SNP’s word of the day: Pneumatic

Illustration by Lewis Mirrett

Illustration by Lewis Mirrett

Word: Pneumatic

Meaning: Technically, it means filled with air, usually compressed air, like the tubes running throughout George Orwell‘s 1984. But Huxley used it relentlessly to describe a woman whose curves were so ample they seemed inflated; he also used it to describe chairs, but we’ll save that objectification discussion for another day.

Usage: “Everyone says I’m awfully pneumatic,” says Lenina Crowne to the romantic hero of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

You should know it because: We’re in an age of impossible bodies, and 70 years after Huxley wrote his futuristic tale of horror, there’s no better word for them than “pneumatic.” Huxley used it in nearly every exchange with, or description of, the plush, faux–sexually liberated Lenina.

Huxley was an accurate seer in that way, at least: writing in 1931, he predicted that after the petite, flapper-ish types of the ’20s, astonishingly curvy pin-ups would rule the ’30s and beyond. Lenina should have been played by Jean Harlow, the platinum blonde, looking every inch like a Tamara de Lempicka portrait turned real. Or, later, Marilyn, with her epic proportions.

In 1932, Picasso painted his own Lenina, his enthusiastic mistress Marie-Therese, nude in a black armchair. It’s called Nude in a Black Armchair. Look it up. Matisse, too, painted women entirely in curves, in his pneumatic, blue dreams.

Though the female ideal has been considerably whittled over the years (witness Jennifer Lawrence, who is semi-pneumatic with an insanely small waist, having to explain to glossy magazines why she doesn’t diet… what?!), mainstream porn tells the same old story. In his 1985 book On Signs, the semiotician Marshall Blonsky called Playboy “a code, a type of beauty, pneumatic flesh and intelligent physiognomy.” Then, it was all about tits, like the flotation devices worn by Canadian folk hero Pamela Anderson or by Anna Nicole Smith (RIP). The faker the assets, the more pneumatic; it makes sense, given the artificial, bot-like sound of the word.

Currently, pop culture’s more into “assets” minus the T, as seen on those wily Kardashians and the Super Bass–shaking Nicki Minaj. The latter calls herself a Barbie, and certainly her body seems just as impossible, but in a brave new way.