with 24 percent of languages surveyed using this kind of phrasing. This may reflect the warm, bodily high that someone feels after coming, or it could also be describing the process of sexual response and release. According to the pioneering sex researchers William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson, the four phases of sexual response are excitement, plateau, orgasmic, and resolution. Inherent in this is the feeling of the climb to climax, that things are becoming more intense and moving toward something. Orgasm as peak also has the orientation of up, and things we orient as up tend to be positive. Discussing orgasms in this way implies that orgasm is a goal, something to work toward.
Mandarin Chinese uses gao chao or “high tide” to describe the peak of orgasm, which I love because it brings in the physical aspect of fluids to the metaphorical high point.
Close to this is the idea of orgasm as destination, with 48 percent of languages studied using expressions that are essentially I’m coming. It’s generally taken that the word come refers to a motion that is toward the speaker or the hearer, so when we think of coming in this way, it evokes arriving at a place and implies that the direction of motion regards the person with whom one is speaking. Or rather, the person one is = having sex with, as the case may be.
It is not all upward trajectories and rushing toward, however. The French are famous for le petit mort, or “the little death” as one of their orgasmic descriptors of choice. It’s easy to see how the overwhelming physical sensations and loss of control at orgasm could feel like a near-death experience. Nine other languages use expressions related to I’m going or I’m ending, implying that the speaker is going away from the hearer, and possibly leaving in a way that precludes continuing the encounter. In Japanese, there is “I’m going” iku, a euphemism for death. Other languages conceptualizing orgasm as the end of a journey include Russian (Konchayu, “I’m ending/finishing”), Seedig (Kiyadi, “(I’m done”), and Tagalog (Nilabasan na ko, “I’m finishing/exiting).
Other orgasm descriptors and announcements include orgasm as release of force/substance in a container, like yao she le in Mandarin Chinese (“I’m shooting”), orgasm as fire as in the Finnish nyt mä tulen (“Now I’m (the) fire”), and orgasm as heat in Tagalog, nag-iinit (“heating” or “make warm”).
But perhaps one of the most poetic orgasm descriptors comes from the Czech announcement Už budu, which means “(I) will be.” In this way, the orgasm represents a state of existing, and an affirmation to continue to do so. Czech interviewees pointed out the similarities to Descartes’s famed statement, “I think, therefore, I am.”
Nothing like indulging in a little death to make a person feel alive.