I experienced this world recently when I had to complete a writing assignment that had me using and re-using the word sexy. In doing so, I realized two things: for one, I don’t use the word sexy very often, and for another, I hate it.
Not to jump back to getting stoned and talking about words, but have you ever noticed what a weird, stupid word sexy is? It’s just the word sex — you know, doin’ it — plus the adjective suffix -y, meaning “related to” or “associated with” or something thereabouts. So at least etymologically, the word sexy just means sex-ish or sex-related. In practice, this makes the word sound rather odd.
“Hey, what did you think of Sofia Vergara’s dress at the Golden Globes?”
“IT WAS SEXISH. IT WAS RED AND HAD PLACES FOR HER SEX CHARACTERISTICS, SO IT MADE ME THINK OF SEX. I LIKE SOFIA VERGARA’S SEXLIKE COPULATION GARMENT.”
See how that’s weird? Do you agree with me that it’s odd how this clunky, obvious word won out when English had a wide variety of more poetic words to describe the sexually appealing? (Among them: sultry, fetching, seductive, flashy, dazzling, sensuous, dishy, alluring, beguiling, bewitching, intoxicating, enrapturing, enchanting, charming and foxy. I’m leaving off toothsome no matter what the Merriam-Webster thesaurus says.)
In practice, we use sexy to mean more often “sexually attractive” than “sex-related” or “sex-adjacent,” but even that seems strange to me. In the United States, we have so many hang-ups with sex that we feel awkward saying the word, hence the gradual replacement of sex in the “male or female” sense with the grammatically rooted (and therefore decidedly unsexy) gender. Now we talk about people having gender rather than having sex, just so we don’t make anyone feel uncomfortable by reminding them of the primary process of human reproductive and nighttime-enjoyment. And yet sexy has nonetheless become our go-to for describing visual appeal that it’s even crossed over to a generic sense of “is a thing that is good,” as in “a sexy idea” or “this season’s sexiest new car.” To me, this is baffling.
According to Etymonline, sexy has been in use since 1905 and was first documented as meaning “sexually attractive” in 1923 — in reference to Rudolph Valentino.
“Well, hey there, Mabel. Did you get an eyeful of Valentino on the beach?”
“I’ll say, Ida. That Rudy’s so swell he makes me think about sex. He’s got it, and by ‘it’ I sure mean sex-relatedness. I could see his sex-parts in those trunks, and I enjoyed that, because of the sex. Peckers!”
Etymonline also notes, however, that in this sense sexy replaced the now-discarded word sexful, which is just the most awful thing ever.
“I am full of sex. I need to let some out. Interested?”
So yes, there are worse alternatives to sexy.