Skip to comments.When 'etymology' gets down and dirty -
Posted on 12/14/2003 3:26:10 PM PST by UnklGene
When etymology gets down and dirty -
In his book The Lover's Tongue, word junky Mark Morton reveals that dirty language has come a long way in the last few hundred years
Saturday, December 13, 2003
WORDS I - Etymologist or not, when a guy writes a book that explores the origins and development of "dirty" words -- and there are words in this book not even a referee has heard -- he can expect a broad range of responses.
Since the publication this fall of The Lover's Tongue: A Merry Romp Through the Language of Love and Sex, Mark Morton, assistant professor of English at the University of Winnipeg, and a fellow word junky, has experienced "many reactions from friend and foe alike -- some of them nice, some of them not so nice."
Well, surprise, surprise.
"Actually," the personable Morton says, "some of them were surprising. My wife's grandmother, who is in her eighties, really enjoyed the book. She thought it was a hoot -- except for one thing. She told me the chapter on the penis was too long and too hard."
On the other hand the author's mother, while she was delighted with her son's previous book -- Cupboard Love: A Dictionary of Culinary Curiosities -- has had to "make adjustments" to this one.
Morton suspects his Mom is not alone in that regard.
Far from it.
"I'm sure that would be the case with most people who buy the book," he says. "I think it's the kind of book that won't be seen on the coffee table -- the way the other one was."
In 2001, Morton -- who was born and raised on a farm near Weyburn, Saskatchewan, and educated at the University of Regina and the University of Toronto -- decided that, having already written about food, he would now write about sex.
What else is there?
"Well," Morton says, "I did consider sports. But I settled on sex -- because sex is something that almost everyone is interested in, and also because sex has been around for hundreds of years, and so it has an extensive history that I could research."
What made the process easier is that seven years ago the Oxford English Dictionary -- all 20 volumes of it -- were put on CD Rom.
"For etymologists," Morton says, "it revolutionized the practice of researching. To that point, you could find (the Oxford English Dictionary) only in the library -- and suddenly here it was on your computer."
All told, Morton used several hundred dictionaries, among them the Dictionary of Middle English. He located words in one dictionary and then "tracked" them to another ... and another ... and another, until finally his sources (and presumably his energies) were exhausted and it was time to write.
Before he could write The Lover's Tongue, Morton had to first organize it -- no simple task for a work of this sort. "In a sense," he says, "it was an easy book to write, but a difficult one to organize."
Unlike Cupboard Love, which consists of "listings" in alphabetical order in the style of dictionary entries, The Lover's Tongue was written in sentences, and paragraphs, and chapters.
Says Morton: "I think it becomes a more readable book that way. No one reads a dictionary cover to cover."
In this book -- and love and sex are allotted equal space, incidentally -- there are words for courting, words for the genitalia, words for sexual orientation, words for the act itself.
There are words, words, words. Which is an appropriate way to phrase it, because there's an awful lot of Shakespeare in The Lover's Tongue -- as there is of the "lover's tongue" in Shakespeare.
"On one hand," Morton says, "it's true that there are hundreds of words in the English language that first appeared in Shakespeare. But that doesn't mean that he invented them. But I think you could say this about Shakespeare: "Whenever Shakespeare could make a dirty pun, he would. He loved bawdy language, that's for sure."
(Parents, do you have any idea what your teenagers are reading in their high school English classes? Check out the part in Hamlet, where our hero is lying with his head in Ophelia's lap and he asks his girlfriend if she had been speaking of "country" matters -- to cite only one of countless examples in the collected works of the greatest writer in the history of the English language. But I digress.)
Apparently, two centuries in particular were especially known for this sort of thing: the 16th, which was Shakespeare's time, and the 18th, which might as well have been.
A good deal of it, Morton explains, has to do with the attitudes towards censorship. Language police in the Bard's day did not have a problem with what we in our day would consider to be "dirty" words.
(Blasphemy was another matter altogether.)
But that's the 1500's for you.
By the 1700's the most offensive words that one could speak were "arse" and "bitch" and "fart."
Today on CBC Radio, Morton says, for obscenities they draw the line at "f---" and "c---."
Of the "dirty" words that appear in The Lover's Tongue, the author's personal favourite is "merkin." Perhaps that's because it sounds a bit like "Morton," he says with a laugh.
In any case, to set the stage: cast your mind back to the 1700's. Syphilis is running rampant; indeed, there is no cure for, or reliable treatment of, veneral disease in general. Females embarrassed by hair loss in the vicinity of a certain private body part find comfort in the merkin -- a "genital toupee, a pubic wig," as Morton puts it.
"You would think they'd have more important things to worry about, under the circumstances," he says. "But it's funny the sort of things people worry about. I think it parallels cosmetic surgery in this day and age."
Those who read The Lover's Tongue will undoubtedly do so to be entertained. Morton, of course, is willing to settle for that. But he did hope the book would serve a higher purpose -- that it would draw our attention to the fact that language is taken for granted; its history, the origins and the development of words, is either unappreciated (which is bad enough) or (worse yet) ignored altogether.
"We tend to think that language has just dropped down out of the sky," Morton says. "But, of course, it didn't. The words had to have come from somewhere. That's what etymology's all about."
And there are times when the etymologist has to get down and "dirty" -- all in the line of duty.
Women's traditional duties -- bearing children, rearing family, comforting and caring -- aren't nearly so interesting as some of their other roles. It is the portrayal of woman throughout history as temptress that has intrigued Saskatoon author (and summertime Simon Fraser book editing prof) Jane Billinghurst.
Billinghurst, who holds an MA in philosophy and German language from Oxford University, explores the myth of the temptress in From the Original Bad Girls to Women on Top: Temptress (Greystone, $36.95). From Eve to Salome to Madonna, the nymphet to the vamp to the matron, this vividly illustrated exploration attempts to make sense of the myth of the seductress.
It is men, argues Billinghurst, that have created the myth ("they have constructed stories that reflect their fantasies and their fears"), and women (like Madonna) who, once empowered, take back the creation and offer their own versions -- for profit or for pleasure.
What is most remarkable about this little book is its beauty. Almost self-consciously tempting, its full-colour illustrations taken from art and film seduce. Its text, however, despite making a cogent argument, is not as rich as the visuals it is packaged with.
This small detail hardly matters, though. What you want this book for is the women, the sirens and vamps, the mistresses and mermaids laid out in all their tempting glory.
"I'm proud to be A Merkin, where at least I know I'm free."
Mr. Johnson would like a little fur trimmed collar for the winter.
Not me, that's why I didn't read the article and didn't post to the thread.
Not really, the words just get more erudite. For example look up "callipygian" or (variant "callipygous"). I'll bet most people don't even know there *is* a word for that.
Yes! Sex, in my opinion, ia a far more significant New World contribution to Western Civilization than tobacco, or even pototatoes.
As you might guess, I consider Dan Quayle to be my primary intellectual influence.
The 'merkin' is the source of the name of the President in Dr. Strangelove: Pres. Merkin Muffley
Imagine how Haman felt in the OT book of Esther!