Thursday, 30 April 2009

Promiscuous Problems and the 20th Century

The year 1913 seems to have had a strange effect on educational language, and as yet, I haven't figured out exactly what happened.

A few days ago, Dave Renfro, an internet associate who does more research into journals than anyone I have ever heard of, sent me a note that had an aside that said, "Also, ...,I've seen the terms "promiscuous exercises" and "promiscuous problems".

I did a little follow-up and found literally dozens of books that use the phrase "promiscuous problems". My Google Book search on the exact phrase produced 71 books and journals, mostly referring to mathematics, but not exclusively. In glancing at the dates, I noticed that almost all were before 1900. So I set the same search with a cut-off of before 1900. The result?... There were still 25, but only five of them were after 1910. Of these five, one was about sexual disorders of bulimic patients and had nothing to do with problem sets of the educational sort, one was a catalogue of antiquarian objects and was referencing a phrase in an older object, two were reproductions of very old texts. That leaves the one final object after 1910 that referred to Promiscuous exercises in regard to problem sets, with a date of 1913. For some reason, the usage to describe a set of problems or exercises seems to have disappeared after that date almost completely.

So what do they mean, "promiscuous" problems. One of the definitions leads back to the old Latin root. Here is the way they gave the etymology in the Online Etymology Dictionary:

"consisting of a disorderly mixture of people or things," from L. promiscuus "mixed, indiscriminate," from pro- "forward" + miscere "to mix" (see mix). Meaning "indiscriminate in sexual relations" first recorded 1900, from promiscuity (1849, "indiscriminate mixture;" sexual sense 1865), from Fr. promiscuité, from L. promiscuus.

So the term was essentially used for a general mixture, thus promiscuous exercises were a mixed review; but then in 1900 the phrase became associated with "indiscriminate in sexual relations" and apparently that usage became so common, that the use of promiscuous exercises was no longer classroom acceptable.

Makes me think of a story that John H Conway, told (I believe) about the word hexagon. If you search the word "sexagon" you will see that it was very common in old math texts, then during the Victorian era, it became too suggestive for classroom use, and so hexagon, which also has a long history of use, became the preferred term.
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