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.
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 of…dildos?! That’s right: Shakespeare used the word dildo.
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.
I wrote about some of the diverse uses of the bird, the single-digit salute, the flip-off—the finger—in my book Damn!, and subsequently here at Strong Language in my digital piece, “Bird is the Word.” I found roots that harked back to a passage in The Clouds by Aristophanes, and to ancient Rome, where it was called the digitus impudicus, or the “impudent finger.” In an epigram of the first century poet Martial, he “points his finger, and the insulting one at that, towards Alcon, Dasius and Symmachus.” Emperor Caligula offering of his extended middle finger, rather than his hand, to his subjects to kiss was seen as scandalous. But that was Nero for you. What else did you expect? The gesture became so abhorrent that Augustus Caesar banished an actor from Rome for giving the finger to an audience member who hissed at the man during a performance. Although my next book, the cookbook memoir Not My Mother’s Kitchen, did not contain a single cussword or allusion to one, I discovered along the way that the Italian peninsula still had their fingers on the pulse of profanity—only this time with figs. Continue reading
One of the more entertaining literary spats of recent times was between two biographers of the poet John Betjeman (1906–84). It kicked off in earnest when A.N. Wilson, in a review at The Spectator in 2002, described Bevis Hillier’s biography of Betjeman as a ‘hopeless mishmash’:
Some reviewers would say that it was badly written, but the trouble is, it isn’t really written at all. It is hurled together, without any apparent distinction between what might or might not interest the reader. . . . Bevis Hillier was simply not up to the task which he set himself.
Hillier’s three-volume authorised work had taken him 25 years, and he was none too pleased to see it dismissed so. Years later he described Wilson as ‘despicable’. But harsh words were not enough: Hillier wanted retribution, and he got his chance when Wilson undertook to write his own biography of Betjeman.