I’ve been reading several Umberto Eco books lately. Though it might be odd that a person who majored in literature prefers nonfiction, it is indeed true. Thus, when I say I’ve been reading Eco, I mean selections from Kant and the Platypus and Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language. However, my excellent girlfriend felt it her duty to suggest that I read one of his lighter essays from How to Travel with a Salmon entitled “How to Recognize a Porn Movie” — imagine my surprise to find that my concerns in an earlier post were an echo of Eco.

Eco contrasts a movie “with erotic content” from a “genuine pornoflick” by first offering the traditional definition, a movie “whose true and sole aim is to stimulate the spectator’s desire,” noting that any accessories like story count for less than nothing. The juridical test for pornography, “no redeeming social value,” caused early mass distribution porno films to at least have some story so as to avoid the charge of pornography (my observation, not Eco’s). I was thrilled by the way Eco expands the definition of pornography by inverting it.

The traditional test for pornography is to judge “if it has been produced for the purpose of expressing certain concepts or esthetic ideals.” Thus, if a film makes no sense then it is pornographic—that is the way that I would characterize Eco’s response to this definition, and my own earlier assertion that pornography thrives as a result of its avoidance of meaning. Eco makes a profound leap to suggest that the best criterion for evaluating pornographic content is to calculate the amount of wasted time surrounding the production of whatever meaning the film is meant to convey.

In sex films that by definition have the calculated purpose of arousing desire there is almost no wasted time— therefore, they are not really pornographic. However, in conventional films there is nearly always a circuitous path before the meaning is revealed. The reason for this is that continuously being emotionally moved would be intolerable to the spectator and the actors involved. However, if too much time occurs between the moments of meaning then the spectator is also irritated. Therefore, Eco’s test for pornography is quite simple:

Go to a movie theater. If, to go from A to B, the characters take longer than you would like, then the film you are seeing is pornographic.

Of course, this also made me want to look at the history of the word pornography.

Looking at the OED, pornography seems to have surfaced in the mid nineteenth century, and its origin is of course French. The first reference is from 1857.


2. a. Description of the life, manners, etc., of prostitutes and their patrons; hence, the expression or suggestion of obscene or unchaste subjects in literature or art; pornographic literature or art.

Naturally, the reference here to obscenity makes the definition troubling and circular. However, the root makes the application to sexual movies apt—I mean, these people are indeed having sex for money. However, I was sidetracked and fascinated to find that the word was nearly simultaneously applied to Roman society in a variant form, amazingly now lost to us. One might indeed think (in marketing terms, at least) of the Internet as a pornocracy. This word appears to have had a short life.


Dominating influence of harlots or prostitutes: spec. the government of Rome during the first half of the tenth century.

1860 A. EDERSHEIM tr. Kurtz’s Ch. Hist. II. 126. 379 For half a century Theodora..and her equally infamous daughters,..filled the See of Peter with their paramours, their sons, and grandsons,..(the so-called Pornocracy). 1874 DEUTSCH Remains 245. 1882-3 Schaff’s Encycl. Relig. Knowl. I. 484 A century of shameless intrigue and fighting the period of the Pornocracy.

So pornocrat, a member of a pornocracy.

1894 Contemp. Rev. Aug. 286 The most licentious and shameless of the Pornocrats.

I’m easily amused. I would think that governmental officials (if you use Eco’s definition of pornography as a waste of time) might often be classified as pornocrats— in fact, this might be a tautology by definition.

I can’t resist a few further further observations. Given the propensity for us to add the affix “tastic” to nearly anything these days— how about pornerastic?

Addicted to harlotry; whoremongering.

1870 F. HARRISON Choice Bks. (1886) 151 We hear nothing of..those pornerastic habits in high places,..which are too often thrust before our eyes in fiction.

And there was an interesting logophile Freudian misstep:


(in Cent. Dict. and Funk’s Standard Dict.), a spurious word, due to a misreading or misprint of primal.

And I do feel the need to note that according to the OED, porny is an acceptable adjective, though I also must confess that before I looked at the definition, I thought it was a noun akin to “carny”


Of, pertaining to, or characteristic of pornography; pornographic

1961 S. PRICE Just for Record viii. 65 He had a real porny article… Not just dirty, mind you, but Art. 1967 [see KINKY a. B]. 1973 J. WILSON Truth or Dare i. 12 You make it sound like one of those porny books ‘His hand caressed her silken knee’ and all that rubbish. 1974 Daily Tel. 18 Oct. 16 A reduction in repeats, inane quizzes and cheap porny [television] programmes could do nothing but good. 1977 L. MEYNELL Hooky gets Wooden Spoon xiii. 157 Once he starts looking at those porny photos of his he can’t think of anything else.

1 thought on “Porny”


    Over at this Public Address there’s an entry investigating the history of words beginning “porno-,” in the course of which the following nugget is unearthed from the OED:[pornial (in Cent. Dict. and Funk’s Standard Dict.), a spurious word, due to…

Comments are closed.