Sexed Up


By Jan Freeman, Globe Staff

DID THE BRITISH government “sex up” its assessment of Iraq’s arsenal to buttress the case for war? That’s the crucial question behind the official inquiry into the suicide of David Kelly, the bioweapons expert who allegedly made the accusation last May to BBC defense correspondent Andrew Gilligan.

Meanwhile, sexed up deserves investigation as well: Its sudden notoriety has led to some misapprehensions about its character. It’s not, as some American papers have said, a British expression; in fact, it’s more frequent in US publications.

Nor is it new: In the 1970s, mainstream US publications were using the adjectival sexed-up in nonsexual contexts. And though Newsday recently called sexed up “salacious,” and Glasgow’s Herald branded it “vulgar,” the term is neither – though what it’s describing may well be both.

Before sex up, of course, there was sexy – though not long before: Sexy is a surprisingly recent term. And in one of the curiouser twists of lexicography, the first known citation of sexy, from 1925, appears in a French journal. The writer describes Joyce’s “Ulysses” as “sexy,” explaining that he uses the English word because – quelle horreur! – there is no French equivalent.

Sexy stayed sexy for a while, referring to sexual content or attraction, but by the ’60s its figurative uses were familiar. One slang dictionary mentions Air Force fliers applying sexy to exciting new aircraft; another notes that the media called anything that drew an audience sexy. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation of the figurative sense comes from the Wall Street Journal, which admitted in 1970 that “Corn and soybeans may not sound as sexy as electronics or aerospace.”

Sex up, meanwhile, had debuted in the 1940s, at first meaning literally to add carnal appeal to a movie or character. But like sexy, it easily slithered into metaphorical use. In 1977, a Washington Post story deplored organist Virgil Fox’s “sexed-up Bach”; in ’78, in Business Week, a critic called one management system “just a jazzed-up, sexed-up thing.”

In the early ’90s, Color Me Badd’s hit “I Wanna Sex You Up” brought the slang into wider circulation, but Badd’s sense of the word – “to have sex with” hasn’t caught on, at least in print. Instead, sex up has kept its ’70s sense of meretricious enhancement: While sexy can be good, sexed up suggests fakery. Now we just need to know which one better describes that fateful British intelligence report. ***