What the digamma?

On Facebook, Jay Dillon posted an intriguing verse that appeared in Prize Translations, Poems, and Parodies, Reprinted from The Journal of Education (1881).

Jay muses that the line “What the digamma?” might actually be a disguised form of “What the fuck?” since the archaic Greek letter digamma (Ϝ) strongly resembles the Latin letter F (even though it was originally pronounced as /w/). So was the author of this verse cleverly using Homeric Greek to express a proto-WTF?

A 19th-century WTF, even obliquely rendered, would be a remarkable artifact in the annals of fuckology. In The F-Word, Jesse Sheidlower reports that what the fuck is dated in unexpurgated form to 1942 (Henry Miller’s Under the Roofs of Paris: “I don’t know what the fuck to say”), while combinations of the fuck with other question words can be found a bit earlier (who the fuck from 1934 and where the fuck from 1936).

Pushing back further, we have the close-but-no-cigar what the puck in Joseph Wright’s 1903 English Dialect Dictionary (“What the puck are you doing?”). That uses the Irish English intensifier the puck, which is attested as early as 1864 in J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s novel Uncle Silas (“And why the puck don’t you let her out?”). But since puck means “an evil spirit or demon,” what the puck could simply be understood as an Irish variant of what the devil. Jesse Sheidlower speculates that “the similarity of both the phonetics and the construction may have influenced the development of the present usage of fuck.”

Regardless of how puck fits into things, what the fuck was clearly modeled on earlier widespread use of what the devil, as well as more euphemistic versions like what the deuce and what the dickens. Similarly, as I noted in my post on “I’m going to science the shit out of this,” the construction “VERB the TABOO TERM out of (something)” finds its roots in “beat/scare the devil out of.” (For more on this, see Jack Hoeksema and Donna Jo Napoli’s “Just for the hell of it: A comparison of two taboo-term constructions,” Journal of Linguistics, 44 (2008), 347–378.)

So what about “What the digamma”? Was the digamma intended to evoke other D-words like devildeuce, and dickens? Was it meant to suggest fuck based on the Ϝ/F letterform resemblance? Or could it have stood somewhere in the middle, like puck?

The 1881 Journal of Education collection Prize Translations, Poems, and Parodies didn’t credit an author of the “digamma” verse. Nor did A. D. Godley when he used a slightly modified version to introduce his poem “A Handbook to Homer,” which was published in Oxford Magazine in 1891 and then the following year in the book Verses to Order.

A reviewer of Godley’s Verses to Order in Oxford Magazine praised the “digamma” line: “A. G. has enriched language by one new oath, cordially commended to testy dons.” Godley responded that he was merely quoting the verse and “could not claim the credit of having raised the Digamma to the rank of an academic expletive.” He attributed the verse to an unnamed “Oxford humorist.”

The actual author was Joseph Dunn Lester, as G. H. Hallam revealed in the Mar. 29, 1923 issue of the Times Literary Supplement. Hallam was a classmate of Lester at Shrewsbury School in the early 1860s. After attending Shrewsbury, Lester went on to Oxford and then served as a master of Wellington College before dying in 1875 at the tender age of 33. Lester’s light-verse satire of Homeric Greek was composed before 1870, according to Hallam.

The verse has earned Lester a place in the OED, thanks to polyphloisboisteros, which blends the Homeric epithet polyphoisboio πολυϕλοίσβοιο (“loud-roaring,” describing the sea) with English boisterous. (The -os ending mimics Greek -ος; later writers spelled it polyphloisboisterous.) There’s also some grammatical humor about the augment, an additional “e” syllable (ε-) prefixed to past-tense verbs (obligatory in ancient Greek but not in Homer).

And what of the digamma? An article in The Living Age of May 12, 1923, discussing Hallam’s TLS piece, explained: “The letter Digamma has long been the cause of much tearing of hair among schoolboys reading Homer, but it remained for this poet [i.e., Lester] to make it into an oath on its own account.” So if the digamma was a diabolical stumbling block for students of Homeric Greek, perhaps that is enough for us to think of it as a playful substitute for devil/deuce/dickens without invoking the F-bomb.

As it turns out, Lester may have actually borrowed “What the digamma?” from a colleague at Wellington, John Wordsworth (later Bishop of Salisbury). A 1915 biography of Wordsworth by E. W. Watson tells the story:

Another of his recreations gives Wordsworth a modest place in the history of lighter verse. Towards the end of his days at New College, but while he was still in statu pupillari, he was visited by his brother from Cambridge. They went to play pool at a billiard-room in Holywell, and one of the company, missing a stroke, used an expletive for which John Wordsworth suggested, “What the digamma,” as an alternative. The fame of this reproof spread abroad; it had reached Wellington before Wordsworth arrived there, and gave him a reputation for readiness of wit which perhaps was not quite sustained. Mr. J. D. Lester, a Wellington Master with some of Caverley’s gifts, borrowed the phrase for one of his jeux d’esprit on the classical authors.

In a footnote, Watson says that when Godley’s version of the “digamma” verse appeared in Oxford Magazine in 1891, “it is remembered that Mr. C. L. Dodgson was so shocked that he proposed that the Christ Church Common Room should no longer subscribe to the peccant magazine.”

So the appearance of “What the digamma?” in a magazine was evidently indecent enough to scandalize the good Rev. Dodgson — who, when he wasn’t busy lecturing in mathematics and curating the Common Room at Oxford’s Christ Church, wrote children’s books under the pen name Lewis Carroll. That’s enough to suggest there was something else going on beyond simply using digamma as a stand-in for devil. Watson’s story of the Wordsworth brothers at the billiard table circa 1865 also makes it sound like it’s meant to euphemize some pretty coarse language.

Still, I’m not completely sold on the rebus-like interpretation of digamma → F → fuck. For one thing, or eff is only recorded as a euphemism for fuck starting in the early 20th century: The F-Word’s first citation is from Robert Graves’ 1929 autobiography Good-Bye to All That. (WTF, in its many different expansions, dates to 1985.) Not only that, if the fuck reading was actually implied, how could it get printed over and over again? Perhaps “What the digamma?” was able to pass under the radar because it seemed more innocuous than it truly was, and it took a master of wordplay like Lewis Carroll to pick up on what was really going on.

28 thoughts on “What the digamma?

  1. Jay Dillon Rare Books + Manuscripts March 21, 2016 / 2:27 pm

    It’s even worth mentioning that latin ef *is* greek digamma — ie, the latin letterform ‘F’ descends from the greek letterform ‘Ϝ’, because Latin needed a letter for /f/ and Greek didn’t have one, so digamma /w/ seemed close enough — and it was even closer in archaic Latin, when /f/ was bilabial.

    .

    Liked by 1 person

  2. John Kelly March 21, 2016 / 3:02 pm

    While I agree that any intended connection between “digamma” and “fuck” is tenuous at best, I still have to award an ‘A’ for effort to anyone able to perform such alphabetical acrobatics with archaic letters of the Greek alphabet.

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  3. Armand D'Angour March 21, 2016 / 3:27 pm

    Completely clear to me that Lester knew exactly what ‘What the digamma?’ implied. The digamma was (typographically and originally) an F, so ‘What the F?’ cannot have escaped his or anyone else’s notice.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Antony Shugaar March 21, 2016 / 6:21 pm

    While the digamma certainly may correlate to an “f”, and while my Greek is many years decrepit, I distinctly remember that the digamma also correlates to a “w”. Ergon for work originally had an initial digamma, if I’m not mistaken, which would make it the clear root for German “werk”. It’s called digamma because it’s a gamma with a double horizontal bar, I’d guess, but if you turn it on its side, it could look like a “w”. In that case, maybe it’s really a forerunner of “what the what”! It also stood for the number 6 which in turn referred to Christ. Could it have meant “what the Christ”? At this point it could have meant anything, I guess. But my mother used to say Jesus H. Christ and I think of it everytime I see the Lutheran and Anglican IHS symbol (Iesus Hominum Salvator—“Jesus, the Savior of Men”). I’ve always assumed someone just jokingly took that “h” as Jesus’s middle initial. There’s a whole world of learned swearing that’s largely lost to us now, thanks for bringing back such a wonderful splinter of it.

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  5. Jay Dillon Rare Books + Manuscripts March 21, 2016 / 6:57 pm

    (1)
    And then there’s this:

    If Lester had really meant “devil” not “fuck”, then why didn’t he write “What the delta”?

    It might be objected that ‘delta’ doesn’t scan as well as ‘digamma’, and indeed it doesn’t; but the next two lines don’t scan very well either.

    (2)
    I think Ben Zimmer is onto something here, where he suggests that ‘What the digamma’ might have “pass[ed] under the radar”, inasmuch as it appeared to be one euphemism but was really another, much coarser.

    In Britain, after all, it was primarily the *printer* and not the author or publisher who bore the legal risk of ‘obscenity’, and it’s hard to think there were many printers who could or would have connected digamma with ef. To them ‘digamma’ was probably just some funny adademic word that started with ‘d’ — so it must mean “devil”, which wasn’t so bad, was it?

    They would never have printed ‘What the ef’ or ‘What the F’ — but ‘What the digamma’? No problem!

    .

    Liked by 2 people

    • Antony Shugaar March 21, 2016 / 7:03 pm

      Yes, and a quick search online tells us that Harvard’s Fox Club was originally founded as the Digamma Club in 1898 by six undergraduates. Nothing like an undergraduate to go in search of covert ways of swearing. Well, for Fox’ sake, that looks like a strong connection, and suggests that young classics scholars saw a useful way of smuggling obscenity in through this disused piece of the Greek alphabet. Young T.S. Eliot was a member of the Digamma/Fox Club and wrote scurrilous verse as part of his time there.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Ben Zimmer March 21, 2016 / 7:06 pm

        Fascinating! Robert Crawford’s bio Young Eliot notes that the digamma “just happens to look like the English initial associated with academic failure — and may hint at other F-words too.”

        Liked by 1 person

      • Jay Dillon Rare Books + Manuscripts March 22, 2016 / 6:40 am

        Ben trovato! I wonder why the Digamma Club felt the need to change its name: Can it be that its real significance was found out?

        Of course it’s possible that the name had never had anything to do with ‘F’ or ‘fuck’ at all: Maybe it was just the number of members, which was six originally, or Ϝ (digamma) in greek numerals. — Or maybe that was just what they’d told the college and/or their parents.

        Either way, if the name had really had nothing to do with ‘fuck’ all along, then why did they choose ‘Fox’ (German ‘Fuchs’) to replace it?

        Here are the arms of the club, engraved about 1900, I think, for a bookplate perhaps:

        The appearance of *both* a fox and a digamma in these arms suggests, I think, that the fox (Fuchs) stood for ‘fucks’ and the digamma stood for ‘F’, which stood in turn for ‘fuck’.

        .

        Liked by 1 person

      • Jay Dillon Rare Books + Manuscripts March 23, 2016 / 2:03 am

        Vert, a fox rampant or, in his dexter paw a digamma or.

        Arms like this are called ‘canting arms’, I learn. Or ‘armes parlantes’.

        But I digress.

        .

        Liked by 1 person

      • Antony Shugaar March 23, 2016 / 2:15 am

        Nice. And anyone versed in this kind of hieratic, coded language could slip in the insults and obscenities they liked.

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    • Jay Dillon Rare Books + Manuscripts March 22, 2016 / 11:22 pm

      Yes: It *is* a bookplate, ‘proof before letters’ probably. Here’s an example dated 1902:

      So yes, it’s a digamma not an ef.

      Harry Parker Ward _Some American college bookplates_ (1915), page 122, comments:

      “The Digamma Library plate was done in 1902 by the late Mr. E. D. French, from design by Mr. Pierre de Chaignon la Rose. The Digamma, nicknamed the Fox Club, is an undergraduate social club, formed in the ‘nineties.’”

      .

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Q. Pheevr March 21, 2016 / 7:13 pm

    Dodgson wasn’t exactly hard to shock. Here’s how he reacted to HMS Pinafore:

    One passage was to me sad beyond words. It occurs when the captain utters the oath ‘Damn me!’ I cannot find words to convey to the reader the pain I felt in seeing dear children taught to utter such words to amuse ears grown callous to their ghastly meaning. Put the two ideas side by side: Hell (no matter whether you believe in it or not; millions do), and those pure young lips thus sporting with its horrors — and then find what fun in it you can! How Mr Gilbert could have stooped to write, and Sir Arthur Sullivan could have prostituted his noble art to set to music, such vile trash, it passes my skill to understand.

    So I can quite well imagine him cancelling a magazine subscription over even a bowdlerized version of “what the devil” — let alone “what the F.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ben Zimmer March 21, 2016 / 7:26 pm

      Good point. There’s something else Dodgson probably didn’t appreciate in HMS Pinafore… As Jesse Sheidlower points out in the intro to The F-Word, the 1878 libretto contains an early example of what Arnold Zwicky would call “effing avoidance” — with (big) D standing for damn:

      Though “Bother it” I may
      Occasionally say
      I never use a big, big D.

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  7. Antony Shugaar March 22, 2016 / 4:53 pm

    What fun!

    In reply to Jay Dillon, that is a wonderful bookmark you’ve found. Of course, there is no saying if the fox is carrying a digamma or a capital F. But you’re shrewd to point out how much closer the German version of Fox is to our Fuck. Did Lewis Carroll know German? Well, he certainly knew languages, and apparently supervised the translation into French of Jabberwocky. The German version, with its memorable first line, “Es brillig war.”, doesn’t seem to have had Carroll’s fingerprints on it. I’d like to know more about the founding of the club, the surnames of the founders, and the degree to which Fox was a “stalking horse” for Fuck in those days. Certainly, anyone who’s ever heard an Irish person say “for fock’s sake” cannot help but hear the close similarity. Also, in terms of abbreviations, that was a time very rich in them. We forget how useful abbreviations were when people were writing by hand. I noticed in letters by Churchill, more or less a child of those years, how he always abbreviated very: “liked it v. much.” Just as WTF is a product of texting and small keyboards, abbreviations must have been useful in the days before the keyboard.

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    • Jay Dillon Rare Books + Manuscripts March 23, 2016 / 3:21 am

      Harvard’s catalogue (HOLLIS) says,

      “Six members of the Class of 1900, assisted by Professor Archibald Cary Coolidge, founded the Digamma Club in 1898. The name, the sixth letter of the old Greek alphabet, was chosen to reflect the original six members. The club became final the following year. When it became popular for clubs to disassociate themselves from fraternities and drop their Greek names, the Digamma followed suit, choosing to be called the Fox. By 1925 (and perhaps even earlier), the name had officially changed to the Fox Club.” ¹

      I don’t know who the *original six members* were, or if indeed there were only six; but in a matter of months their number had risen to seventeen:

      (1) F. B. Talbot, ’00, president; (2) F. M. Shaw, ’00, vice-president; (3) W. R. Castle Jr, ’00, secretary; (4) R. S. Holland, ’00, treasurer; (5) E. L. Dudley, ’00; (6) E. Gray Jr, ’00; (7) O. Howes Jr, ’00; (8) C. Hobbs, ’00; (9) J. H. Holliday, ’00; (10) E. Spalding, ’00; (11) W. R. Lawrence, ’01; (12) C. Jaynes, ’01; (13) T. Little, ’01; (14) W. Reid, ’01; (15) W. H. Laverack, ’01; (16) E. Putnam, ’01; (17) H. Hawkins, ’01. ²

      So if there really were only six members at first, then it strikes me as more likelier that they chose their number (6) to justify their name (ϝ), than vice versa.

      Professor Coolidge, it seems, was outfoxed.

      ——

      ¹ http://id.lib.harvard.edu/aleph/009309822/catalog

      ² _The Harvard University register_ (1898–1928) volume 25 (1898–99), page 121. The Harvard University Archives / Harvard Depository copy (shelfmark HUK 736A) was received 17 January 1899.

      .

      Like

      • Jay Dillon Rare Books + Manuscripts March 23, 2016 / 3:30 am

        Harvard’s catalogue (HOLLIS) says,

        “Six members of the Class of 1900, assisted by Professor Archibald Cary Coolidge, founded the Digamma Club in 1898. The name, the sixth letter of the old Greek alphabet, was chosen to reflect the original six members. The club became final the following year. When it became popular for clubs to disassociate themselves from fraternities and drop their Greek names, the Digamma followed suit, choosing to be called the Fox. By 1925 (and perhaps even earlier), the name had officially changed to the Fox Club.” ¹

        I don’t know who the “original six members” were, or if indeed there were only six; but in a matter of months their number had risen to seventeen:

        (1) F. B. Talbot, ’00, president; (2) F. M. Shaw, ’00, vice-president; (3) W. R. Castle Jr, ’00, secretary; (4) R. S. Holland, ’00, treasurer; (5) E. L. Dudley, ’00; (6) E. Gray Jr, ’00; (7) O. Howes Jr, ’00; (8) C. Hobbs, ’00; (9) J. H. Holliday, ’00; (10) E. Spalding, ’00; (11) W. R. Lawrence, ’01; (12) C. Jaynes, ’01; (13) T. Little, ’01; (14) W. Reid, ’01; (15) W. H. Laverack, ’01; (16) E. Putnam, ’01; (17) H. Hawkins, ’01. ²

        So if there really were only six members at first, then it strikes me as likelier that they chose their number (6) to justify their name (ϝ = 6), than vice versa.

        Professor Coolidge, it seems, was outfoxed.

        ——

        ¹ http://id.lib.harvard.edu/aleph/009309822/catalog

        ² _The Harvard University register_ (1898–1928) volume 25 (1898–99), page 121. The Harvard University Archives / Harvard Depository copy (shelfmark HUK 736A) was received 17 January 1899.

        .

        Like

    • John Cowan July 10, 2016 / 3:57 am

      The author of “Der Jammerwoch” was Robert Scott, the junior partner in the various Liddell & Scott dictionaries (there are three editions of different sizes, known as the Little Liddell, the Middle Liddell, and the Great Scott). He did not, however, translate the whole of Alice: the original German translator was Antonie Zimmermann. Carroll supervised her work closely as well as that of Henri Bué, the original French translator. Bué’s greatest moment.

      The v. abbreviation is current to this day in informal British English writing: see The Very Secret Diaries, a parody of The Lord of the Rings in the form of various characters’ diaries.

      Like

  8. Antony Shugaar March 22, 2016 / 5:06 pm

    And in a remarkable coda to all this, I learned that the Fox Club was shut down, after 117 years (perhaps temporarily), because the undergrad members, in defiance of the alumni, wanted to go co-ed. The alumni members, in words that might have made Rev. Dogdson laugh, warned that such a move could prove fatal, I tell you, fatal: “Precipitous action taken in advance of a false deadline and prior to the November special meeting will seriously divide the Club and put its future at risk. That would be a tragedy.” Touchingly, the article in the Harvard Crimson characterized the alums in their campaign as “using strong language.” As the Fox Club member T. S. Eliot might have put it, when not scrawling obscene doggerel, “in our end is our beginning.”

    http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2015/12/16/a-club-divided/

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  9. Jay Dillon Rare Books + Manuscripts March 23, 2016 / 9:03 pm

    I might add that Dodgson himself had committed a pun or two on the names of greek letters. Here he is in 1865, making up a coxswain’s cry:

    ie, ‘Row, 5! row, 6! ’cause fie! They’re gaining!’

    .

    Like

    • Antony Shugaar March 23, 2016 / 9:32 pm

      Well, this was a very Greek crowd. The classicist’s Greek-English dictionary is the Liddell and Scott, from Oxford University Press. And that Liddell of course was Alice’s father. Her name was Alice Pleasance Liddell.

      Like

  10. John Cowan March 25, 2016 / 12:16 pm

    “For Ant of a Nail, Kevin Wald’s tale of Xenwa, Warrior Wprincess, tells us how losing the digamma almost cost a king his kingdom, and etymologizes the name digamma as “two G’s fucking”.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Jay Dillon Rare Books + Manuscripts March 30, 2016 / 1:34 pm

    More evidence that the word ‘digamma’ was used occasionally in the nineteenth century as a jocular name of the letter ef ‘f’:

    The polyglot writer Ugo Foscolo, exiled in London, published an essay there on the “History of the Æolic digamma” 1822.¹ In the same year he bought a little house in St John’s Wood. This he called ‘Digamma Cottage’, and to its door he affixed a brass plaque lettered ‘Ϝ | Digamma Cottage’, roughly thus:

    This plaque is mentioned in _The new monthly magazine_ 1822. The name ‘Digamma Cottage’, it was said, had been chosen “to puzzle the vulgar; while the Ϝ placed above it, though comprehensible to the learned, serves only to announce to the common eye, through its resemblance to one of the characters of our alphabet, the name of the celebrated owner.”

    Sure enough, the butcher’s boy had read the ‘Ϝ’ as an ‘F’ for ‘Foscolo’ and believed the word ‘digamma’ was Latin for “die game” (as in ‘dice’),² — while the New Monthly’s readers got to kvell a bit that they had got the joke.

    ——

    ¹ _The quarterly review_ (London, 1809–1967) volume 27, no. 53 (April 1822), pages 39–70.

    ² _The new monthly magazine and literary journal_ (London, 1821–36) volume 5 (1822), page 506.

    .

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  12. Peter Lucas March 30, 2016 / 8:47 pm

    When did this game of pool on Holywell Street happen? Was pool played in England in the 19th century?

    (Sorry: a bit of the real topic.)

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    • Ben Zimmer March 30, 2016 / 8:54 pm

      The game must have been around 1865, as it was “towards the end of [Wordsworth’s] days at New College,” and he left to become assistant master at Wellington in 1866. OED has “pool” for various types of billiards back to 1797.

      Like

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