Words and phrases that are to do with sex in literary and spoken English - Responses to offending language from the eighteenth and nineteenth century

Term Paper, 2001

19 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1 General introduction

2 Dr. Bowdler's "Family Shakespeare"
2.1 Methods
2.2 The original and the expurgated version of "Romeo and Juliet" compared

3 Bailey's and Johnson's dictionaries
3.1 Methods
3.2 Wordlists for Bailey and Johnson

4 Summary


1 General introduction

In his book "Dr. Bowdler's Legacy" Noel Perrin tells us in the first chapter that a big change of morality took place with the turn of the nineteenth century in England. He puts it as follows: "... the first new generation of the nineteenth century (grew) up more strait-laced, inhibited, and conventional than its parents, so that sons discussed their fathers' wild oaths, and daughters worried about their mothers' loose sexual behaviour."[1] According to Perrin one of the cornerstones of this new way of thinking was that the people began to acquire a more reserved attitude towards sexuality.[2] The chief cause of this tendency was what can be called the rise of the idea of delicacy, or "the new prudery".[3] From the middle of the eighteenth century onwards, delicacy came to be regarded as a special and precious characteristic - especially among women.[4] Basically, it means that people felt offended as soon as they were confronted with sexuality in whatever form. Blushing and fainting were outward indicators of this new propriety. Another consequence was that people began to keep away from anything that might be a burden on their conscience.

An important result of this trend was the emergence of the idea of expurgation in literature. That is people simply started to remove "words or scenes that were considered likely to offend or shock".[5]

The pioneering work in this field was Dr. Bowdler's "Family Shakespeare", which was published in 1807. Dr. Bowdler's aim was - according to the fashion of his time - "to exclude from this publication whatever is unfit to be read aloud by a gentleman to a company of ladies". In another passage he says that he wants to enable a father to read one of Shakespeare's plays to his family circle "without incurring the danger of falling unawares among words and expressions which are of such a nature as to raise a blush on the cheek of modesty ...".[6]

As he says in the preface to the first edition, Bowdler was primarily concerned with profanity and obscenity. In this essay I will constrict myself to the field of obscenity in its sexual dimension.

In the first part of my paper I will watch a Victorian at work by examining Bowdler's version of "Romeo and Juliet" and comparing it to Shakespeare's. What kind of words and passages does he change and in what way does he revise them? Does he treat different terms in different ways?

The second part will be concerned with Perrin's statement that sexual prudery - along with expurgation as its literary expression - was a typical feature of the nineteenth century.[7] I am not so sure about this. If this cult of sexual prudishness didn't exist before then surely this has to be reflected in the style and the things people wrote about. I think that examining dictionaries of the eighteenth century might provide an answer to this problem. That's why I will have a look at the two most influential dictionaries of the eighteenth century: Nathaniel Bailey's "An Universal Etymological English Dictionary" from 1721 and Samuel Johnson's "A Dictionary of the English Language" from 1755. Judging from their titles, they claim to comprise the whole of the language. If they really are comprehensive in their nature I expect them to include the whole range of words about sexuality or with sexual connotations - irrespective to their belonging to the standard or the lower registers of the English language.[8] My questions are: Do they really include all of the words? If not what kind of words do they exclude? Is there a particular strategy that underlies their treatment of words which are to do with sex? I hope that the answers can help to give more insight into the question of how people dealt with sexual language before Dr. Bowdler and his successors of the Victorian age.

2 Dr. Bowdler's "Family Shakespeare"

The man behind the "Family Shakespeare" remained disguised for a couple of years after the first anonymous and provincial edition in 1807.[9] Sometime it began to leak through that it was a certain Dr. Thomas Bowdler, a retired physician and country gentleman. He was born in 1754 and died in 1825, which enabled him to see the overwhelming success which the second enlarged and revised edition from 1818 came to be. Perrin puts it as follows: "This was to become the most famous of all expurgated books, and thirty years later its editors name turned into a standard verb."[10]

It seems that initially the second edition didn't attract much notice. It got a couple of reviews and sold a few hundred copies. But after three years of this shadowy existence, Bowdler's edition suddenly "leaped up to become the best-selling Shakespeare in England".[11] Perrin thinks the reasons to be the steady advance in delicacy between 1807 and 1820, the continuing growth of the reading public and especially a positive review in the important magazine the "Edinburgh Review" by the influential Lord Jeffrey in October 1821.[12]

The second edition consisted of all of Shakespeare's 36 plays and it had Bowdler's name as the sole editor on the title page. Perrin says about it: "... here was Shakespeare mutilated as no English author had been mutilated before ...".[13] Bowdler changed ten per cent of all Shakespeare wrote according to Perrin.[14]

I used a reprint from 1885 for my studies, which was modelled on the forth edition from 1825.

2.1 Methods

First of all, I want to recall the questions I have in the back of my mind. What kind of words and passages does he revise? What are his techniques? Does he only leave words out or does he also replace Shakespeare's terms with his own? Does he deal with words from different backgrounds differently?

My first step was to copy out all the passages that Bowdler changes in whatever way. After I had done so I thought it convenient - especially as regards my focus on sexuality - to divide them up into the following five groups:

A. Sexually charged images which are creations by Shakespeare. Shakespeare combined words in such a way that they are to do with sex in some way or other. To give an example: 1,1,213 (Romeo laments about being rejected by Rosaline):
"She will not ... ope her lap to saint-seducing gold." (Bowdler deleted the whole sentence.)
B. Terms carrying sexual meaning which belonged to the lower registers of English at that time. An example is: 4,4,19 (Capulet to a servant):
"A merrywhoreson, ha." (Bowdler changed "whoreson" into "fellow".)
C. Words and phrases about sexuality that were part of the standard register. An example might be:
"... and for a hand and a foot anda body, though they not be talked of, yet they are past compare." (Bowdler left "a body" out.)
D. Language that was considered religiously offensive and comes under the category "profanity". Example: 2,4,1: (Mercutio to Benvolio):
"Wherethe devilshould this Romeo be?" (Bowdler deleted "the devil".)
As I said above, I don't go into this subject more deeply.
E. Others. These are terms which either I wasn't able to assign to any of the above categories or couldn't explain at all, or which simply belong to rude language. An example: 3,5,156-157: (Capulet to his daughter):
"Out, yougreen-sickness carrion! Out, youbaggage! Youtallow-face!" (Bowdler omitted the whole passage.)

I don't concern myself with this point either.

In the following, I will present three tables (A, B, and C) giving first the original phrase and after that Bowdler's revisions. The main difficulty was to distinguish between the standard and lower registers, that is between B and C. I consulted two dictionaries which have the focus on slang and lower language in the hope of finding out where the terms were placed within the English language at Bowdler's time. The first is a contemporary dictionary: Francis Grose: A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785). The other came out in 1937 and examines words from below the standard throughout the centuries: Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. First, I looked for the word in Grose's dictionary. If I couldn't find it there I consulted Partridge's. The "G" in brackets means that I found it in Grose, the "P" that Partridge classifies it as lower register language at that time. If I [15] found the word neither in Grose nor in Partridge I assumed it to belong to the standard register.

2.2 The original and the expurgated version of "Romeo and Juliet" compared

A. Shakespeare's images

illustration not visible in this excerpt

1,3,39-57: And then my husband - God be with his soul, a was a merry man - took up the child, "Yea", quoth he, "dost thou fall upon thy face? Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit, wilt thou not, Jule?" And by my holidame, the pretty wretch left crying and said "Ay". To see now how a jest shall come about. I warrant, and I should live a thousand years I never forget it, "Wilt thou not, Jule?" quoth he, and pretty fool, it stinted, and said "Ay". ... Yes, madam, yet I cannot choose but laugh to think it should leave crying and say "Ay"; and yet I warrant it had upon its brow a bump as big as a young cockerel's stone, a perilous knock, and it cried bitterly. "Yea", quoth my husband, "fall'st upon thy face" Thou will fall backward when thou comest to age, wilt thou not, Jule?" It stinted and said "Ay".


1,3,106: Go, girl, seek happy nights to happy days.


1,4,89-95: This is that very Mab that plaits the manes of horses in the night and bakes the elf-locks in foul sluttish hairs, which, once entangled, much misfortune bodes. This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs, that presses them and learns them first to bear, making them women of good carriage.

This is that very Mab, ---

2,1,17-20: I conjure thee ... by her fine foot, straight leg, and quivering thigh, and the demesnes that there adjacent lie, ...


2,1,23-27: 'Twould anger him to raise a spirit in his mistress' circle of some strange nature, letting it there stand till she had laid it and conjur'd it down: That were some spite.[16]


2,4,130-138: What hast thou found?

No hare, sir, unless a hare, sir, in a lenten pie, that is something stale and hoar ere it be spent.

An old hare hoar, and an old hare hoar, is very good in Lent. But a hare that is hoar is too much for a score when it hoars ere it be spent.


2,5,76: ... but you shall bear the burden soon at night.


2,6,36: ... we will make short work, for, by your leaves, you shall not stay alone till holy church ...

... we will make short work --- and holy church ...

3,2,5-10: ... love-performing night, that runaway's eyes may wink, and Romeo leap to these arms untalk'd-of and unseen. Lovers can see to do their amorous rites by their own beauties; or, if love be blind, it best agrees with night.


3,2,12-16: ... and learn me how to lose a winning match play'd for a pair of stainless maidenhoods. Hood my unmann'd blood, bating in my cheeks, with thy black mantle, till strange love grow bold, think true love acted simple modesty.


3,2,26-31: O, I have bought the mansion of a love but not possess'd it, and though I am sold, not yet enjoy'd. So tedious is this day as is the night before some festival to an impatient child that hath new robes and may not wear them.


3,5,33-34: ... since arm from arm that voice doth us affray, hunting thee hence with hunt's-up to the day.


4,5,5-8: Sleep for a week; for the next night, I warrant, the County Paris hath set up his rest that you shall rest but little! God forgive me! Marry and amen.

Sleep for a week ---

4,5,10-11: Ay, let the County take you in your bed, he'll fright you up, i'faith. Will it not be?


B. Words and phrases from the lower registers [17]

1,1,28-29 (P): Me they shall feel while I am able tostand, and 'tis known I am a pretty piece of flesh.

'Tis well thou art not fish; if thou hadst, thou hadst been Poor John.


1,1,31 (P): Draw thytool...

Draw thy sword ...

1,4,25-26 (G): Is love a tender thing? It is too rough, too rude, too boisterous, and itprickslike thorn.[18]

... it is too rough ---.

1,4,28 (G):Pricklove forprickingand you beat love down.


1,5,9 (P): SusanGrindstone[19]

Susan ---

2,1,13 (P):AbrahamCupid[20]

Adam Cupid

2,1,34-38 (G, P): Now will he sit under amedlartree and wish his mistress were that kind of fruit as maids callmedlarswhen they laugh alone. O Romeo, that she were, O that she were anopen-arseand thou apoperin pear![21]


2,4,21-22 (G): ... he fights as you singpricksong.[22]

... as you sing ---.

2,4,29-30 (P): Thepoxof such antic lisping affecting fantasticoes ...

The plague ...

2,4,91-99 (G, P): For this drivelling love is like a great natural that runs lolling up and down to hide hisbaublein a hole.

Stop there, stop there.

Thou desirest me to stop in mytaleagainst the hair.

Thou wouldst else have made thytalelarge.

O, thou art deceived; I would have made it short; for I was come to the whole depth of mytaleand meant indeed tooccupythe argument no longer.[23]


2,4,101-102 (P): A sail! A sail!

Two. Two. A shirt and asmock.

A sail, a sail, a sail! ---

2,4,111-117 (G): ... the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon theprickof noon.

Out upon you. What a man are you?

One, gentlewoman, that God hath made himself to mar.

By my troth it is well said; "for himself to mar" quoth a?

... the --- hand of the dial is now upon the point of noon. ---

2,4,129 (G): Abawd! Abawd! Abawd! So ho.


2,4,151-155 (G): Scurvy knave! I am not one of hisflirt-gills, I am not one of his skains-mates. And thou must stand by too and suffer every knave to use me at his pleasure![24]


2,5,73-74 (P): ... to fetch a ladder by the which your love must climb a bird'snestsoon when it is dark.[25]

... I must go fetch a ladder for your love ...

3,2,134-137 (P): He made you for a highway to my bed, but I, a maid, diemaiden-widowed. Come, cords, come, Nurse, I'll to my wedding bed, and death, not Romeo take my maidenhead.[26]


3,5,153 (P): ...fettleyour fine joints ...[27]

... settle your fine joints ...

4,4,19 (P): A merrywhoreson, ha.[28]

A merry fellow! ha ...

4,5,9 (G):Madam,madam,madam![29]

Lady! lady! lady!


[1] Perrin, Legacy, 9f.

[2] In the essay "Victorian values" Asa Briggs shows the whole range of typically Victorian attitudes (in: Sigsworth, Victorian values, 10-26).

[3] Perrin, Legacy, 17.

[4] See: Ibid., 13.

[5] OALD, 130 (found under the entry: "to bowdlerise").

[6] Both quotations are from the preface to the first edition.

[7] Perrin, Legacy, 5 and 8.

[8] The system of different registers in the English language is well explained in Hughes' first chapter of his "A History of English Words".

[9] Perrin, Legacy, 61 (All the facts from this passage are Perrin's third chapter "Dr. Bowdler and his Sister", 60 -86).

[10] Ibid., 61. The word he means is, of course, "to bowdlerise".

[11] Ibid., 83

[12] Ibid. 83-85.

[13] Ibid., Legacy, 72.

[14] Ibid., 62.

[15] I based my Shakespeare-text on the Arden-edition.

[16] The phallic connotation of "to stand" had been known before. What is new here is the combination with "circle". See: Partridge, Shakespeare's Bawdy, 79.

[17] Words in bold letters carry sexual meaning.

[18] I only found the noun "prick" in Grose's dictionary.

[19] "The female pudenda".

[20] "The penis".

[21] I found "medlar tree" and "open-arse" in Grose and "poperin pear" in Partridge.

[22] I didn't find "pricksong", only "prick".

[23] I found "bauble" ("a man's testicles"; "the penis" at Shakespeare's time) in Grose, "tale" ("tail", "the penis") and "to occupy" ("to coit with") in Partridge.

[24] "Flirt-gill" was under the entry for "gillflirt".

[25] "The female pudenda".

[26] There was no entry for "maiden-widow" only one for "maiden-wife-widow".

[27] "To fettle" can have the meaning of "to coit with" (of a man) from the late 19th century onwards.

[28] There was only an entry for "whore".

[29] "A kept mistress".

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Words and phrases that are to do with sex in literary and spoken English - Responses to offending language from the eighteenth and nineteenth century
Bielefeld University
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Thomas Eger (Author), 2001, Words and phrases that are to do with sex in literary and spoken English - Responses to offending language from the eighteenth and nineteenth century, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/56313


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