The news around Donald Trump's rapey caught-on-tape comments has seen the word lewd bandied around quite a bit, and I've seen a fair amount of complaint about its use to describe what Trump said. It didn't really occur to me that this might be a transatlantic problem when Alan Rew kindly pointed this tweet in my direction:
Photo via CNN.
Sorry, I needed a picture.

...because I'm sympathetic to the idea that lewd is not bad enough a word for something that actually suggests and promotes sexually assaulting women. It seemed not-right-to-me in either dialect. But then Garrett Wollman pointed out:

And that pushed me to think: Is there actually a difference? Do American newspapers and broadcasters use the word because it is a legally correct word in the US for something like this?

Hoping for some insight, I checked the kinds of authorities American news organi{s/z}ations might use: the AP Style Guide and Garner's Modern Usage. Neither says a thing about lewd, so I don't know that newswriters are getting any particular instruction to use that word.

Is it used more in American law? These things are hard to compare country-to-country because so much of American law is at the state level. Searching the US Legal Code at the House of Representatives site, I found 19 federal laws using the word lewd, including the phrase lewd acts, which is at times contrasted with the more serious sexual acts, which seem to be more precisely defined. In other cases, lewd is used to refer to pornography (or a subset thereof). Choosing a state to search, I used California. Currently there are 50 laws on the books with the word lewd in them.

Looking at UK law was harder (maybe there are easier ways to do it than I know). Legislation.gov.uk is searchable, but it includes all laws back to the 13th century, including out-of-date material, and I don't see a way to limit the search to only current laws (though it does let you search particular dates). So I got 50 hits for lewd, but the results are crowded with legislation that's been replaced by other legislation that may or may not include many of the same words.

But it does seem to be the case that lewd is used more in Scottish law than other UK places. For example, in the Sexual Offences Act of 2003 [pdf link], lewd occurs once, but only in a listing of Sexual Offences in Scotland, this one being "Lewd, indecent or libidinous behaviour or practices". The England and Wales listing has no lewd crime. (Lewdly also occurs in the document, but then it's just noting that the current law is removing that word from a 19th-century law "as it extends to Northern Ireland".)

As for how lewd is used in non-legislative text, the Corpus of Global Web-Based English shows that Americans are more likely than Britons to talk about the lewdness in terms of things that are done (lewd behavior, lewd conduct) and Britons tend more (but not as much more) to associate lewd with things that are said (lewd comments).  (The darker the green, the stronger the statistical difference.)

I would assume that this is related to the prevalence of lewd acts (the phrase, not the deeds) in American legislation.  But I'd welcome any insight from those in the legal know.

And speaking of the Donald, I've written a piece for Quartz on Trump's use of the in contexts like the African-Americans. You can say one thing for Trump. He's keeping the linguists busy.


  1. This is speculative and would take a lot of specialist checking, but I wonder if "lewd acts" (or similar) tend to be defined as inherently an offence (i. e., comparable to rape or sexual assault, in being an offence by one person against the person of another involved in the act), or contextually an offence (i. e., comparable to indecent exposure or public order languages offences, in that exposure of the body or use of particular language is an offence only sometimes, because of the place where or the company before which the act is performed).

    If something like the latter is (sometimes or commonly) true in the legal use of "lewd", then the various usages would be quite close in fact; in that the core element of a "lewd act" would be its actual or potential offensiveness to an actual or notional observer (including society at large, and regardless of the willingness of the parties to the act), just as the core element of a "lewd comment" would be its offensiveness to an actual or notional audience.

    The use of "lewd behaviour" or such as an alternative charge to prosecute suspected sexual offences in the absence of an ability to make out a stronger charge doesn't really prove the case either way. It could, in theory, be comparable to the use of statutory sexual offences (in which it is only necessary to prove that the sexual act took place) in cases where the actual behaviour might have been covered by a charge that is more serious but also more difficult to prove (because the absence of consent must be proven).

  2. Sorry to hijack the comments here, but there is no comments thread on your Quartz article. Since you brought it up first...

    I'm unconvinced about your assessment of Trumps use of 'the'. As a white, middle-class, right-leaning American, I would not have picked up on his use of "'the' African-Americans" as a dog-whistle. (In fact, I find it very interesting that 'dog-whistle' is used almost exclusively as a reference to conservative American speech, but that's for another comment thread, altogether.)

    Honestly, I think it could as easily be that Trump is just ignorant of the impact his 'the' has on the phrase. We wouldn't think twice about a politician saying,

    “I’m going to help the African-American. I’m going to help the
    Latino, the Hispanic-American. [Clinton has] done a terrible
    job for the African-American.”

    This would be a perfectly legitimate statement, indicating compassion with members of these groups on an individual level. No concerns there.

    Seems to me he may just have mistakenly combined the two forms into an unusual phrasing that stands out to those who know better and those who are sensitive to the use of language in reference to the people-group they affiliate themselves with.

    1. As Tom Lehrer sang

      Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics,
      And the Catholics hate the Protestants,
      And the Hindus hate the Moslems,
      And everybody hates the Jews.

      ... except for seven days a year in National Brotherhood Week.

    2. I am not persuaded that the use of a singular with the definite article is necessarily less characteristic of hostile othering and homogenizing than the use of the plural. Such phrasing seems fairly common, for example, in anti-semitic contexts, such as the articles from Ford's Dearborn Independent, twenty of which were collected in a volume titled The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem (Dearborn, Michigan : Dearborn Publishing Co. 1920).

    3. My mother successfully concealed her age when alive. I now calculate that that she was of the generation of women who didn't receive the vote at 21. She must have been too young to have been seriously involved with the suffragettes, and showed no apparent sympathy with latter-day feminists, but I'm pretty sure that withholding of the franchise motivated one of her favourite catchphrases: Up the women!

      Another catchphrase I remember from my youth (possibly on the Goon Show) was What about the workers? It was funny because it was uttered in inappropriate contexts. But in other contexts it could be a seriously-meant heckle — which, I feel, added to the humour.

      Back then and for many years after, people would say after complaining about the rain. At least it'll be good for the farmers.

    4. I think there's a kernel of truth in Lynne's objection to the. When used generically with reference to a category of people, it generally suggests
      • a minority group
      • difference

      However, I don't agree that different necessarily means 'different from me, the speaker' — although clearly it can imply that.

      If a worker shouts What about the workers? the the means rather 'different from you'. And the singer of Taxes on the Farmer Pays for All meant 'different from the smug politicians and townies'.

    5. Use of the + PLURAL tends to suggest (I believe) a minority group that's different. So what of the + SINGULAR?

      In many cases, I believe, it suggests 'as experienced by an individual on account of belonging to a minority'.

      For many years, politicians spoke of the man in the street or the man on the Clapham omnibus. Nowadays, we're more like to here of the single mother on benefits.

      Big Bill Broonzy grew up in segregation and poverty on the Arkansa and Mississippi sides of the Mississippi river. He became a stellar blues artist though his extraordinary musicianship and his extraordinary ability to connect with a segregated Black audience. The late in his career he unexpectedly acquired a substantial White, largely liberal, audience, and some genuine White liberal friends. A different audience, but he still knew how to connect:

      I helped win sweet victory
      With my plough and hoe
      Now I want you to tell me, brother
      What you gonna do about the old Jim Crow

      Less seriously, Hilaire Belloc wrote:

      Lord Finchley tried to mend the Electric Light
      Himself. It struck him dead: And serve him right!
      It is the business of the wealthy man
      To give employment to the artisan.

  3. The first principle of construction in English Law ("The Golden Rule") is that, unless otherwise specified, words carry their usual meaning, in this case "lustful" or similar (Chambers,1988) -- certainly appropriate to Trump's remarks. For an example of the word lewd in English law, see this parliamentary review (pdf, 89pp) of the common law offence of Outraging Public Decency.

    Trump's remarks reminded me of some shtick by (I think it was) comedian Peter Kay about an early sexual experience, where he related doing exactly what Trump suggests (grabbing pussy while snogging) and was rebuked with, "Oi! Tits first!". That was on national TV, not in a conversation thought to be private(?). On the other hand, no-one's suggesting Kay would make a good leader of the "free world".

    I can't find rapey in any legal sources; does it have a precise defintion?

    1. Since Tom Lehrer has already made an appearance, it doesn't seem too facetious a point (for a situation whose seriousness I wouldn't in any way want to diminish) to quote from his "Smut" -

      When correctly viewed
      Everything is lewd.

      Which would seem a potentially "diminutory" use of the word in the US.

      As far as law is concerned, you may be on to something, since the kind of words that appeared in the old-fashioned Sunday paper reports of such cases in the UK seemed to refer to "indecency", or with more recent laws either to "sexual assault" or if a catch-all term was needed, "offensive behaviour" or "likely to cause alarm and distress". Certainly to my ears, the very combination of the l and the vowel sound in "lewd" has something comically prurient about it (think Les Dawson's Cosmo Smallpiece), which makes it unsuitable for something as serious as the actual realities of this sort of situation (DT wasn't talking about dates going too far too quickly, but using the power of an entirely different context).

  4. Ah ... upon checking my facts (ahem!), I should say The Golden Rule is perhaps the second principle of construction and in any case is only(?) used in construing statute law (the ones passed by Parliament, not the ones based traditional judicial sources).

    "The grammatical and ordinary sense of the words is to be adhered to unless that would lead to some absurdity or some repugnance or inconsistency with the rest of the instrument in which case the grammatical and ordinary sense of the words may be modified so as to avoid the absurdity and inconsistency, but no farther."
    Lord Wensleydale in Grey v Pearson (1857)


  5. And I should probably have referred to The Literal Rule, anyway:

    “Where the meaning of the statutory words is plain and unambiguous it is not then for the judges to invent fancied ambiguities as an excuse for failing to give effect to it’s plain meaning because they consider the consequences for doing so would be inexpedient, or even unjust or immoral."
    Lord Diplock in Duport Steel v Sirs (1980).

    The point is, "lewd" means in law whatever it means in everyday parlance.

    Disclaimer: IANAL*

    *Anal without consent is rape in England and Wales since 2003. Before that, it was buggery, with or without consent.

    1. Ouch, did Lord Diplock really use an apostrophe incorrectly in a decision about correct use of language? ("it's plain meaning")

  6. My first exposure to "lewd", as far as I can remember, was Hugh Grant's 1995 arrest in Los Angeles for "lewd conduct" with a prostitute. That would support the notion that it's more common in AmE (I grew up in Britain).

    "Lewd" should be used more everywhere: it's a wonderful word.

  7. Markn

    Haha! I noticed that, too, after I'd posted. I suspect it was a slip by the essayist I linked to and cut-and-pasted from. Diplock will, of course, only have spoken the words, leaving the writing to his transcribers (transcriptors?). Ironically, I believe he was known for interpreting law in novel and sometimes controversial ways, something perhaps alluded to here by the words, "He made many contributions to legal thought and pushed the law in new and unique directions."


    It might just be used more in American laws.

    Don't forget that "lewd" was the final word in SimonX's limerick for the recent poetry competition in these pages.

  8. Collins COBUILD is a dictionary for learners of English, but I find it in some ways superior to more mainstream dictionaries for native speakers. For one thing, it's up-to-date and arranged according to relative frequency today. In the case of lewd, I see the merit of the way they give descriptions of use by way of definition:

    If you describe someone's behaviour as lewd, you are critical of it because it is sexual in a rude and unpleasant way. [disapproval] ⇒ Drew spends all day eyeing up the women and making lewd comments.

    What I like is about this is that it identifies lewd as a subjective word. In common use it's judgemental, not objective. Or maybe that's true only of British English. It's certainly true of my British English; I never use the word, and would only use it to reflect some third party judgement.

    As vp reminds me, I never (I think) heard the collocation lewd conduct before the Hugh Grant affair.

  9. Let me also praise Oxford Dictionaries Online (not to be confused with the Oxford English Dictionary online). The merit here is the rich list of examples:

    Crude and offensive in a sexual way:
    she began to gyrate to the music and sing a lewd song

    More example sentences
    Apart from other harassment, sexual assault and passing lewd remarks reign supreme.
    Twelve viewers complained that one of the performances included lewd and offensive gestures.
    When he drank too much he would become abusive, and could also be lewd and crude.
    Do your sexual encounters place you in danger of arrest for lewd conduct or public indecency?
    Any local band can apply to play a set on stage, but organisers are warning acts that obscene lyrics and lewd behaviour are out of the question.
    His dialogues border on the vulgar and the lewd and thanks to his ilk, we know why people look down upon the rustic.
    Some of the narrative is overtly sexual, with a flash of lewd for good measure.
    He's probably getting a big kick out of manipulating you with his lewd suggestions.
    All lewd and indecent shows should be stopped and places that harbor prostitution should be closed down.
    We do not endorse those who must resort to lewd suggestiveness in an attempt to create humor.
    She's accused of having lewd and lascivious conduct with one of her students.
    They send their minions to incite and encourage lewd behaviour in attempts to take their cash.
    The Management would like to apologize for the lewd and unsophisticated content of this post.
    As Gilman points out, in a short story this would be the moment where she'd realize that the idol of her dreams was in fact a lewd creep.
    If parents are not there to discipline their youngsters, then who are next in line to discourage lewd behaviour?
    Once the lewd photographs had been sent they were circulated among students and came to the attention of parents and fellow teachers.
    They endured lewd jokes, taunting and unwelcome physical contact.
    Each count involving lewd or lascivious acts carries potential prison time of three, six or eight years.
    It is now renowned for its booze cruises, clubs and lewd behaviour.

    In theory, there are separate entries for AmE and BrE. For lewd they are, unfortunately, identical.


    If my experience is typical, you'll need to make a new subscription to this thread.

    1. David--there's now a comments subscription widget in the right margin of the webpage. Will that work for you?

    2. Thanks Lynne. I managed to tweak my reader, and it's now obeying the widget.

    3. Great news. Thanks for all your commenting efforts (i.e. not just the comments but the research that goes into them)!

  11. I don't need to do this -- still see all comments and posts. I subscribe via RSS / Feedly.

  12. I would like to resile from my remark about Lord Diplock, above, as I cannot be sure I'm thinking of the right man.

    David Crosbie

    Fantastic array of examples! Thank you for pointing out the site. Are they, I wonder, from the wild, or made up to exemplify usage?

    You are surely right to suggest the word connotes disapprobation in all cases. Perhaps it could loosely be said to intend "of a sexual nature and of which the author of the word disapproves"? In a legal context that would often, if not always, be "of which the jury disapproves" or at least "of which the jury considers right-thinking members of the public would disapprove". (In any case, it would be for the tribunal of fact to determine something's lewdness, I'm pretty sure.)

    Certainly, I don't think I can see anything non-sexual or approved by the author being described as "lewd": it's hard to imagine someone saying, "The comic at the stag do told some really good lewd jokes", isn't it?


    Incidentally, is the word pronounced "lood" in Am, as opposed to "lyood" as in (most?) Br? (I think this difference was discussed in a recent post, wasn't it?)

    1. This is what they say:

      Oxford Dictionaries English offers access to a unique resource – a vast bank of more than 1.9 million example sentences (around 38 million words) of real English, extracted from the world’s newspapers and magazines, academic journals, fiction, and blogs.

      There are hundreds of thousands of English headwords and senses in Oxford Dictionaries, and almost every one of these words, senses, and phrases has been linked to a selection of up to 20 extra examples from the databank. If a word or phrase has more than one meaning, each individual sense is linked to its own set of example sentences.

      Please note: All the examples sentences throughout the site are real examples of usage. They are taken from a huge variety of different sources, from all parts of the world where English is used, and they reflect a wide spectrum of views and levels of language. Opinions and views expressed in the usage examples are the views of the individuals concerned and are not endorsed by Oxford University Press.

      Until recently, you could access all the dictionaries for free, but needed to be a subscriber (by patient or through a subscribing library) to see the extra examples. Now, I can access only English dictionaries (including extra examples) because Edinburgh Public Libraries doesn't subscribe to the other languages.


      (by patient or through a subscribing library)

      should read

      (by payment or through a subscribing library)

    3. For what it's worth, here in my middle northern part of America, I'd pronounce it lood, to rhyme with mood, with the long double OO of moon.

    4. I wonder how related yod-dropping is to the u-fronting that's present in my dialect. It's worth noting that I pronounce "lewd" and "mood" with the same "oo" vowel, but when I read "lood" I back the vowel in a way uncharacteristic of my dialect.

  13. @ Zouk Delors re: remark about Lord Diplock

    You were indeed probably thinking of another judge, I expect you meant Lord Denning.

    noted for his bold judgments running counter to the law at the time.

    And judgements are often printed and sent for correction before finalisation so what you see may be from that source or a law reporter.

    1. It was Lord Diplock. See the link in my post above of 12 October.

  14. I don't think the issue here is necessarily one of dialect -- I think it's more likely a reaction to the scalar implicature of "lewd". "Lewd" is certainly accurate, but like those Burkeman encountered, it does seem to diminish the seriousness of those quotes. It seems to me that this is because, pragmatically, calling such comments "lewd" implicates that they are no more than lewd, since if a stronger adjective apply (and I can think of several that do), one would use it.

  15. It may be that it's more a matter of focus -- Donald Trump has said any number of things that a great many people find abhorrent, however only some of them are lewd. A lot of things he says are interpreted as bigoted or racist, but there is nothing lewd about them, however this time he wasn't racist but he was incredibly lewd.

    I also wonder if it isn't so much that the meaning is different as it is that the weight attached to it is heavier in the US. Certainly his remarks could have also been described as off-color, but that seems to be too mild a phrase. You could also say anything from obnoxious to incendiary to hateful, but then you again lose focus because any of those words could refer to much of what he says. Lewd however describes a very specific type of behavior.

    Some of this may be a cultural difference also -- we do occasionally live up to our reputation of being a nation of Puritans in the US (for instance what I think are called page 3 girls photos just wouldn't exist here if I understand what they are correctly), so it's possible that lewd behavior of any kind ranks as more inexcusable here. Therefore by extension to describe something as lewd behavior may mean something a bit worse here than it does in Britain -- not so much a difference of definition as of connotation. (I realize I'm explaining this really badly, and am probably being clear as mud.)

  16. Michael Dolbear

    Yes, thank you, it was indeed Denning I was thinking of (in my deprecatory remark, David C, not the quote).

    Autolycus, re 'indecent' v 'sexual assault'

    "Indecent assault" was the name of an offence under the Sexual Offences Act, 1956, while the Sexual Offences Act, 2003, which replaced it created the (similar, but not identical) offence of "sexual assault", so newspaper reports are likely to use the same terminology -- something tending to confirm the hypothesis that the preponderance of the word "lewd" in the US is, indeed, connected with its more frequent use in legislation there.

    I wonder if the change is connected with a shift in the meaning of "sex" from a reference primarily to the (potentially) procreative act to anything relating to the biological urges and sensations which drive humans (and other animals) to its performance?

    Talking of "performing acts", newspapers sometimes now report that "X was forced to perform a sex act" and while that undoubtedly refers to a most vile and disgusting crime, when reading those words I can never help imagining some unfortunate victim performing, say, the dance of the seven veils at gunpoint.

  17. As an American who has been following the election fairly closely, I planned to comment that I couldn't recall a single TV commentator or newspaper or blog article that in reference to Trump, describing either his language or his behavior, has used the word lewd.

    But I decided to check my impression by visiting the New York Times website to see if lewd shows up in the paper's early articles about Trump's recorded comments and, sure enough, I found the page where the video itself appears -- and it's entitled "Donald Trump’s Lewd Comments About Women".

    So there you have it. You may think you never encountered a particular word (I was leaning more toward abhorrent as a typical journalistic description), but that doesn't mean your self-assessment is right.

    BTW: I'd like to express my agreement with Lynne's take on why Trump uses the definite article when discussing minorities like African-Americans or Latinos. It also occurred to me there's another odd use of the definite article -- one I use occasionally in ironic terms: the wife. I can't be sure who exactly used to use this locution unironically, but it has a '50s or '60s working-class feel that would surface in an exchange like this one:

    Working-Class Joe A: "You want to help me change my brake pads this weekend?"
    Working-Class Joe B: "I'd like to, but my mother-in-law's visiting. I'll have to ask the wife."

    1. My grandfather had a record of a song which seemed to dater from the aftermath of the First World War. One chorus ended

      When he got home to blighty
      What did he tell the wife?

      Blighty was an expression in the British Army at war meaning 'back home away from the fighting'. It was also an adjective; a blighty wound was one which caused you to be evacuated to Britain.

  18. Dick Hartzell

    Yes, but it would also be the mother-in-law, wouldn't it? You also get "the boy" (= "my son") as in, say, the (1981ish) song Shipbuilding: "The boy said, 'Dad, they're going to take me to task, but I'll be back by Christmas'", as well as "the daughter" (not "the girl"). And "the old girl" -- rather disrespectfully -- for "my mother".

  19. Of course Shipbuilding also uses "the wife" at the beginning (and "the boy"): "Is it worth it? / A new winter coat and shoes for the wife / And a bicycle on the boy's birthday". Unusually (with other notable exceptions) for British popular music, usually replete with faux-Am wails of "lurve" etc, this powerfully poignant song of the dilemma of war (here the Falklands adventure) is intoned with an authentic Br accent and turn of phrase. More parochial American listeners may need subtitles.

    I wonder if the expression "get filled in" (beaten up) is used in Am?

  20. I'm in the US. I don't know anything about law, but my definition of lewd conduct is merely sexually suggestive rather than attempting to initiate anything. This would include talking about sexual topics and "indecent exposure" in a setting where these are inappropriate. I would not describe Trump's taped actions on the bus as lewd conduct because they were not inappropriate in the setting in which they were made. I would maybe describe them as "lewd language" which, to me, is not limited to inappropriate settings. On the other hand, the actions he was describing are beyond lewd conduct, as they involve assault or attempted assault, not any type of suggestive act.

  21. I'm in the US. I don't know anything about law, but my definition of lewd conduct is merely sexually suggestive rather than attempting to initiate anything. This would include talking about sexual topics and "indecent exposure" in a setting where these are inappropriate. I would not describe Trump's taped actions on the bus as lewd conduct because they were not inappropriate in the setting in which they were made. I would maybe describe them as "lewd language" which, to me, is not limited to inappropriate settings. On the other hand, the actions he was describing are beyond lewd conduct, as they involve assault or attempted assault, not any type of suggestive act.

  22. I'm in the US. I don't know anything about law, but my definition of lewd conduct is merely sexually suggestive rather than attempting to initiate anything. This would include talking about sexual topics and "indecent exposure" in a setting where these are inappropriate. I would not describe Trump's taped actions on the bus as lewd conduct because they were not inappropriate in the setting in which they were made. I would maybe describe them as "lewd language" which, to me, is not limited to inappropriate settings. On the other hand, the actions he was describing are beyond lewd conduct, as they involve assault or attempted assault, not any type of suggestive act.

  23. Canadian with British parents and two born-in-England brothers here. Common in our home were admonishments about the telling of"lewd jokes."

  24. "Tits first" was said by Pauline Calf I think http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=W8pZkvoZM3E
    Lewd certainly has comic connotations in U.K. - many of the posts have cited comedians.

  25. Thanks,GFM. "Tits first!" went down well with the girls in the audience didn't it? I didn't recognize "her", but maybe that's poor memory, unless another comic lifted it.

  26. This report in British broadsheet The Independent, from April 1988, of British popstar George Michael's arrest in Hollywood, has the headline:

    George Michael arrested over 'lewd act' [Independent's quote marks],

    perhaps suggesting those are words used by the US authorities and not necessarily how the British journalists would describe it?

    It doesn't say what the lewd act was, but Michael was allegedly performing it alone when the undercover agent entered the puhlic lavatory where he was doing it. Dance of the seven veils, maybe?

    1. British headline quote marks are a minefield for interpretation. They're very often used to stave off libel cases--i.e. "We didn't say it was lewd, they did!"

    2. I suspect that in this case they were covering both flanks:— 'He was alleged to have committed a lewd act, whatever that might mean'.

  27. Lynne

    Yes, I read a comment on one of the language blogs recently about quote marks in headlines, from someone who seemed to be in the know, saying that they don't necessarily represent actual words spoken, but a short equivalent while distancing the publication from the view expressed (to avoid defamation claims against them, as you say). I don't think that would be it in this case, however; despite the showbiz saw, "no publicity is bad publicity", it seems unlikely Michael would have wanted to provoke even more coverage of the incident.

    Btw, thanks for the yod-dropping link. That was written before I started following your blog, and was most informative. I noticed one comment by you, btw, that mentioned prescriptive types "frowning upon" some usage -- but that, of course, was also before you understood a frown to involve the brow! So I'm wondering if you were imagining a ":-( " expression when you used the idiom?

    Regarding use of "rapey" in law, perhaps in the future?


    "Members of the jury, the defendant is charged with rapey behaviour, contrary to The Sexy Offences Act, 2062. You have heard the witnesses and will have formed a view of what actually happened. You may feel there is no doubt that the accused is -- to use an old-fashioned word -- something of a "creep", but you must decide whether, in this instance, their behaviour amounted to actual rapiness. It is not for me, as the tribunal of law, to tell you what is or is not rapey behaviour, but for you, as the tribunal of fact, to decide. "Rapey" means in law exactly what it means to the ordinary citizen today. If you are not convinced, beyond a reasonable doubt, that they acted rapily, you must click 'Not Guilty'".

  28. Sorry, bad link.

  29. Aw shucks my teecher always looks so sad when i dont put in enough commas

  30. I think probably the truth is, that we seldom think about the literal meaning of idioms, however vivid they may have been when freshly coined.

  31. Boris Zacharin

    When you say what Trump bragged about would be an "assault", presumably you mean "a crime of assault"? But in fact (here in the UK, at least) it would only be a sexual assault (a very serious one, punishable by at least 12 months' imprisonment) in the absence of (at least a reasonable belief of) consent, while Trump's use of "can" seems to imply "without dissent". Whether, in the case of complaint to the Law, a (presumed?) defence of "no-one's ever complained before" would stand up is another question, and one for a hypothetical jury in these hypothetical proceedings.Even the kissing could be a (minor) sexual assault in the absence of consent.

    As far as I know, there is no crime (here, at least) of "attempted assault". E.g., if you try to punch someone and miss, that's still an assault (unless, say, it was in self-defence). If you tried, and failed to "grab pussy", that could still be a sexual assault, but not as serious as if "successful".

  32. I think there is something in this.
    To this middle-aged Englishman, 'lewd' is a close synonym of 'smutty'.
    If 'lewd behaviour' were illegal in Britain then Benny Hill would have spent much his life in prison rather than on our TV screens.
    It seems to mean something different in America.

  33. I'll say again that I think it's more a matter of degree (and I may be totally wrong in this, because it's based on how I'd use language and that may be different from everyone around me). To me lewd is a bit worse than smutty, it carries a bit of connotation of something a bit not quite on the up and up, as opposed to just sexual. This is really hard to explain, but I'd describe "Fifty Shades of Grey" as smutty, but not lewd, or ordinary pornography as smutty, but child pornography, which is a whole 'nother level of abhorrent, as lewd. There's something off-putting about lewd, that there isn't in ordinary smut.

    That may be it, lewd is associated with comedy more in Britain than it is in America, and so the word sounds out of place when it comes to Donald Trump's behavior in British English.

    As for a use in a news story, I can't link you because I found it on my phone and I don't know how to transfer that over to the computer, but the Washington Post wrote a headline that says "Trump recorded having extremely lewd conversation about women in 2005" on October 8th in their original report breaking the news story about him being caught on the "Access Hollywood" tape. For what it's worth, the CNN reporting is saying sexual assault a great deal in relation to this.

  34. Trump has been condemned for two things

    1. What he said and the way he said it.

    2. What — according to his boast — he did.

    To my ears, lewd is a possible description of [1]. Other choice might be salacious or lascivious.

    But to describe [2] as lewd does sound odd.

    I suggest that those who find lewd too tame a word are making something like the same distinction.

    Trump's defence seems to be that [1] happened but [2] was a fiction. This implies that lewd (or salacious or lascivious) is an accusation that he accepts.

  35. Dark Star

    Explaining the difference between smutty and lewd using the idiom "on the up and up" may not be helpful to Brits: I had to look it up and I'm still not quite sure what you mean. I think the choice depends on how you feel about the material: humour is "smutty" if it makes you laugh, "lewd" if it makes you frown (disapproving, not sad, brow-deniers!).

    Looking at the origin of the words is interesting: smut from "soot" with that odd (uniquely Anglo-Saxon?) equation between dirt and sex, lewd from "vulgar, of the common people". Perhaps also, there is a difference in register, with "lewd" belonging more to the "formal" language of the (law-making) upper classes?

    1. "On the up and up" -- Honest.

      "Not on the up and up" -- not quite honest.

      For connotation think of it not so much as openly criminal behavior in the sense of organized crime, but more at the level of the slightly smarmy behavior you associate with used car salesmen or conmen.

      If you ever saw "The Sting" with Redford and Newman, the way they ran the wire so that they were getting the race results just slightly ahead of time so they knew where to place the bets and cheat the system is something you could describe as a bookie joint that wasn't on the up and up. (If you haven't seen The Sting, this will make no sense at all, but it's an old enough movie I'm taking a chance on it. Also, if you haven't seen it, it's really good.)

  36. Checking through that last comment of mine has reminded me that "look up" is now current amongst the young in (parts of?) the UK as a term for "ogle, eye up". E.g., "That old perv hangs about, looking up the girls" -- an activity I saw somewhere given (differently phrased) as an example of lewd behaviour, btw. Of course, we SBACL commenters only ever look up words!

    1. Like the gynaecologist who excused himself from a lunch party on the grounds that he had to go and look up a friend..... (I'll get me coat!).

  37. Mrs Redboots

    And your sign off immediately calls to mind the favoured chat-up line of Sid the Sexist from Viz (wasn't it?): "Get yez coat, pet, yev pulled!".

    1. Probably, but I was thinking more of The Fast Show, whence the catchphrase came....

    2. Long before them, Ken Platt was starting each turn:

      I won't take me coat off, I'm not stoping.

      I have a vague memory of someone else with a string of comments including I'll get me coat against a vamping piano at the end of his act.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. I've identified the memory. It was the very end of the Billy Cotton Band Show on the radio. As the signature tune Somebody Stole My Gal morphed into a vamp, Bill spoke as one about to put his coat on. However, what I'd forgotten is that he asked for his coat, his hat, his scarf.

    5. "I won't take me coat off, I'm not stopping."
      I thought that was Al Read. Perhaps it was both of them.

    6. My first thought was of Al Read, but all googles lead to Ken Platt and none to Al Read. I think it's because Ken's voice sounded like one of Al's voices.

  38. ... the (lewd? smutty?) humour of which lies in the absurdity of the notion that one could successfully so short-circuit societal courtship norms. In that regard though, Donald easily Trumps Sid!

  39. Lynne alluded to this in the original post on this topic -- "lewd" is a technical legal term in most US jurisdictions. Like "burglary", "robbery", "assault", etc., it has a specific legal meaning which may only partially overlap its use in common, non-legalese, language, even in the US. This Legal Dictionary site defines "lewd acts" as "unlawful behaviors that are sexual in nature, performed with the intention of sexually arousing either the perpetrator or the person to whom the conduct is directed," and gives a number of examples. In the George Michael case, he was charged with committing a "lewd act". Whether an ordinary inhabitant of the US who is not a lawyer would describe it as "lewd" is a separate question.

  40. David Crosbie

    "The man on the Clapham omnibus"

    Yes, the classic legal phrase for a hypothetical ordinary and reasonable person, still used, it seems, despite the fact that no-one's used omnibus (for "bus" - or, earlier, "'bus") even in our lifetimes probably(?).

    The Wikipedia page -- at History -- quotes a review of it and similar from Healthcare at Home Limited v. The Common Services Agency [2014] UKSC 49, paragraphs 1 to 4, which is interesting (if you're interested in that sort of thing).

    Mrs Redboots

    Ah, ok, thanks. I've heard it before as a catchphrase but didn't know the source. I never watched telly in the period when the Fast Show was on but I've seen clips, and I'm a great fan of Higson and Whitehouse's parody radio phone-in show, Down the Line.


    Yes, I saw that when looking for UK legal usage. I think you are probably right to say the laity don't use it (exactly) like that. They may well have formed their vaguer notion of what the word means, though, from reading press reports of cases where it arose in its strict technical sense. I couldn't find any similar definition (as might have been set by dictum in precedent) applying in UK jurisdictions. That's not to say there definitely isn't one: you'd have to ask a barrister, really. There is, however, a remark (condemning it as too narrowly concentrating on sexual [as opposed to other forms of] indecency) in para (2) on p60 of the Parliamentary review of Outraging Public Decency I linked in my first comment.

  41. Just remembered: I heard Nish Kumar, on BBC R4e's Newsjack (an open-contribution topical news satire) last Thu 13 Oct, referring to this affair -- and pronouncing lewd yodlessly! Is this evidence that this (perhaps) rather old-fashioned (here) word may be about to be brought back into vogue, US-stylee?

  42. Dark Star

    Yes, thanks, I had discovered the meaning of on the up and up as honest, but don't really see how that relates to lewdness v smut. Admittedly, though, I've heard the expression "honest filth".

    Also, I wouldn't necessarily have associated smarm with lewdness or criminality, just disingenuous ingratiation (as often shown by salesmen and politicians). However, I see (Am?) internet sources give a secondary meaning with sexual connotations. Perhaps that's because smarm is a creepy way of targeting the inside of soneone's pants?

    Yes, I've seen that brilliant film, The Sting (a long time ago), but surely the (Am) bookie joint/(Br) bookie's was the victim of the dishonest protagonists, no?

    PS I wonder if Trump's new demand for drug-testing is to try and prove Clinton "inhales" or that his constant sniffing is not down to coke? Or neither, of course.

    1. I think I'd relate smarminess to just the feeling that sort of makes you go "Eww!" whether it's because of feeling someone is a bit of a dirty old man hitting on you, or just a bit of a cheat, as with the salesmen and politicians. I've never heard of the phrase "honest filth" but I like it, and it does seem to sum it up well.

      In The Sting the bookie joint was set up purposely to get the money from the crime boss whose runner had accidentally been scammed at the very beginning. There is layer upon layer of con set up in that film and I think I had to watch it about three times before I actually caught all the intricacies of what had gone on. It really is brilliant.

    2. "Eww" would be an interesting subject in itself. I associate it with little girls (originally American ones) being disgusted and cute at the same time.

    3. "Eww!"

      Interesting. I'd never seen this "word" before, and the only reference I find is in the Urban Dictionary suggesting it is recent and current mostly amongst millenials. I take it to be a representation of a non-verbal vocalisation expressing disgust -- often represented in the past by Yuk!, or Ugh! or even eugh! -- but perhaps in a conscious (rather than instinctual), exaggerated form, expressive of moral -- rather than biological -- disgust. As noted in its wikipedia entry, disgust is an emotion common to all human cultures, as is the facial expression associated with it. However, the triggers for the emotion can be divided into a universal reaction to such biologically-determined stimuli as the sight or smell of faeces and culturally-conditioned responses to morally repugnant events. For example, older members of our communities may experience disgust at the sight of two men kissing erotically, while younger people born into a society accepting of homosexuality may not (my example, though there is some discussion on the internet regarding whether a 2010 Miss California contestant showed a micro-expression of disgust when quizzed about same-sex marriage). I couldn't find anything about vocalisations expressing disgust, but maybe the sound, like the facial expression, is also universal?

      Disgust at unwelcome sexual advances may fall into the category of moral disgust, but Wikipedia also notes (under "Gender Differences") that, "Women generally report greater disgust than men*, especially regarding sexual disgust or turn-offs which have been argued to be consistent with women being more selective regarding sex for evolutionary reasons".

      *Take note, Little Black Sambo

    4. PS Yes, Dark Star, I must get hold of a copy of The Sting and watch it again!

  43. Trump was described as a 'lecherous sociopath' in the Sunday Times this weekend, in an article that commented on the prevalence of 'locker-room talk' among both men and women in single-sex groups, acknowledging that many remarks are based on fantasy. (It's all talk, no action) However it now appears there was some action too.

    President Nixon was notoriously foul-mouthed but this was not discovered until the Watergate tapes were released. It is undeniable that using this kind of language anywhere near a microphone is not what we expect of an international statesman.

    1. Part of the problem is that from the original tape, it's really hard to tell if Trump was implying he had done this in the past, or just that he could do this.

  44. Biochemist

    "anywhere near a microphone"

    You're never far from a microphone these days if you carry a switched-on mobile phone. Those with the will and the technical and intelligence resources can turn it on and listen in as they wish.

    Also, Trump wasn't an "international statesman" when he was bugged, was he?

    While I'm not surprised there was outrage over Trump's remarks, there should have been more condemnation of the release of unauthorized recordings, imo, and especially more focus on the policies the US Govt is likely to pursue under whichever new president.

    Incidentally, the English offence of Outraging Public Decency I mentioned above specifically precludes simply overhearing public accounts of lewd behaviour and of course has no relevance to individuals' private behaviour or speech at all.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. While I'm not surprised there was outrage over Trump's remarks, there should have been more condemnation of the release of unauthorized recordings, imo, and especially more focus on the policies the US Govt is likely to pursue under whichever new president.

      Not sure Lynne wants us to get too sidetracked, but Trump was appearing on a TV show, had been fitted with a microphone, and was talking to the host of the show (whom he had never met before). He had no expectation of privacy. It's not as though someone bugged his bedroom, tapped his phone, or, indeed, hacked his emails.

  45. AmE, late 20s: I don't think I use "lewd" in conversation (it sounds a bit too formal or old fashioned to use when chatting with friends or colleagues) but instead heavily associate it with "lewd and lascivious behavior." Vaguely legal sounding, which may be why journalists are choosing it to refer to a political candidate - it sounds like a formal label instead of a subjective judgement.

  46. Biochemist

    The Washington Post link at the top of this post says: "... They were arriving on the set of “Days of Our Lives” to tape a segment about Trump’s cameo on the soap opera...": he was on his way to make a recording (as is clear from the clip). It's not clear, however, whether he was miked up ready (unlikely?), but we know Bush was, as he hands Trump the mike at the end of the clip, thereby perhaps first tipping Trump off that a recording could have been made. I don't think anyone's trying to suggest Trump had any reasonable expectation his remarks would be recorded, let alone publicised or that he ever would have authorized their recording or publication. You haven't got to be in your bedroom to be entitled to an expectation of privacy of discourse.

    The point is, that Lynne's idea that use of the word "lewd" is related to legal usage, with the attendant innuendo of sex crime by Trump, seems to be borne out, while in fact he is actually the victim of what may be (don't know in America) an unlawful intrusion on his privacy.

  47. This comment has been removed by the author.

  48. Sorry, my last comment ("The Washington Post ..." etc.) was in reply to Vp ("Not sure Lynne wants us to get too sidetracked..."), not Biochemist. Sorry, also, that technical limitations of Blogger on my android device don't allow me to post using "Reply".

  49. Is this lewd, or just smutty?


  50. I've taken the decision to delete comments that are not relevant to the linguistic topics on hand. Though it will be hard to escape the fact that I, the blog author, do come to these topics with political opinions, this is a place for discussion of language, not of the merits of candidates.

  51. From worse to more polite

    Lewd = vulgar = obscene = disgusting = indecent = unmannerly.

    Assault = overtake = force upon = without restraint = controlling = unmannerly

    Either way one can narrow a lewd act or an assault to its lowest denominator which is .... unmannerly.

    He acted unmannerly.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)