Fuckbird, Cockstand and Frigging: Some annotations of James Joyce’s erotic letters to his wife, Nora Barnacle

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.

James Joyce by Alex Ehrenzweig, 1915 restored

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.

Other example:

“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)


“I love your cunt not so much because it is the part I block but because it does another dirty thing.” (9 December 1909)
A euphemism for penetrative sexual intercourse that is not in the OED or other dictionaries, but is sufficiently transparent in its meaning for all of that. It was clearly a term Joyce used regularly, as it also turns up in Ulysses.

Other example:“cuddling yourself up prettily to be blocked,” (6 December 1909)


“to fuck between your two rosy-tipped bubbies” (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).

Other example:

“I prefer your arse, darling, to your bubbies because it does such a dirty thing.” (9 December 1909)


“to stick it up between the cheeks of your rump and bugger you.” (6 December 1909)
We’ve had ‘bugger’ to mean anal penetration in English for over 400 years now. The term was originally (and I quote the OED directly here because otherwise it sounds like something fabricated) “a name given to a sect of heretics thought to have come from Bulgaria in the 11th cent. […] and afterwards extended to other heretics (to whom various deprecated sexual practices were attributed) (13th cent. in British and continental sources), and also to usurers (13th cent. in British sources).”

Cock (female genitals)

“If he did, did they go far enough to touch that little cock at the end of your cunt?” (3 December 1909)

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.

Other example:

“Tickle your little cockey while you write to make you say worse and worse.” (9 December 1909)


“The smallest things give me a great cockstand” (6 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.

Other example:

“You know now how to give me a cockstand.” (9 December 1909)

Come (also, come off)

“Was he a long time tickling you and did you come? If you did not touch him did he come against you and did you feel it?” (3 December 1909)
References to orgasms as ‘coming‘ have been in written English for at least three centuries, but Joyce is the earliest reference in the OED to have his name put to the use in Ulysses–the earlier references at anonymously authored works. Green’s Dictionary of Slang has a citation from 1599. That’s the time of Shakespeare people. If you ever wanted to write Shakespearean smut, ‘come’ would not be an anachronism.

Other examples:

“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.

Other examples:

“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)


“My sweet naughty little fuckbird” (9 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.

Other examples:

“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)

Fucked arseways/backwards

“I am delighted to see that you do like being fucked arseways.” (8 December 1909)
“Yes, now I can remember that night when I fucked you for so long backwards” (8 December 1909)
Neither word appears in relation to anal sex in any of the dictionaries I looked at, other than Green’s Dictionary of Slang, which notes that ‘fucked arseways’ also appears in Henry Miller’s Sexus (1949). Extra giggles for the fact that MW notes ‘backwards’ is in the “bottom 50% of words” looked up on the site.
Other examples:
“I am happy now, because my little whore tells me she wants me to roger her arseways” (9 December 1909)“Fuck me into you arseways, lying on your face on the bed” (16 December 1909)

Fuck up

“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.


“Does it give you the horn now to shit?” (20 December 1909)

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).

Other examples:

“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)


“gently take out your lover’s fat mickey, lap it up in your moist mouth” (8 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).

Other examples:

“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.

Other example:

“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.

Other example:

“I am going to lie down and pull at myself till I come” (9 December 1909)


“fling you down under me on that soft belly of yours and fuck you up behind, like a hog riding a sow” (2 December 1909)
‘Ride’ is still common in Irish English vernacular, perhaps most famously in a line spoken by Colm Meaney in The Snapper, adapted from Roddy Doyle’s novel: “I suppose a ride is out of the question” (scene here). Ride is a word with a long history in English, and across the Germanic languages, and has been used to refer to sex between humans since at least the 13th century, although possibly a lot longer.

Other examples:

“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)


“she wants me to roger her arseways” (9 December 1909)
A slang term from British English used generally of a man having sex with a woman. Also used my Evelyn Waugh and Dylan Thomas, although also in private correspondence rather than published works. Green’s Dictionary of Slang has the earliest attestation of this verb as 1710.

Shit, shite 

“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.

Other example:

“Do you come in the act of shitting or do you frig yourself off first and then shit?” (20 December 1909)

Suck (off)

“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.

Other example:

“your hot lecherous lips sucking away at me” (6 December 1909)

8 thoughts on “Fuckbird, Cockstand and Frigging: Some annotations of James Joyce’s erotic letters to his wife, Nora Barnacle

  1. Laura D May 8, 2017 / 11:33 pm

    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.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Heide May 9, 2017 / 12:33 pm

    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!


  3. Mike Pope May 11, 2017 / 2:33 pm

    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.


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