Earlier this month, Whores of Yore published a set of letters that James Joyce wrote to his wife, Nora Barnacle. These letters are taken from Richard Ellmann’s Selected Letters of James Joyce (Faber & Faber, London), and they are delightfully raunchy filth. Joyce’s discussion of topics including masturbation, anal sex, coprophilia and his sexual desire for his wife are frank enough to even make a Strong Language reader blush a little.
Before I’d even stopped blushing, there were some words that got me thinking. And so, I present some annotations to some of the language in the letters. Thanks to Green’s Dictionary of Slang, The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), Merriam-Webster (MW) and Dictionary.com for providing a trove of information.
“Nora, my faithful darling, my sweet-eyed blackguard schoolgirl, be my whore, my mistress, as much as you like” (2 December 1909)
Here Joyce affectionately uses a term that means ‘dishonourable’ or ‘villainous’, which may be lost on the modern reader. He also uses the term a half a dozen times in Ulysses, but only ever in reference to men.
“You say when I go back you will suck me off and you want me to lick your cunt, you little depraved blackguard.” (8 December 1909)
Other example:“cuddling yourself up prettily to be blocked,” (6 December 1909)
‘Bubbie’ is first attested for a woman’s breast in 1675 according to Merriam-Webster (Green’s Dictionary of Slang also has 1681), making it older than the first attested use of ‘boob’ (1931) or ‘boobie’ (1916).
“I prefer your arse, darling, to your bubbies because it does such a dirty thing.” (9 December 1909)
Cock (female genitals)
The use of ‘cock’ to mean clitoris is uncommon. There’s no attestation in the OED, MW or even Green’s Dictionary of Slang.
Update: The above paragraph previously read: “The use of ‘cock’ to mean female genitalia rather than male is uncommon.” There is an entry in Green’s Dictionary of Slang for ‘cock’ meaning female genitals in general, and attested use in British English from 1833. He gives the origin as the French coquille (a shell of the kind like an oyster or cockle). This sense of ‘cock’ has also been the predominent sense in Southern American English. In an article on the US ‘cock’ dialect divide, Jesse Sheidlower notes that in Historical Dictionary of American Slang the earliest record of ‘cock’ for female genitalia is 1867. I learnt a thing today.
“Tickle your little cockey while you write to make you say worse and worse.” (9 December 1909)
This is a new euphemism for an erection for my vocabulary, but the OED has citations demonstrating it’s been in English since at least the Victorian era. Green’s has a reference to its use in 1879, as well as the excellent phrase “this will give you the cockstand”, which sounds like something out of a Chuck Tingle novella. Thanks to Dictionary.com for suggesting kickstand when it couldn’t find cockstand.
“You know now how to give me a cockstand.” (9 December 1909)
Come (also, come off)
“to come on your face and squirt it over your hot cheeks and eyes” (6 December 1909)
“Goodnight, my little cuntie I am going to lie down and pull at myself till I come (9 December 1909)
“I could lie frigging all day looking at the divine word you wrote” (9 December 1909)
This informal term for ‘masturbate‘ originally had a broader sense of ‘move about restlessly’, which then became ‘chafe/rub’ and then (perhaps unsurprising from that point), OED notes that it has been used as a term for masturbate since the 1500s. MW defines it as ‘copulate’, and Green’s has both the intercourse and masturbation senses, but all uses in Joyce’s letters refer to masturbation.
“frigged me slowly until I came off through your fingers” (3 December 1909)
“know that I was the first man that blocked you but did any man ever frig you?” (3 December 1909)
“You must have given that naughty little cunt of yours a most ferocious frigging to write me such a disjointed letter.” (16 December 1909)
A cheeky play on ‘lovebird’, Joyce’s term of endearment has not made it into the lexicographic record, but the sentiment is clear enough from the examples in the letters. Try using it in a sext this week.
“Goodnight, my little farting Nora, my dirty little fuckbird!” (8 December 1909)
“Do more if you wish and send the letter then to me, my darling brown-arsed fuckbird” (9 December 1909)
“fuck fuck fuck fuck my naughty little hot fuckbird’s cunt for ever” (9 December 1909)
“Perhaps the horn I had was not big enough for you for I remember that you bent down to my face and murmured tenderly ‘Fuck up, love! fuck up, love!’” (3 December 1909)
This is an unusual sense of ‘fuck up’, used as an encouragement, rather than the more common meaning of ‘fuck up’, as a failure, which has been attested in print for at least a century.
The ‘erection’ sense of horn here has been used in written English since at least the 1780s, in rather obvious analogy with the stiff animal excrescence. Joyce uses this sense of ‘horn’ in Ulysses. It can also refer to arousal in general, as in reference to his wife in the quote above, which is where that particular sense of ‘horny’ comes from (and is well over a century old).
“Perhaps the horn I had was not big enough for you” (3 December 1909)
“I am so played out that you would have to lick me for a good hour before I could get a horn stiff enough even to put into you” (16 December 1909)
This is a predominantly Irish English slang term for penis. Two of the four quotes in the OED for the term are from Joyce (one of which is from these letters). Be careful though, ‘Mickey’ is a lot of things to a lot of different people, not only is it a cartoon mouse, but also a Roman Catholic or Irish person, or (I assume by extension) a potato (US English), a bullock or noisy miner bird (Australian English) or a small bottle of liquor (Canadian English).
“pull out my mickey and suck it off like a teat” (9 December 1909)
“fiddling with his two bursting balls and at last pulling out boldly the mickey she loves to handle” (16 December 1909)
“It was you yourself, you naughty shameless girl who first led the way.” (3 December 1909)
A delightful example of semantic weakening, five centuries ago naughty meant ‘evil or hostile people’. Pretty sure from the letters that Nora was in no way hostile to these proceeding.
“a burning lustful kiss on your naughty bare bum” (6 December 1909)
Pull oneself off
“I did as you told me, you dirty little girl, and pulled myself off twice when I read your letter.” (8 December 1909)
Joyce’s letter is the earliest citation for this construction in the OED. Good work Joyce. He also uses the phrase in Ulysses.
“I am going to lie down and pull at myself till I come” (9 December 1909)
“Tired of lying under a man one night you tore off your chemise violently and began to ride me up and down.” (3 December 1909)
“straddling across my legs when I am sitting in a chair and riding me up and down” (16 December 1909)
“…riding me over the back of the sofa” (16 December 1909)
“riding me like a man with your thighs between mine and your rump very fat.” (16th December 1909)
“Some night when we are somewhere in the dark and talking dirty and you feel your shite ready to fall put your arms around my neck in shame and shit it down softly.” (20 December 1909)
In his letters, Joyce uses shit for the verb and shite for the noun. Although shit can be used as both a noun and verb in many varieties of English, shite is almost always only used as a noun.
“Do you come in the act of shitting or do you frig yourself off first and then shit?” (20 December 1909)
“your hot lips sucking off my cock” (2 December 1909)
It is always a challenge to date the earliest uses of informal and sexual language, because people are far more reticent to write these things down than they are to say them. This is why diaries and letters like Joyce’s can be such a boon. The use of ‘suck’ and ‘suck off’ to refer to giving oral sex (usually given to a man) do not have references earlier than the 20th century in the OED. Even Green’s Dictionary of Slang does not have a reference to ‘suck off’ for oral sex until 1905. The earliest reference to each in the OED are from a 1928 book on language use in North America. Even though the OED uses Joyce’s letters for some of the other language use mentioned above, they have not included these examples that occur almost two decades earlier than their earliest citation.
“your hot lecherous lips sucking away at me” (6 December 1909)
My goodness. And all these references are from one month–December 1909. Was it a particularly dirty month, or are there similar numbers of such references throughout the letters?
Asking for a friend.
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MY GOODNESS. One can only hope that when they were together they whispered these things to each other, or that their flat had very thick walls. Thank you for the vocabulary lesson!
In American English (at least), “ride” has enough innocent uses that an American asking for transport might ask “Hey, can I get a ride with you?” without raising the tiniest twitch of an eyebrow. But one wouldn’t want to ask the question in Ireland in quite that way, I believe.