Thursday, May 23, 2013

Wicked Words

Last week I read a new book called HOLY SH*T: A BRIEF HISTORY OF SWEARING, by Melissa Mohr. (Yes, that’s how the title is printed on the cover, fortunately, so I can cite it without typing a word that used to be called “unprintable.”) Lots of fascinating material! The author concentrates mainly on English, from the Middle Ages onward, but she begins with chapters on ancient Rome and the biblical constraints on swearing. She makes the important point, with many illustrations from primary sources, that up until at least the Renaissance cursing and swearing in the strict sense—invoking the Deity’s name fraudulently or blasphemously, or calling down divine wrath upon other people—was viewed much more gravely than the use of “dirty” words for bodily parts and functions, including sexual references. Those words became “obscene” only in recent centuries. The author traces this transition over the centuries, to the present situation in English-speaking countries (some other cultures still have strong taboos against religious swearing) where references to God and damnation are considered the mildest of the various types of profanity and obscenity. That development to its present extent, by the way, has happened in my lifetime. In the time and place of my childhood and teens, no polite person would say “hell,” “damn,” or today’s ubiquitous “oh my God” in mixed company or the presence of children.

What especially intrigued me in Mohr’s book was her exploration of sexual language in ancient Rome and, in the process, what the primary sources tell us about the Roman attitude toward sex. Their categories of sexual behavior don’t align with ours. For one thing, the distinction between heterosexual and homosexual as we know it didn’t exist. (A man who had sexual relations only with women was considered a bit odd; one writer attributed this oddity to the Emperor Claudius, and NOT as a compliment. As for women, as far as I could tell they were expected to be either faithful wives or chaste virgins or widows. Lesbian sexual activity was sometimes mentioned, but in the framework of one woman’s taking the “male” role, with grotesque fantasies about the clitoris substituting for the penis. Ye old double standard.) The distinctions weren’t made on the basis of status anyway, but of actions. And the distinction that mattered wasn’t whether a man had sex with a male or female but whether he was the active or passive partner. Passive sex was for women, boys, and slaves. For an adult male citizen to take the passive role was disgusting and disgraceful. Furthermore, performing oral sex was a passive act! Now, it makes sense in our culture’s viewpoint that fellatio might sometimes be seen as an act of aggression by the man being “serviced.” But we might also see it as the other partner playing an active role toward the male receiving the stimulation. The Romans apparently never saw it that way. Not only that, in male-on-female oral sex, they regarded the woman as the aggressor and the performer of the act as the passive partner—a viewpoint that thoroughly boggles my mind. That is why the Romans loathed the idea of cunnilingus, not on moral grounds because it was non-procreative and therefore “unnatural,” but because it framed the man as submissive to (gasp of horror!) a female. Interestingly, by the way, the Latin equivalent of the F-word didn’t apply to women. The Romans had a different verb (something English lacks) specifically for a woman's activity during male-female intercourse.

As for levels of discourse, Mohr demonstrates that the Latin equivalents of our English “dirty words” were considered rather crude, fit mainly for graffiti, invective, and satire. But they weren’t “bad words” in the moral sense that they became in the modern period (such as in the Victorian era, when the father of the author of LITTLE WOMEN changed his name from Alcock to Alcott, to eliminate the embarrassing syllable). Romantic and erotic Latin poetry more often used metaphors and euphemisms, similar to the flowery prose in older romance novels that some readers laugh at. C. S. Lewis wrote an essay on “four-letter words” that makes the same point. He was apparently reacting against D. H. Lawrence’s argument that the female C-word in the erotic scenes of LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER was a return to the “natural” way of talking about sex. Lewis’s essay contends that Lawrence was wrong by surveying sexual language in ancient Greek, Latin, and medieval English. Lewis comes to the same conclusion as Mohr, that classical writers didn’t use the crude words when they wanted to create a sensual effect. Some erotica publishers nowadays take a different viewpoint. Editors request and many readers seem to like graphic language as well as explicit on-stage action. Four-letter words are often treated as an integral part of the “hotness” rating of a book, the more the hotter. Since most of “those words” feel like a turn-off to me, associated with aggression rather than eroticism, I use only a select few of them, sparingly, as they seem to fit the characters’ personalities. Yet for quite a few readers, including female readers of erotic romance, four-letter words seem to be a turn-on. To complicate matters, the same word can be “hot” to one reader and icky to another. What’s a writer to do? Count on the publisher’s rating to steer readers to the level of raunchiness they like and away from what might offend them?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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