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circle jerk

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noun Slang: Vulgar.
mutual masturbation among three or more persons.
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Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2021

ABOUT THIS WORD

What does circle jerk mean?

A circle jerk is when a group of men sit or stand in a circle and masturbate.

Figuratively, a circle jerk is a group of people who are “getting themselves off” in the echo chamber of their own opinions or activities.

How do you pronounce circle jerk?

[ sur-kuhl jurk ]

Content warning: the following content includes references to sexual activity.

Where did the term circle jerk come from?

The jerk in circle jerk comes from jerking off, slang for male masturbation since at least the 1860s. The circle refers to the group nature of the masturbation, because we guess if you’re jerking off in a group, you’d be in a circle facing one another.

In a circle jerk, men may masturbate themselves or neighbors. The group may be gay, straight, or a mixture. Some circle jerks are said to be a competition to see who ejaculates first or last. If a woman is in the center and performing fellatio on men while others masturbate, it is called bukkake.

One early instance of circle jerk may come from a raunchy 1880s song about a legendary Scottish orgy, “The Ball o’ Kirriemuir,” which includes the verses: “The elders of the church / They were too old to firk / So they sat around the table / And had a circle jerk.” Folk-rocker Jim Croce recorded the song love in 1973 (released in 1989) but left out these lines.

The U.S. took a while to catch up with the Scots, but the term surfaces stateside in Harrison Salisbury’s 1958 book The Shook-up Generation, which explored juvenile delinquency and noted circle jerk as slang for “mass masturbation,” glossing it as a “common sexual activity” among boys of the day.

In 1973, legendary Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini’s comedy Amarcord portrayed a literal circle jerk among a group of adolescent boys. In 1979, the LA punk band The Bedwetters changed their name to The Circle Jerks after coming across the term in a slang dictionary. Going on to become an influential band in the hardcore scene, their 1980 debut album was called Group Sex.

Literal circle jerks saw a rise in popularity among gay men in the 1980s as a safe alternative to sex during the AIDS crisis. Known as JO, or jerk off, clubs, they still exist all over the world and have an active community identity.

The figurative circle jerk emerges by 1972, when the phrase liberal circle jerk time made it onto the pages of New York Magazine in an article about the congressional campaign of Bella Abzug, a feminist activist.

Indeed, circle jerk has become a go-to diss for a group of people in a bubble who enjoy hearing themselves talk, as if metaphorically “jerking off” to their smug, self-affirming narcissism. The Portland Mercury, for instance, described the 2009 Academy Awards as a “tasteful, elegant circle-jerk.”

Who uses the term circle jerk?

Actual circle jerks are popular in porn and erotica. For some inexplicable reason, they often involve camping.

On-camera circle jerks of the mastrubatory variety also took place among guys who played Uno (yes, the card game you play with Grandma) on Xbox Live in the mid-2000s.

New Zealanders can attend the Hamilton Circle Jerk, an annual music festival where each band plays one of their own songs and, in circle-jerk fashion, two covers of other bands on the bill.

And then there was that time Jon Stewart memorably compared Pizza Hut’s hot dog crust pizza to a circle jerk in 2015.

Circle jerk can be a verb, too, to circle-jerk, or engage in such group masturbation.

More examples of circle jerk:

“Few people think Trump did well at Monday’s circle jerk in Helsinki. Calls of treason from the left were no surprise, but Trump’s performance was so over-the-top bad that even the right had to admit it.”
—Katie Herzog, The Stranger, July 2018

Note

This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.

How to use circle jerk in a sentence

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