I remember the first time I actively, unambiguously tongued the anus of a man. It was June 1994 in the Yankee Doodle Motel in Shelburne, Vermont. My boyfriend, a muscly manly man, hot from the shower and dewy with steam, flopped on the bed. The skin over his ass was plump and invitingly pink-white; I had to put my mouth on it. My tongue, flat as a trowel, cleaved to his asshole. In the parlance of the time, I "rimmed" him, and he liked it.
Rim is a word that feels right for the pleasure at hand, or at mouth, as it were. Anus, after all, is Latin for "ring," a word Romans gleaned from proto-Indo-European sources. Balloon knot, bunghole, starfish, back door—we like to use metaphor when we talk about our assholes; anus was merely the first. Rim falls into that pattern, conjuring a tongue flitting over the lip of a goblet.
In the past few years, butt stuff in specific and ass licking in general have been gaining traction. Nicki Minaj's " Anaconda" has the rapper bragging that "He toss my salad like his name Romaine," and anilingus has been seeping into the larger world of hip-hop, where it has elicited a range of reactions. Last year, Maureen O'Connor wrote in New York that "Butt stuff is such a thing." Butt motor-boating was featured in the season 4 opener of HBO's Girls to much hype; and it's even hitting mainstream magazines in his and hers how-to listicles, ready to consume on your elliptical.
These days the term of art is tossed salad. This is a metaphor that, however charming, I find inexplicable. It lacks the weight of logic I can sense in anilingus terms as disparate as Australian (you are going down under, after all), rosie (after "rosebud"), lickety-split (self-explanatory), and tell a French joke (ditto). I can even understand visit the Wookiee, given both my history of dating the odd hirsute man and my predilection for Chewbacca. Salad tossing, by contrast, just feels weird. To lick an ass is so visceral, so intimate, and so unabashedly erotic that to liken it to the methodical preparation of cool greens doesn't sit right—but then we English speakers have had a very difficult time talking about naming this act.
You could almost say that we have a hard time wrapping our English tongue around ass licking, and poop is one reason why. Amy Schumer brilliantly exploded our willfully myopic view of eroticizing asses in her satirical video, "Milk, Milk, Lemonade." Accompanied by latex-covered rump shaking, the twerking beauty of Amber Rose, and the mesmerizing beat of talented booty tooshing, Amy's lyrics smack you upside the head: "Turd cutter / Loaf pincher / Dookie maker / Fudge machine." This song isn't about to let you forget—as salad tossing might—that the ass "is where your poo comes out."
Even anilingus, the oldest and most august-sounding English word for ass-easting, is only as old as Coca-Cola. We inherited cunnilingus and fellatio from the Romans, but there was no word for the act of recreationally licking another human's anus before 1886, when Richard von Krafft-Ebing coined anilingus in his book Psychopathia Sexualis.
Of course, this doesn't mean people didn't do it, nor does it mean they didn't talk about it. It only means they didn't print it. I'm willing to guess that as long as humans have had tongues and assholes, we have been touching the former to the latter in the pursuit of pleasure. Oscar Wilde and his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, coined "the love that dare not speak its name," and while it might have long referred to homosexuality, it might be a more apt description for ass licking.
English slang has had words for fellatio and cunnilingus—larking applied to both, according to the website of slang lexicographer Jonathon Green—since the mid 18th century. However, euphemisms for eating ass came late to the orgy, only showing up in 1941 with eat jam, eat poundcake, and clean up the kitchen, all gay slang. During this same period, Green uncovered almost 90 terms for fellatio and cunnilingus, but only 21 for anilingus (other sources suggest a number in the mid 50s, but that's still slim pickings). Most of the slang for anilingus came into being around the 70s, followed by a second wave in the 2000s. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but a roseleafing (which Green says appeared in September 1999) waited in the wings for generations before entering the annals of human history.
The French, unlike the English, have written about anilingus ardently, enthusiastically, and unashamedly for centuries. The most popular term was " faire feuille de rose," or "to do rose leaf," and it shows up everywhere. It's in plays, it's in poems, it's in novels; it's likely the name of an 18th-century French breakfast cereal. Where does it not show up? England. And this is exceedingly strange because in the 18th and 19th centuries, if you could read English, it's very likely that you also read French, and even if you didn't read French, bawdy French works were everywhere in translation.
Still, references to ass eating are few and far between in English literature—neither the premier British pornographic work Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (John Cleland, 1748) nor the infamous Restoration poems by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, mention it. You can find sly references in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and that's about it—at least until Teleny, a deeply pornographic work possibly written by Oscar Wilde, brought "feuille de rose" out to play in 1896. It's almost as if the English were willfully blind when it came to tonguing the brown eye. The English Channel is only 20.6 miles wide at the Strait of Dover, and yet it's a bridge too far. If France is the anus, the English Channel is the taint, and a sturdy one indeed.
Let us return, then, to salad tossing. It came to us, as many excellent things have, from San Francisco gay culture. Jesse Sheidlower, a lexicographer and author of The F-Word, a book about the word fuck, told me in an email that salad tossing has murky origins but its first known use in print appears in an early 1970s gay-slang glossary. I imagine a bunch of glittery, bearded Cockette-style gay dudes standing around a drum circle, birthing a term to encapsulate the act's pleasure while retaining its delicacy. To toss a salad is not an end in itself; it's a preliminary step before a meal, just as anilingus is so often the precursor to the main sexual event.
So why did this linguistic hole where anilingus should have been inserted persist for so long? Were I to hazard a guess, I'd say first that we as a people folded the act into cunnilingus; second, that we can't quite cruise past the hygiene factor; and third, when the licker is female and the lickee is male, it codes the recipient gay. "Butt lickers" are at best toadying sycophants; at worst, they're homosexuals—and evolving marriage laws aside, we are nothing if not a repressed, homophobic people.
We might look at the recent media attention and hope for widening acceptance of anilingus, but I wouldn't hold your breath. Anilingus may no longer be taboo—it clearly has entered our cultural discourse—but I'd guess that we English speakers are a few decades and many baby wipes away from taking a roseleaf from France's book.
Chelsea G. Summers writes for Adult Magazine and many other publications. Follow her on Twitter.