Archive for July 27th, 2013

@#$%! Shakespeare at his worst, and Melissa Mohr’s short history on old curses

Saturday, July 27th, 2013
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Harumph.

Watch your tongue, sir.

 

Thou bawdy, motley-minded rudesby!

Thou brazen, raw-boned canker-blossom!

Thou art a sottish, clay-brained nut-hook!

Thou prating, paper-faced pantaloon!

Thou art a waggish, horn-mad dogfish!

Thou art a hideous, eye-offending, hedge-pig!

Thou vacant, lean-witted manikin!

Who knew this was William Shakespeare at his rudest?  According to the high school English teacher who runs the blog Marginalia, “I gave my students a list of his oaths and insults, garnered from the body of his plays, [which] shows a predilection for double entendres, sexual flaws, and short jokes. … Upon examining this list, my students were immediately struck by the lack of anything explicit. I had told them that Shakespeare could be quite foul, when he chose, and there was a collective disappointment when the list failed to provide them with anything particularly R-rated. It wasn’t until I began to help them weed through the euphemisms and sift through the language that they began to get a picture of the breadth and scope of Shakespeare’s curses. The average tenth-grader will probably not be aware that to call someone ‘raw-boned’ is to imply that the person in question has been having so much sex that they feel literally raw. They will not know that in Shakespeare’s day, the word ‘nothing’ also meant ‘no thing,’ ‘thing’ meaning penis, making nothing sort of a euphemism for the female genitalia. Thus, when Hamlet tells Ophelia that nothing is a fair thought between a maid’s legs, he’s obliquely referencing her vulva. And what, then, do you suppose is the real meaning of the title Much Ado About Nothing?”

HolyScoverIf you’re into antique obscenity, you might also want to check out Melissa Mohr‘s Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing – or at least John McMurtries review of it in today’s San Francisco Chronicle.  She studies the evolution of swearing from the Romans to today.  “Swearing is like the climate — it goes through cycles,” she claims.

“Ordinary people didn’t know Latin; women didn’t know Latin (with few exceptions, including Queen Elizabeth I); children didn’t know Latin. This made the language particularly suitable for talking about things you didn’t want the majority of people to understand — dangerous things such as sex.”

“In the Middle Ages, the equivalent of modern obscenity was not ‘foul words,’ but oaths. … Vain swearing [such as ‘by God’s bones’] was medieval obscenity, carrying all the power of the public utterance of taboo topics that defines obscene words.”

I take issue with her claim about the rarity of Latin – all the children in the Tudor household learned it, including Queen Elizabeth’s half-sister Mary and her cousin Lady Jane Grey, in addition to the males (Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII‘s well-educated first wife, certainly spoke it too, and his last, Catherine Parr).  Thomas More‘s household learned it.  I expect most children in the aristocratic households learned enough to fake it.  Presumably Petrarch didn’t write most of his work in Latin because he thought it would be kind of an inside joke.  And that’s just off the top of my head. Certainly it was the language of church and law, which already includes a lot of churchmen (and churchwomen, such as nuns) and lawyers, and I bet the people sitting in the pews had picked up a little along the way, though what they picked up on Sundays was not likely to include useful curses.

But “vain swearing” accounts for a lot of obscure curses, such as Shakespeare’s oft-repeated  “Zounds!”