A four-letter mystery from 1921

The phrase four-letter word is generally thought to originate in the late 1920s; various slang dictionaries have it from the late 20s or early 30s, and it achieved wider currency after 1934 when it was included in the lyrics of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes.  The OED has four-letter man ‘an obnoxious person’ from 1923, but four-letter word not till 1934.  So I was pleased – but also momentarily bemused – to find the following among a collection of witticisms entitled ‘By the Way’, from the Wall Street Journal of October 1, 1921:

"It is said that we are after what Russia raises, and, without using the four-letter word, Lenine would like to see us get it." (Wall Street Journal, 10-01-1921, p. 1)
“It is said that we are after what Russia raises, and, without using the four-letter word, Lenine would like to see us get it.” (Wall Street Journal, 10-01-1921, p. 1)

This looks like a real and early instance of four-letter word being used to substitute for a vulgar word; it’s not yet generic (in the sense that four-letter words would soon come to mean profanity, in general) but it’s the earliest case I can find of the phrase being used at all as a form of taboo avoidance.   Also, unlike later uses, which tend, I think, to take fuck or shit as the prototypical four-letter word, here I think it’s a substitute for hell.  Get hell ‘to be severely punished’ has now faded from use (I might say catch hell instead, although even that feels old-fashioned) , but in the early to mid-20th century, both ‘raise hell’ and ‘get hell’ were relatively common idiomatic phrases:

raise get hell

In other (four-letter) words, Russia has been raising hell, and Lenin (Lenine was a 1920s variant) would like America to get hell.   The WSJ did not have a prohibition against hell appearing at its pages at this point, although it certainly wasn’t common.  Or maybe there is some other obvious four-letter word (vulgar or otherwise) that collocates with raise and get and would be witty in this context.  Your thoughts?

One thought on “A four-letter mystery from 1921

  1. Ben Zimmer January 7, 2015 / 4:42 pm

    I do think that hell is what’s being avoided here. For proof that hell was still subject to taboo avoidance in U.S. newspapers, check out Mencken’s The American Language: Supplement 1, in the same section that I quoted in my post “When ‘shit’ hits the newspapers.” Mencken recounts that a lecture that he gave in 1939 was reported on by the New York Journal-American with hell written as h–l. (His quote is worth reproducing: “American grammar is fast going to hell, which is where all grammars will land, I hope and pray, soon or late.”)

    Liked by 2 people

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