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.

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Getting a grip on “masturbation”

Many of our terms of abuse are founded on body parts or activities that are not insulting to attribute literally: “You’re a prick” is abusive, “You have a penis” is not; same for “You’re a cunt” versus “You have a vagina” and “You’re an asshole” and “You have an anus”; “You shit” as an epithet is angry, but as a statement meaning “You defecate” is boringly true; “You’re a fucker” is impolite, but “Literally, you copulate” is, for most people, not unflattering, though it may be a bit personal.

On the other hand, “You wanker” may produce less of a blush than “Literally, you are a masturbator.”

You can try this at home. Take something rude and vulgar, change it to literal technical words, then do the same with an equivalent masturbation reference. Gauge the varying effects:

You dumb-ass motherfucker.
You unintelligent-posterior mother-copulator.
You dumbass motherfrigger.
You unintelligent-posterior mother-masturbator.

Are you just fucking around?
Are you just fornicating in the vicinity?
Are you just jacking off here?
Are you just masturbating here?

Go fuck yourself.
Go fornicate with yourself.
Go wank off.
Go masturbate.

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Solo Artistry


A few days ago, in answer to a question by sesquiotic as to whether anyone was researching the field of what Chambers Cyclopedia, in 1728, termed ‘the Crime of Self-Pollution’, I posted a list of 360 terms for the verb ‘to masturbate’. I’m not researching it as such – no more than anything else that falls beneath the rubric ‘slang’ – but as the list suggests, I’ve found plenty of examples. Were I to have included the nouns ‘masturbation’ and ‘masturbator’ in the search I would have found 200 more. Indeed, checking out a list of terms that, for reasons of space, failed to make the cut in an earlier print edition of my slang dictionary, I find another 700+.  I have no doubt that there will be more. Search your browser on ‘masturbation terms’ or ‘words for masturbation’ and the sites come flooding. What or Roger’s Profanisaurus ( have to offer I cannot say other than it is doubtless profuse.

Yet if ever slang bore witness to its dependence on synonymity, to its focus on themes to an extent that makes it inescapably clear that plus ça change, plus c’est indeed la même bleedin’ chose, it is in its lexis of self-abuse. As  I say, I cut over 50% of the terms I had, c. 2005, amassed. I cut across the whole vocabulary – one can only bind so many pages in a single volume – but no other topic suffered so substantially. Why? Because once one leaves the 19th century, and the vast mass of masturbation terms have been coined since 1900, many emerging a good deal later, there is little to differ between them. Of all topics it is perhaps the most unashamedly formulaic. Of course there are other tropes: through slang’s predominantly male gaze sexual intercourse can all too often be reduced to ‘man hits woman’; the penis, all guns, clubs, knives and daggers, is often a boy’s toy (though gaming imagery seems as yet to have been overlooked); the vagina a narrow, dark and threatening passageway: one almost expects to encounter Indiana Jones picking his way between its booby-traps. But slang’s development of fuck, prick and cunt offer images that have, I would claim, some degree of individuality. And equally important, some creative bearing on the topic in hand.

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