Reviewing R. Kelly’s new CD, “Black Panties,” in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Dan DeLuca describes the performer as “the most pathologically pervy of pop stars.”

Something about that pervy piqued my NOOB-dar. I scuttled over to the OED, which defines the adjective as “Sexually perverted; pornographic” and locates its origin not in Britain but Australia. First cite is from a 1945 novel by the Australian Lawson Glassop, We Were the Rats: “Listen to this… ‘He buried his head in the warm fragrance of her bosom.’ So-and-so, so-and-so. It gets pervy again here. ‘His hungry kisses were returned with passionate abandon.’” The second is from a 1970 British book, Sir, You Bastard, by G.F. Newman: “Twenty maximum security, the lights never out, pervy screws watching every movement.”

There is also this illuminating exchange from the Australian novelist Jon Cleary’s 1982 book Clearfield’s Daughter: “‘What about Aussie men?’ ‘They’re different. They just think it’s pervy for the girl to be on top. Lie still!”

Google Ngram Viewer shows a rapid rise in pervy use in the U.K in the late ’80s, with the U.S. starting to follow suit about a decade later:

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(The word shows up pre-1990, but almost all uses are either of proper names or the Russian word pervy. I believe it means “first” in that language, at least judging by this quote I found on the Internet: “‘How was that as a first try?’ asked Trotsky. [Vladimir] Mayakovsky answered with a devastating pun: ‘The first pancake falls like a People’s Commissar’ (pervy blin lyog narkomom), a play on the saying ‘the first pancake falls like a lump.'”)

The word first appeared in the New York Times in 2000, in an interview with the novelist Edmund White: “Even though people act as though you’re being exhibitionistic in some sort of pervy way by writing about all of this stuff, I actually see it as sort of heroic.” Since then it’s been in the paper about seventy-five times, including this telling quote from a 2004  piece about fashion designer Christopher Bailey, datelined London: “You can’t even say the look is British, although in his latest women’s show, for fall 2004, he did have leather buttons and some see-through rain capes. Very pervy, Bridget Jones would say.”

Since 2009, the word has appeared about forty times in the Times, suggesting that it is now firmly in the American chattering class’s lexicon. One quote earlier this year described a (very) new version of Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” that was performed earlier this year. “‘Ma’am, I don’t mean to sound twisty or pervy,’ goes one line in his rejiggered ‘Non so più.’ ‘Damn, I just love when a body’s all curvy.’”

7 thoughts on ““Pervy”

  1. I’ve been using pervy for decades here in the USA. My college friends and I used it to describe older men – usually professors – who hit on students. Pervy old goat, pervy bastard, pervy creep…and I continued to use it until this very minute! It is a perfect adjective for certain people, places and things…

  2. The American dubbed version of the anime “Naruto” used the word “pervy,” the title character often using it to refer to his “pervy sensei.” It shocked me then and still shocks me to this day, since discussion of perverts and sexual perversion is still very taboo on children’s TV. I’m still not sure exactly how “dirty” the word is, other than that the FCC let that one kid’s cartoon use it and it sounded strange.

    Would a UK or Austrailia broadcaster allow that word on a children’s show? Is it a word one would use in front of kids?

    1. I think the attitude to the concept would be much the same to yours in the UK – its not something that would be expected to be featured on children’s TV.

      I wouldn’t think of the word itself as dirty or obscene though, I could even imagine it being used as a euphemism if discussing the issue with children was necessary.

  3. I’d definitely ascribe its rise in the US to Bridget Jones: The book came out in 1998, the movie in 2001. I know the latter was the first use I encountered. I like it because it can cover those things that are outre but (and?) not deviant in a worrisome way.

  4. There used to be a comedy show in the UK called Chelmsford 123, which was about a hapless Roman governor in 2nd Century Essex.
    He complains about the boringness of Roman roads to which the road designer replies:
    “I have a reputation to maintain.Besides it’s the motto of my trade:
    Straight’s great
    Curvy is pervy.”

  5. Perve in Oz really means to look at, sometimes to look lustfully at. Following principles of Cockney rhyming slang, perve can become “uncle Merv”- “have an uncle Merv at this blonde walking this way.”

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