Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Bard Language



Shakespearean Slang

Slate.com  By John Kelly  May 17 2016

The last scene of Titus Andronicus, performed in Utrecht in 2012. Underground235/Wikimedia

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing. 

While we flip the bird at explicit language advisories on this blog, I do want to issue a trigger warning for this post due to fictional content about rape. That’s a hell of way to kick off a little language study, huh? But even by today’s standards, Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, with its human sacrifice, gang rape, and cannibalism, is just brutally fucking violent. Amid all its carnage, though, is some sexual wordplay that sounds, well, shockingly modern for a play written over 400 years ago.

In just one of its many fucked-up episodes, this fuck, Aaron, helps these two other fucks, brothers Chiron and Demetrius, scheme to rape Lavinia, Titus’ daughter. As the three hatch their unconscionable plot, they amuse each other – you’re a real motherfucker, Shakespeare – with a little wordplay about stealing Lavinia away from her husband for their evil act:

Demetrius:  What, hast not thou full often struck a doe
And borne her cleanly by the keeper’s nose?

Aaron:  Why then, it seems some certain snatch or so
Would serve your turns.

Chiron:  Ay, so the turn were served.

Demetrius: Aaron, thou has hit it.

Aaron: Would you had hit it too… (2.1.93-97)

In terms of strong language, “snatch” jumps right out. Today, snatch is coarse slang for “vagina,” but this particular usage doesn’t emerge until much later; the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attests it by the early 1900s. But “snatch” is still sexually suggestive here. For a snatch was once also a “snack,” a quick bite of food. In the late 16th century, we see this snatch applied to the Elizabethan equivalent of a quickie, often with prostitutes. Snatch was then likely transferred to the female anatomy it so derogates today.

Unlike snatch, “turn” doesn’t seem so swearily salient. It may sound innocent enough to the modern ear, but turn also refers to sex. Turn’s a particularly nefarious and disturbing word in this passage, for it also underscores the fact that the brothers are committing gang rape (ugh, taking turns) and calls back previous lines where Demetrius essentially claims sexual entitlement to women (getting his turn).

Then we have this “hit it.” It sounds like a bit of current sexual slang jarringly out of place in Shakespearean verse, doesn’t it? Or are we just randy readers, supplying sexual subtext where none is warranted? Well, when Demetrius tells Aaron he has “hit it,” he’s saying Aaron’s point really hit the nail on the head (an idiom which actually dates back to the 15th century, as it happens). But Aaron’s rejoining “hit it” is basically what you think it means: not so different from when a 21st-century bro casually shares his objectifying desire for a woman with “I’d hit it.”

Aaron is not so eager to help Chiron and Demetrius later in the play, though. A little context aids this passage: Aaron, the Moor, has a bastard child with the brothers’ mother, Tamora, Queen of the Goths and newly-wedded Roman empress. A nurse tells him that the “Empress…bids thee christen it with thy dagger’s point” (4.2.69-70), but Aaron, horrible as he is, draws the line at the infanticide of his own child, thankfully:

Aaron: Zounds, ye whore, is black so base a hue?
Sweet blowze, you are beauteous blossom, sure.

Demetrius: Villain, what has thou done?

Aaron: That which thou canst undo.

Chiron: Thou has undone our mother.

Aaron: Villain, I have done thy mother.

Demetrius: And therein, hellish dog, thou has undone her. (4.2.71-77)

Aaron issues a few choice words aside from the more obvious “whore” and “villain.”Zounds was a minced oath for “God’s wounds.” And blowze really packs in the insults: In the 1731 edition of his Universal Etymological English Dictionary, Nathaniel Bailey defined blowze, as quoted in the OED, “A fat, red-faced, bloted wench, or one whose head is dressed like a slattern.” The sexist insult survives in blowzy.

Aaron even employs some pronominal profanity, if you will. Socially inferior to the queen’s sons, Aaron uses the more familiar “thy” when addressing Chiron as opposed to the more polite and then-class-appropriate “you” he employs in the previous passage. For Shakespeare, nothing says “fuck you” like “fuck thee.”

But for all his old time-y insults, Aaron also fires off a dis that sounds like Shakespeare talking smack in the contemporary schoolyard: “Villain, I have done thy mother.” Like his “hit it,” Aaron’s do means exactly what our modern naughty minds want this surprisingly old expression to mean. As a euphemism for “having sex,” the OED attestsdo in the late 15th century. William Caxton gets the first citation, in fact. (The sexy expletive, it, is found even earlier, dated to the 1440s.)

What can we take away from all this? For one thing, slang and swearing don’t typically age well. Shakespeare’s villain’s are today’s Disney baddies. And to be fair, Shakespeare would have been all WTF over today’s WTF. Language, especially slang, is constantly evolving to meet the various and changing needs of its users. But sometimes strong language is surprisingly durable, as we see in Shakespeare’s modern-sounding “hit it” and “do.”

For another thing, even expressions like “hit it” and “do,” while simple in their construction from nuts-and-bolts words, can reveal a sort of primally violent and deeply gendered foundation, at least when we consider them in the context of something as gruesome as Titus Andronicus. If anything, though, the few bits of strong language there are in Titus Andronicus provide a welcome linguistic distraction to this grisly shitshow of a play.

John Kelly is an educator, writer, and word nerd living in Dublin, Ireland. He blogs about word origins at Mashed Radish and Shakespeare at Shakespeare Confidential

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