It would never occur to me to describe ears as “handsome volutes to the human capital.” That it did to Charles Lamb, who also called them “ingenious labyrinthine inlets” and “indispensable side-intelligencers,” says one thing about him and something else entirely about me, but it says something, too, about the linguistic environment where volutes to the human capital can thrive. Whether because of the Internet or some other mysterious, homogenizing influence, our language has lost some biodiversity. Even our obscenities—the parts of language least likely to lose their verve—have dwindled, and the survivors have dulled from overuse. “You've got balls,” we say, when once we could have yelled that “the testimonies of your Manhood are swell'd as big, Sirrah, as a couple of Norfolk dumplings!” Where we use mean hypotheticals, like "I would love to have the ability to make you sore," our ancestors promised each other nights spent “in prigging, wapping, and telling of drunken stories.”
To be clear: this isn't about sexual repression; it's about the sorry state of sexual expression. When did we forget how to talk dirty? Sexting transcripts are criminally boring. Craigslist ads read like chimp-generated remixes of the same five words. Is it the Internet? Why are Americans so bad at writing and speaking the thing they love thinking about and doing? You can measure a civilization's cultural capital by how it encodes its basest operations. By that yardstick, we're broke.
So, what would good bad language look like? Luckily, there was plenty of it in early modern London, where vulgarity had a vast vocabulary and even indecent proposals were decently couched. For an example of the latter we can look to a cheeky little pamphlet written in 1656 called the Academy of Pleasure. Author unknown (he knew better than to sign his name), it's an etiquette book for the morally flexible. What it offers is a) practical guidance in the art of preying on others (and, pretty broad-mindedly, how to avoid being preyed on) and b) criminal panache. If a 17th-century Londoner tried to scam you, he'd do it by announcing (grandly, irresistibly): “I have a task worthy the pregnancy of your spirit.”
I have a task worthy the pregnancy of your spirit: Save the slangforest. Breed dirty words. Bring synonyms back. Or just enroll in the Academy of Pleasure.
FLUENT IN LACKLUSTERESE
We live in an impoverished wasteland of panda-like fucks so dull from overuse that they refuse to increase and multiply. It might be that the longer we swim in codes and memes, the blander our linguistic habitat becomes. The Internet is good for ideas, but synonyms don't thrive in its universe. The web compresses language the way it compresses music into mp3s or images into GIFs. It's efficient. Lossy.
Brevity breeds shorthand. Television steam-ironed the American accent, and so has the Internet. Stripped of eye contact and body language, one of the easiest ways to telegraph agreement is to echo word choice. The effect (within commenting communities, say) is a bizarre catalytic conformity. We all have more or the same voice online. Even if arguments proliferate, linguistic difference dwindles. Having settled on the rules of engagement, we've hung onto our disagreements but totally lost our ears.
When Anthony Weiner writhed in the public eye, I watched, doubly dismayed—at his dishonesty on the one hand and the mundanity of his dirty talk on the other. Whatever his faults, Weiner has a long record as an articulate jokester; how could he have penned those uninspired, sub-literate half-sentences? Was it a lack of effort? A lack of interest? Or (and I think the truth lives here) is it that he's never considered applying the high standards he has for political performance to other kinds of wordplay?
Why does language get tepid and ugly just when it should be doing the most sensory kind of work? Shouldn't sexting be a petri dish of future Shakespeares, all dying to persuade, trying with words to transform bodies? It's a kind of alchemy, after all; straw into gold, words into wood.
In The History of Sexuality, Foucault speculated that those who write about sex acquire some kind of revolutionary halo. If mentioning the unmentionable transgresses, those who do so “ardently conjure away the present and appeal to the future, whose day will be hastened by the contribution we believe we are making. Something that smacks of revolt, of promised freedom, of the coming age of a different law. Tomorrow,” Foucault says, “sex will be good again.”
He was right, but that moment came and went. These days, there's no revolutionary halo inherited from obscenity, no promised freedom. The taboo limps along, not too relevantly, while millions of Dicks and Janes gabble about their genitals and porn habits and preferred positions with all the panache of misbehaving first-graders. I don't know whether sex will be good again tomorrow, but wouldn't it be great if one day, our way of talking about sex, and bodies generally, and other things too, was good again?
And before anyone brings up our wild and wacky modern sexual vocabulary, I acknowledge that yes, we've hyper-corrected for our prudish past with a laundry list of “positions” and acts that are just as static and resistant to recombination as our handful of naughty words. As poses, the reverse cowgirl and the dirty sanchez are bossy and instructional. Instead of Lego's you can build anything with, they're Paint by Numbers guides to “creative sex.”
Somebody might object here that that's the point of positions. Actions speak louder than words. Normally I'd talk, just as originally, about the Eskimos and their zillion words for snow, and I'd try to and fail to prove that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was basically right, our thought is constrained by the language we have available. Instead, try this: write down your personal dirty-word arsenal (every one you've ever heard, not even restricting yourself to ones you personally use), and compare it with the list of country line dance steps here. I promise that list 2 will be longer, and that for every word you wrote down, you'll find a word on that list—a 'botafogo' or a 'swivet' or a 'sugarfoot' that packs more energy, more possibility and more pleasure than the overworked monosyllables we use for sex (and insults! As if they weren't tired enough). Without taking anything away from country line dancing, it's embarrassing that a dance taught I learned in P.E. has a better and bigger vocabulary than all of sex.
Instead of pretending I'm hoping for a brighter future, I'll just admit, again, that I'm holding the present up for scrutiny against a distant past. Once upon a time, before Victorianism punished synonyms gone wild, long before we pathologized euphemisms, things were different.
THE ACADEMY OF PLEASURE'S STUDY ABROAD PROGRAM
The Academy of Pleasure was (usefully, for those claiming to read it ironically) half reference-work, half joke-book. Its lack of organization was probably strategic; besides advice, it also included poems, letters and dialogues that you could either emulate or enjoy. The advice acknowledges two things many advice columns don't: one, that the parties involved might not be moral paragons searching for an ethically perfect solution, and two, that even scoundrels want to sin with style.
The Academy advises you, for example, to refuse a known creep's advances not by rejecting his advances, but by accepting his compliments provided they aren't “glued to sinister cogitations.” (Since the creep's cogitations are patently glutinous, you've effectively refused him, on his own terms.) When you see a lady you admire, you might announce, like one gentleman did, that “t'other day after I had seen you, my belly began to swell.” And if you've recently married and therefore need to break up with your backup lover, the Academy can help you there too. (It recommends a glacial “Yours in all civil service” for your valediction.)
The Academy's strength is obviously its pragmatism. Suppose you made an assignation with a lady and forgot to keep it. Wasting no time on reproaches, the author advises you to start by praising your date's “immaculate candor” which can “whiten the swarthiest crime.” Add that you'd sooner sacrifice your life to sorrow and death rather than add to your guilt “by apologizing for a sin that cannot be remitted.” By such slow and steady steps does the standard non-apology rise, like yeast, to a kind of art.
Now, if you're on the receiving end of this variation on “I'm sorry you feel that way” (that timeless slab for undead arguments), the Academy of Pleasure can help you too. You might reply that your feckless lover “very aptly imitates those children who, having tied strings about the legs of their birds, sometimes suffer them to gain liberty to a great distance, but when they please twitch them home again.” Then you'd admit—skipping the customary steps of passive-aggression and denial—that you want him so much that “a slender excuse will serve where the injury is pardoned ere committed.” Crappy apology, but it worked since I'd forgiven you even before you screwed up. Finally, far from warning you to shun him in future, the Academy blithely models how to schedule your next assignation: “All the penance I shall impose is this,” its sample lady writes, “that you afford me a visit at my mansion tomorrow in the morning about the hour of ten.”
Thus and so did another age codify the ways and means of mending a botched booty call.
Back to Foucault: The History of Sexuality opens with an indictment of our “restrained, mute, and hypocritical sexuality” and describes the seventeenth century as a time when
“sexual practices had little need of secrecy; words were said without undue reticence, and things were done without too much concealment; one had a tolerant familiarity with the illicit. Codes regulating the coarse, the obscene, and the indecent were quite lax compared to those of the nineteenth century.”
An age that equips you with a template for soliciting sex from a woman down on her luck is special:
Again, the Academy includes, for the sake of completeness, the lady's likely reply. (She's all virtue in this case, but that doesn't mean she can't whip out a devastating burn.):
A RUFF BY ANY OTHER NAME
Even better than the etiquette and the letters—which are still formulas, after all—is the terrific arsenal of dirty language seventeenth-century people had at their disposal. I don't know whether it was the atmosphere of increased tolerance Foucault described, or that linguistic communities hadn't standardized to nearly the extent they have now, but whereas now we have d-words and c-words and 'naughty bits,' in the 1690s you could put your 'spigot' in a willing 'well.' Or offer to plop your 'vagary' onto someone's 'cabbage stump.'
There's a school of thought that condemns euphemisms on the grounds that they're mired in 'sex-negative' prudery and repression. That isn't wrong, but it isn't fair, either. The euphemism is older and messier than that, and we can expunge some from the lexicon without killing the genre outright. Whatever taxonomic merit there is in punctiliously calling our 'umbles' genitals and referring to our 'runnions,' 'sticks,' 'satchels' and 'tinderboxes' by their correct clinical terms (penis, penis, vagina, vagina, respectively), we should know, before we smugly rejoice in our freedom from inhibition, that in the 1690s, if you mentioned your 'Kingo' (or your 'Rowley') people would think of Charles II (or his prize stallion, Rowley) and all eyes would turn to your crotch.
As a lady, your 'sack' might be tickled by someone's 'Bloody Great Kidney Wiper,' or you could welcome a rolling pin into your treasure. Parts shuffle and recombine in circumvolutory spirals: her 'ruff' to his 'sweepstakes,' his bilbo to her wheel. You could explore her terra incognita with your Robin. Invite his spoon into your tub. Mock a man's rouncival, ride his rope, diddle his distaff. He might offer you his sap, or his slime—or, if he was feeling melancholy, his tear. If you were game, depending on your mood, you might offer him your 'commodity' or let him nuzzle your 'tuzzy-muzzy.' The fact that these all mean the same thing is an un-fact. The words refer to the parts we know, but just as there are nights when a lady's ruff drives you wild, there are nights when it's just a sack. Same goes for rouncivals and spigots.
Not that you would walk up to a stranger on the street and make the suggestion outright, obviously, although it was a rufty-tufty age. In one play, a nurse tells a nobleman that when she changed his baby and made him “clean about the secrets,” she smiled to see “that God had sent him in a plentiful manner.” Few nurses nowadays would congratulate a parent on the size of their infant son's penis. Or add, by way of compliment, that “it put me half in mind of your worship.”
I could go on, but the point is that the words were there in abundance, suggestive, drippy, connotative, waiting patiently for their turn like players on a bench. The difference matters: if you describe an encounter as 'a sickle in a sore,' you've said everything.
In this respect, at least, the early modern pornosphere beats the higher-ups, up to and even including Shakespeare. Sure, he loved to use 'quean' for whore, but I don't know how he resisted the other choices: a whore was also a suppository, a red petticoat, a rannel, a quail, a ramp, a stroller, a strum, a rump, a tiffany-trader, a trull, a punk, a trug, a trugmoldies and a traffic. Instead of 'prick,' why not 'the Ass's Tickle-Gizard,' the 'trowel,' the 'touch-tripe'? And as for 'nothing,' that word for a woman's unmentionables, I submit that we move forward bearing in mind that for all the vagina's many qualities, it's not a rose by any other name. There's more substance in a ruff, more poetry in a whibbob, and more impudence in a toby.
• A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart England by Gordon Williams
• Libertines and Radicals in Early Modern London by James Grantham Turner
• A History of Sexuality: An Introduction by Michel Foucault.
Lili Loofbourow is a writer living in Oakland. She blogs as Millicent over here.
Top image courtesy of the English Broadside Ballad Archive