“We had a verbal agreement,” you hear people say all the time when they’re asked if they had a contract with someone. What the person usually means is, “We had an oral agreement.” That is, we had a spoken agreement. Oral is the antonym of written, but written isn’t the antonym of verbal. Both oral and written agreements are verbal, because verbal simply means “composed of words.” If you have a verbal agreement, it could be either oral or written.
I find myself pondering why the word oral has gone virtually out of use, except in the verbal construction oral sex. And therein may lie the answer. The word verbal has been getting confused with oral for a long time, and my guess is that the confusion began during the sexual revolution in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The usage goes as least as far back as Judge Wapner, the original judge on TV’s The People’s Court, and possibly the first TV judge ever, who banged the gavel between 1981 and 1993. The judge consistently used verbal to mean oral. Why I ever watched The People’s Court I’m not sure—it may have been on TV in the afternoons while I was nursing my baby—but I used to respond out loud to him, “No, Judge Wapner, they didn’t have a VERBAL agreement. They had an ORAL agreement!”
The term oral sex, which my mother would never have uttered aloud, surely became much more commonly used in the last decades of the twentieth century than ever before. Remember how the musical Hair gets in the audience’s face with all manner of terminology for previously unspeakable sexual acts? Felatio, pederasty, cunilingus–all tossed about in Hair–were, at the time, so much anathema, and to talk about such historically verboten subjects during the years of the cultural revolution was a form of countering the dominant, repressed “establishment” of the ’50s. If I’m right, and the word oral became predominantly associated with a kind of sexuality during this same era, then the word would naturally have become de-coupled from notions of language and would have ceased referring to speech.
And if I’m right, how ironic that a move away from repression resulted in a counter-move toward repression: because people could now refer to “oral sex” fairly openly, they couldn’t refer to other forms of orality without seeming to be dirty, to conjure a form of naughty sex. Oral had to be replaced for the sake of decency, resulting, alas, in a profanation of the word verbal.