America Lost Its Way When We Switched From ‘Porno’ to ‘Porn’

What we lost when we dropped that little ‘o’

America has come to a very dark place, and nobody knows if we’ll survive. Only months ago we spoke of “when this is all over” and “getting back to normal” — now we are directly confronting the racist terror of a carceral state and swerving into a dangerous new phase of a pandemic that has already killed hundreds of thousands worldwide. While asking what the future has in store, we are also looking to the past, with a perhaps unanswerable question: How did we get here?

The complicated answer involves colonialism, systemic injustice, a rigged economy and and a failure to adequately imagine or prepare for catastrophes of any sort. But I have a simpler (and not at all serious) notion, so here it is: The U.S. began to collapse with the tiniest lexical shift. It all comes down to us switching from the word “porno” to “porn.” That’s the problem.

Indeed, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where we decided — by mass, unspoken agreement — to drop the cheeky “o” from “porno.” What we can say for certain is that “porno” has steadily declined in usage over time, leaving “porn” the near-exclusive euphemism for graphic sexual content.

The rise of “porn” is likely synchronous with the trend of increasingly extreme pornograpy; you end the word on a consonant because “hardcore porno” sounds like a paradox, a contradiction in terms. “Porno” is too cuddly, too goofy to contain the galaxies of edgy kink and domination to be found on streaming tube sites. It speaks to a gentler form of gratification: soft focus, cheesecake pinups, centerfolds in a magazine. “Porn” is the clipped and brutish update. 

“Porno” can also take the definite or indefinite article. The porno, a porno. Conversely, you wouldn’t say “a porn,” because porn is never a select video or piece of media — porn is an ocean, and you surf it, clicking hyperactively, catching snippets and amassing tabs. Thus does the transition from “porno” to “porn” mark the place where we succumbed to oversaturation, the victory of abundance over curation. You cannot have the affection for porn that you do a specific porno, created in the years before the internet to be treasured and revisited, same as a good book or TV show. A porno is not so readily disposable as porn. It leaves a cultural memory.

The biggest problem with “porn,” however, is that it’s relatively grim. It’s not fun, as sex always should be. Porn is what you fire up when you need to “crank one out.” It’s what you get busted for having on your work computer. And we never stop learning awful secrets about the industry that generates it. Porn is the late-stage capitalist version of the smut that… well, okay, modern pornography was always bound up in money and power, but the older stuff seemed more innocent, more freewheeling, not calculated for SEO and maximally efficient nuttage.  

Am I saying that the word “porno” is some kind of talisman with which we can defeat the horrors of this benighted age? It did destroy the nightmarish Jeremy Renner app. But all in all, its vanishing is more a symptom of national failure than the cause, and scrapping “porn” for a return to “porno” is unlikely to save us. Yet I strongly feel that we must seek the comfort of “porno” again — the Italianate sound, pleasing rotundity and evocation of the orgasmic face. 

O, sweet porno, what were we thinking when we cast you aside? You released us from the clinical prison of “pornographic material,” and you rang in decades of horny liberation. We did not appreciate you; now our masturbation is mechanical and joyless. We do not deserve forgiveness, and still we ask it. It’s not too late to bring back “porno,” and that might just be the small victory that sets us on a better path. I’ve decided to do my part.

Will you join the cause?