Shakespeare’s dildo, and other secret Early Modern pleasures

Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is best known for what’s probably the most famous stage direction in the history of English drama: “Exit, pursued by a bear” (3.3.57). But the Bard slips in another memorable line that’s sure to get a rise out of lovers of language – and pleasure. At one point, a servant describes Autolycus, a rascally, villainous pedlar who shows up at a local feast:

He hath songs for man or woman, of all sizes; no milliner can so fit his customers with gloves. He has the prettiest love songs for maids, so without bawdry, which is strange with such delicate burdens of dildos and fadings, ‘Jump her and thump her’; and where some stretch-mouthed rascal would, as it were, mean mischief and break a foul gap into the matter, he makes the maid to answer, ‘Whoop, do me no harm, good man’; puts him off, slights him, with ‘Whoop, do me no harm, good man!’ (4.4.190-98)

Burden ofdildos?! That’s right: Shakespeare used the word dildo.

But first, a little lexical foreplay. Burden, here, means “refrains,” a point we’ll revisit. Fadings, in part alluding to the Elizabethan sexual pun on die, refers to “orgasms.” You don’t need me to explain jumping and thumping. And Autolycus, I can’t resist noting, later calls the goods he’s hawking “trumpery” (4.4.585), kind of like a “knock-off” in today’s parlance, among other meanings associated with cheating and deceit. Finally, whether you pluralize dildo with an e or not? Hey, whatever tickles your fancy.

Back to dildo. Shakespeare uses the word only once in his entire corpus, a phenomenon delightfully known as a hapax legomenon. And, what with The Winter’s Tale probably composed around 1610-11, Shakespeare’s dildo marks one of the earliest instances of the word in the written record of the English language.

Founding members

But the very earliest English dildo, as far the Oxford English Dictionary has found, appears in John Florio’s 1598 Italian-English dictionary, A Worlde of Wordes, itself one of the earliest dictionaries of the English language. (Thomas Nashe’s erotic poem, “The Choise of Valentines Or the Merie Ballad of Nash His Dildo,” published in 1601, may have been written in 1592-93. If so, Nashe’s dildo would have come first. We’ll return to Nashe later in the post. And the dildo, qua phallic symbol and sex toy, goes much deeper in human history, of course.)

Florio uses dildo twice, both as English glosses for Italian headwords. First: “Pastinaca muranese, a dildoe of glasse.” Pastinaca, after some sensuous twists and turns, ultimately yields the English word parsnip. (Ouch?) Second: “Pinco, a prick, pillicock, pintle, a dildoe.” Prick, pillicock, and pintle are all also slang terms for “penis,” of course. (In his slang dictionary, Jonathon Green observes some titillating offshoots of pintle, like pintle-monger, or “whore.”) Florio also defines pinco’s feminine counterpart, pinca, as “a womans [sic] quaint,” a pun on or euphemism for cunt dating all the way back to the early 1300s.

Italian delights

The origin of the word dildo, though, is as hidden away as the vibrator in your mother’s closet. But in defining pastinaca muranese and pinco as dildo, Florio may himself have been drawing on an Italian word. Many etymologists suppose dildo came from the Italian diletto or deletto, “delight.” Diletto derives not, as we might suspect from Latin’s delicere (“entice,” which gives us delicious and English’s own delight, among other words) but from the Latin diligere, “to love” or “esteem,” source of diligence. Dildos, it seems, have their work cut out for them.

Another theory roots dildo in diddle, a word Iva Cheung previously penetrated on the blog. The Dildographer, a sex-toy historian, adds dill-doll to the etymological drawer; this term is an apparently a reduplication based on the Old Norse dilla, “to soothe.” (Even the Vikings needed to let off a little steam.) But the suggestion that dildo derives from dill dough, a loaf of herbed bread? That’s just bananas…or cucumbers…or zucchinis…

The Oxford English Dictionary is a bit gun-shy when it comes to the etymology of dildo: “A word of obscure origin,” it offers, “used in the refrain of ballads,” hence Shakespeare’s burdens of dildos.

Bawdy ballads

On Glossophilia, blogger Louise Barden tracks down two such ballads. The first – “Will you buy a fine dog?” composed in 1600 by Thomas Morley, whose songs may have appeared in some of Shakespeare’s plays  – begins:

Will you buy a fine dog, with a hole in its head?
With a dildo, with a dildo, dildo, with a dildo, dildo, dildo;
muffs, cuffs, ribatos, and fine sisters’ thread.

This catalog of various, and blatantly suggestive, bits and bobs reaches a rousing climax:

With a dildo, with a diddle diddle dildo,
with a diddle, diddle, diddle, diddle, diddle, diddle, diddle, diddle dildo,
with a dildo, diddle, diddle, diddle, diddle, diddle, diddle dildo.

Famed English countertenor, Alfred Deller, sang Morley’s ditty, and it’s not be missed:

A second notable poem, to zoom ahead, is by Restoration-era poet John Wilmot, the 2nd Earl of Rochester, in 1673. It’s called “Signior Dildo,” and it chronicles his misadventures:

You ladies of merry England
Who have been to kiss the Duchess’s hand,
Pray, did you not lately observe in the show
A noble Italian called Signior Dildo?

Wilmot gives us some truly vibrant lines in the poem. Take these:

The pattern of virtue, Her Grace of Cleveland,
Has swallowed more pricks than the ocean has sand;
But by rubbing and scrubbing so wide does it grow,
It is fit for just nothing but Signior Dildo.

Or these:

Doll Howard no longer with His Highness must range,
And therefore is proffered this civil exchange:
Her teeth being rotten, she smells best below,
And needs must be fitted for Signior Dildo.

Or these:

This signior is sound, safe, ready, and dumb
As ever was candle, carrot, or thumb;
Then away with these nasty devices, and show
How you rate the just merit of Signior Dildo.

Man of steel

But we can’t forget Thomas Nashe, Shakespeare contemporary and fellow man of letters, who waxed dildonic in his “The Choise of Valentines Or the Merie Ballad of Nash His Dildo.” The speaker of the poem, Tomalyn, finds his lover in a brothel. After he ejaculates prematurely, he has trouble getting it back up:

Her arms and legs and all were spread,
But I was all unarmed,
Like one that Ovid’s cursed hemlock charmed,
(So are my Limbs unwieldly for the fight,)
That spent there strength in thought of your delight.

What shall I do, to shew myself a man?
It will not be, for ought that beauty can:
I kiss, I clip, I winch, I feel at will,
Yet lies he dead, not feeling good or ill.

To rectify the problem:

She handled it, and danced it up and down,
Not ceasing till she raised it from (the swoune);

Tomalyn still proves overeager in the sack, and, worried he hasn’t satisfied his lover, avails of some assistance:

My little dildoe shall supply your kind,
A youth that is as light as leaves in wind:
He bendeth not, nor foldeth any deal,
But stands as stiff as he were made of steel;
(And plays at peacock twixt my legs right blithe
And doeth my tickling swage with many a sigh;)

“Curse Eunuch dildo,” Tomalyn continues, in parenthesis and conflict, after a lengthy description of the dildo:

(Curse Eunuch dildo, senseless counterfeit,
Who sooth may fill, but never can beget:
But if revenge enraged with despair,
That such a dwarf his welfare should impair,).

Dildo technology has expanded since the days of Florio’s glass phallus and Nashe’s steel member – as has the word dildo itself. Green finds dildo, dildohead, and dildobrain as an insult for “fool” or “incompetent” starting in 1960s-70s slang, as well as dildo to disparage “prostitutes” in 1990s Irish slang.

And then there’s the quant fishing village of Dildo, Newfoundland, whose Dildoians rally around a Captain Dildo during their summer festival, Dildo Days. How this town got its name is the stuff of legend, but the cereus cactus has been dubbed the dildo-tree and dildo-bush thanks to its prick-ly arms.

Dildos have changed in, er, shape, size, and color, but still, we may be hard-pressed to find a dildo more gratifying than the Early Modern member.

***

Shakespeare’s text is quoted from The Norton Shakespeare (1997, W.W. Norton, ed. Stephen Greenblatt). For more on Shakespeare’s strong language, see my previous posts.

6 thoughts on “Shakespeare’s dildo, and other secret Early Modern pleasures

  1. Jonathon Green (@MisterSlang) January 20, 2017 / 11:38 am

    1656 ‘A Strange Story’ in Farmer Merry Songs and Ballads (1897):The Cuckold her husband caper’d / When his head in the sack was in, / But grant that we may never fall / When we dance in the sack of Sin. / With a dildo, dildo, dildo.

    Liked by 2 people

    • John Kelly January 31, 2017 / 3:10 pm

      The early ballads seemed particular fond not just of using the word ‘dildo’, but jauntily repeating the word as much as one could get away with!

      Like

      • todd.vanyo@gmail.com February 11, 2017 / 10:48 pm

        Very similar to the SNL penis skit when censors finally allowed the word to be aired.

        Like

      • John Kelly February 17, 2017 / 2:32 pm

        From a Mental Floss roundup of controversial SNL skits: “The sketch, at a run time of just under four minutes, has the word ‘penis’ spoken 17 times and sung 26 times, for a grand total of 43 times. It allegedly garnered 46,000 letters of complaint.”

        Like

  2. Louise B January 20, 2017 / 12:56 pm

    Many thanks for this amusing and informative post on this most unamusing day of days. Much appreciated.

    Liked by 2 people

    • John Kelly January 31, 2017 / 3:09 pm

      And many welcomes! I’m glad it could provide some much needed escape.

      Like

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