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.
British comedy singing group Fascinating Aïda have some wise words of advice for you this Christmas:
Lyrics below the fold:
Swearing loves spelling. We abbreviate it online: WTF and GTFO. We encode it in military acronyms: SNAFU and FUBAR. We play with letters to avoid taboos: H-E-double-hockey-sticks. We spin apocryphal tales of sweary etymology: Ship High In Transit and For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. Sweary spelling even graces some of our finest literature – like in Shakespeare, who humiliates a prude by making him spell out the word cunt.
This is a guest post by Michael Adams, Professor of English at Indiana University Bloomington, past president of the Dictionary Society of North America, and author of several books on language. Michael previously wrote here about Donald Trump’s swearing, and will be joining Strong Language as a contributor in the coming months.
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In a recent review of my book, In Praise of Profanity, on Strong Language, Stan Carey notes that I’m guilty of an “occasional lapse, such as the Americocentric suggestion that it’s ‘hard to imagine’ when the word cunt isn’t face-threatening — it quite often isn’t in Australia, Ireland, and parts of the UK, particularly Scotland.” Our language attitudes tether us to a time and place, and I must own my parochialism.
As if parochialism weren’t bad enough, I may have been wrong about the American status of cunt, too. I’ve come across evidence of cunt’s re-appropriation as a term of endearment — not unalloyed BFF endearment but a grudging, competitive willingness to get along well supported by a word all the riskier because it’s used in unfriendly ways against women.
Language, linguists will tell you, doesn’t exist in a hermetically sealed vacuum: it has speakers, and those speakers exist within a particular time, place, and context. That means that the language is also affected by time, place, and context. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a quick-and-dirty overview of common Finnish swear words.
Finland is, for those who don’t know, the Nordic country bordered by Sweden on the west and Russia on the east. It is, as a country, a bit of a cipher: in spite of spending most of its medieval and modern history as either a duchy of Sweden or Russia, it’s neither Scandinavian nor Slavic, but its own little island of Finno-Ugricness. Finns on the whole are reserved folks, yet their best-known export is Lordi and they proudly support what might be the only Men’s Shouting Chorus in the world. They’re also people of very, very few words, no doubt because they must regularly rassle with the likes of peruspalveluliikelaitoskuntayhtymä (which refers to a regional community health provider). In short, they are a people of contradictions, and their swearing is no different.