To be honest, I’m really quite proud of my newest publication, “Early East India Company merchants and a rare word for sex” (forthcoming June 2011 in Words in Dictionaries and History. Essays in honour of R.W. McConchie). It’s an investigation of cultural history through looking at a bawdy word that comes up a single time in the letters of the English East India Company merchants in Japan (1613-1623). I start by trawling through a huge pile of Early and Late Modern English dictionaries, then get to the beef and discuss the word and its instances in EModE and LModE texts. Somehow in my conclusion I manage to bring in the various strands and add even more, so that an investigation of historical lexicography turns into an insight on Early Modern English merchants and their reading habits, and their taste of satirical texts.
Anyway, check it out, it’s quite fun, honest! (You can always skip the bit about dictionaries.)
But my point for this blog arises from the observation that people use euphemisms when talking about sex. For scholars, as someone put it, this happens by “hiding it behind learned curtains”. That is, when discussing the naughty stuff, switch to Latin. Other people switch register (like those I discuss in my aforesaid article), or language: for instance, when Samuel Pepys writes in his diary about liaisons with women other than his wife, he often switches to French:
“I [went] to St. Margaret’s, Westminster, and there saw at church my pretty Betty Michell, and thence to the Abbey, and so to Mrs. Martin, and there did what ‘je voudrais avec her …” (3rd June 1666, emphasis mine)
Anyway. The other day I read an interesting piece in the Japan Times Online about a late-19th-century Japanese traveller who visited Europe. The article is really a book review of the traveller’s memoirs, and in it there occurs the following paragraph:
He then goes on to detail over several pages, replete with quoted poetry and scholarly allusions, the ramifications for both geisha and customer of the practice [of buying sexual favours from geisha]. One understands — though there won’t be many modern Western readers who laugh out loud — that this use of a scholarly register and erudite references, augmented with bushels of pedantic detail, to discuss commercial sex and seduction is intended to be humorous.
Switching register as a marker of satire and humour I guess is a very common phenomenon — I’m sure we’ve all sent friends emails mimicking news flashes. In the case of the book reviewed in JTO, I found it amusing to find a reference to “learned curtains” being used for satirical effect – rather than straightforward euphemism – to talk about sexual practices. It makes a nice contrast to the works I looked at in and for my article.
I wonder if someone’s looked at this (kind of) practice in more detail?