This week, a hero of slang who showed that size does matter – in this case, the size of your list of terms for the you-know-what…
Of the many canards that assail the object of my life’s toil and linguistic affections is that of verbal inadequacy, the mockery by the loquaciously well-endowed of the size of one’s lexis. To use slang, they sneer, is to demonstrate communicative inadequacy. You and whose dictionary, ripostes the lexicographer, brandishing 125,000 slang variations. The counter-language is in fact vastly inventive, creative some might suggest, given its admitted focus on certain themes, to the point of satiety.
It is true that this may not have been apparent in slang’s earliest days, when faint hearts omitted it from the printed page, but earliest days pass, and come the hour comes the man. Slang, as I have attempted to demonstrate, has many such. Thus, our fourteenth such hero, the word-obsessed courtier and author Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty (1611-60). This ‘logofascinated spirit’ as he described himself, took upon himself in 1653 the publication of ‘The Works of Master Francois Rabelais doctor in physick … now faithfully translated into English.’ Rabelais (c. 1494-1553) was French and had written in a contemporary version of that language the work known as Gargantua and Pantagruel, the first books of which appeared in 1534 authored by one ‘Alcofribas Nasier’ – an anagram of the author’s name. The literary merits of his work (among other things one of the more censored productions of the last half millennium) are irrelevant here. What matters is the language he used, or more properly the language into which Urquhart, a devotee of ‘metonymical, ironical, metaphysical and synecdochical instruments of elocution’ – or ‘meaningful words’, as the less circumlocutious might put it – rendered it in his translation.
A good example is this list, all items of which refer to what Urquhart initially terms the ‘you know what’, a piece of careless vaguery applicable to many aspects of sex, and in this case the giant Gargantua’s penis, which is being dandled by an enthusiastic gaggle of court ladies. So gross a member doubtless merited so extensive a list: ‘One of them would call it her pillicock, her fiddle-diddle, her staff of love, her tickle-gizzard, her gentle-titler. Another, her sugar-plum, her kingo, her old rowley. her touch-trap, her flap dowdle. Another again, her brand of coral, her placket-racket, her Cyprian sceptre, her tit-bit, her bob-lady. And some of the other women would give these names, my Roger, my cockatoo, my nimble-wimble, bush-beater, claw-buttock, evesdropper, pick-lock, pioneer, bully-ruffin, smell-smock, trouble-gusset, my lusty live sausage, my crimson chitterlin, rump-splitter, shove-devil, down right to it, stiff and stout, in and to, at her again, my coney-borrow-ferret. wily-beguiley, my pretty rogue.’
When Urquhart wrote, aside from its medico-Latin self, the primary synonym for penis was yard. Its roots lie in number of terms, typically the Old Teutonic gazdjo, all of which mean a thin pole; as such may possibly be linked to the Latin hasta, a spear, and even to the Italian cazzo, also slang for penis. (Certainly 17th century slang’s gadso and catso borrow from the Italian original and like a number of similar terms mean both penis and rogue or villain.) The first dictionary use comes in John Florio’s New World of Words of 1598: ‘Priapismo, [...] pertaining to a mans priuities, or the standing of a mans yard), but it can be found much earlier, e.g. in Wyclif’s 1682 translation of the Bible (where, in Genesis, it is found in the story of the first circumcision). Though Urquhart does not disdain yard, he had Rabelais’ vast linguistic inventiveness to deal with. He proved an able pupil.
Looking at his choice of images, one sees many that would recur in slang’s treatment of the penis: the colour of pink flesh (brand of coral, crimson chitterlin), the idea of consumption whether by vagina or mouth (the crimson chitterlin again, the sugar-plum, live sausage or tit-bit), the idea of the penis as attacking the woman (fiddle-diddle, tickle-gizzard, touch-trap, bush-beater, claw-buttock, rump-splitter ) or simply interfering with her garments (placket-racket, smell-smock, trouble-gusset); it can come from hell (old rowley, bully-ruffin, shove-devil); it can show its shape (Cyprian sceptre, staff of love, stiff and stout), it can be cunning (picklock, pioneer, coney-borrow-ferret, wily-beguiley, my pretty rogue) and simply metonymize the rampant male (down right to it, in and to, at her again). And of course none, none at all actually use the word in question.
It is a wonderful list – and Urquhart produces many similar, and often in the context of the pleasures of sex or food. Some of its words already existed, but most were his coinages; a skill that he had already demonstrated in his Trissotetras, or, A most exquisite table for resolving all manner of triangles (1645) in which of the 200 words he used to ‘simplify’ Pythagoras’ theorem, the bulk were of his own making.
On the level of pure imagery Urquhart’s coinages are not especially exceptional. But as noted they represent themes that would embed themselves (and in some cases were already embedded) in slang. But the subject of his list – the male member, no more, no less, and synonymized to such variegated degrees – was certainly still unique. No slang dictionary – or more properly glossary, since no dictionary of slang proper would appear for another 45 years – had yet approached sex so freely. The 16th century whores and villains whose careers had been itemised in the canting lists obviously had sex, but as regards the bits and bobs, the human giblets required to get the job done, then the canting crew, at least in print, were often as puritan as the establishment they defied. That Urquhart was one of that establishment, a member of the Scottish landed gentry and intimate of King Charles I, merely underlines an irony. And the belief that one had to cross the Channel if one wanted to get that ‘dirty’ stuff uncensored was a truism (if not a truth) that appealed to 17th century Britons as effectively as its always has to their successors.