Tickle gizzard and the pleasure pivot: A history of sex slang and the coolest ancient dirty words

The sixpenny suburb sinnet. A lassie's by-job: 15th and 16th century sexual slang is vulgar, creative and very fun

Published October 5, 2014 5:00PM (EDT)

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Excerpted from "The Vulgar Tongue: Green's History of Slang"

A young lady was out riding, accompanied by her groom. She fell off her horse and in so doing displayed some of her charms; but jumped up very quickly and said to the groom: ‘Did you see my agility, John?’ ‘Yes, miss,’ said he, ‘but I never heard it called by that name before!’ – Another version has it: ‘Yes, miss; but we calls it cunt in the kitchen!’ ‘

--An English Popular Story, in "Kruptadia" (1888)

Sex runs through slang like blue through Roquefort. It has been a driving force for as long as the vocabulary has been collected. The first such glossary, extracted from Copland’s Hye Waye of c. 1535, offers apple-squire (a pimp), dock (to have sexual intercourse), and callet, drab and dell (all whores), while his lesser-known Complaynte of Them that ben To Late Maryed (1505) has instrument (the penis), and stand (to have an erection). There would be much more to come. If one looks at even the most broad-brush of taxonomies, one finds perhaps 7,000 terms referring to intercourse, to the genitals and what is done with them, to prostitution and to venereal disease. If one adds women, who are almost always seen in a sexual context, one is moving towards 10,000 terms, not far below 10 percent of the entire slang lexis.

Slang, being a language of synonyms and of themes, repeats itself. The penis has taken on 1,200 aliases in 500 years. The jockum becomes the instrument becomes the pistol becomes the beef bayonet becomes the purple-headed custard chucker. The imagery draws on Greek (pego, literally a fountain) Latin (member, from membrum virile), French (bracmard, a short sword) and Yiddish (schlong, a snake), food (tummy banana), proper names (John Thomas), on the nursery (winky), on hunting (crack-hunter), on an armoury of guns (bazooka) and clubs (pestle), sticks (gutstick) and knives (dard) and naturally offers a role to euphemisms (What Harry gave Doll) and rhymes (Hampton Wick). Other images include those drawn from physics (pendulum), tools (derrick), mechanics (machine), animals (ferret), music (skin flute), botany (sensitive plant), invertebrates (worm), and human anatomy (middle leg). In a rare excursion into mutual pleasure it has been a lady’s delight and even, uncharacteristically substituting procreation for pleasure, a baby-maker. Some terms survive, seemingly the oldest: cock, prick and tool were all available to standard English speakers of the early era and while their register has been downgraded to slang, they remain common. Citations prove them still the port of first call. The more florid variations have their moment and disappear into the dictionaries.

Slang’s vagina monologue is equally fecund. There are nearly as many terms as there are for penis. (There are even more for sexual intercourse but while there are phrases using play and dance there is a single overriding image: man hits woman.) Cunt is the great survivor, a survival that is more impressive in that unlike its penile equivalents, the word, while seemingly unexceptional in Middle English, was not transmuted, other than surreptitiously, into the Early Modern or beyond. It is not dignified as for instance are cock and prick by Shakespeare, although he dances near its edge with Hamlet’s ‘country matters’ and with other puns.

It is nameless (the monosyllable), rendered literary (agreeable ruts of life), or euphemistic (down there), sniggering (where Uncle’s doodle goes), amatory (Cupid’s arbour), and metaphysical (Alpha and Omega). It has names (Mother of All Saints), it is a place for the penis (pole hole), it is laboriously punning (Eve’s custom-house, where ‘Adam made the first entry’), it is a repository for semen (honey-pot). It is a labourer ( buttonhole worker), something that one can ‘ride’ (town bike), and on which one may ‘play’ (lute). It is a road (covered way) and an entrance (front door). It is lucrative (money-maker), even if a Tipperary fortune is apostrophized by Grose as ‘two town lands [the breasts], stream’s town [the pudend] and ballinocack [the anus]’). It is a place both specific (Leather Lane) and generic (garden). The synonymy seems inexhaustible: nature in general (nature’s tufted treasure) or specific (gooseberry bush); water (the peculiar river) wherein are many fish (ling, whelk, trout); food gives yum-yum, meat and dripping pan. There are vegetables (cabbage) and fruit (split apricot). Then the animals, both the beaver and the pussy.

Above all slang is man-made in the most literal sense and man for all his boasts is frightened. Many vagina images are fearful, suspicious. It is voracious (snatch), it is a trap (fly-catcher), a carnivore (snapping-turtle), it hurts (rough-and-tumble), it brings inevitable disease (claptrap). It is a hole (hole of holes), a sewer (drain), a chasm (pit) and a slit (gash).

One may deplore the stereotyping but it is harder to fault slang’s imagination.

The question, however, is not whether or what, but why. Why slang has taken it upon itself to create quite so many variations on the theme. The answer would seem to be, as it is in other multi-synonymic areas such as crime and drugs, the need for secrecy. Or in this case the acknowledgement of what, at least directly, cannot be said (particularly in public) or written for publication. In this such terms differ from those for another vastly synonymized group, the many words for drink, where one wonders if the mass of terms (several thousand, especially as regards drunkenness) suggest that one simply can’t have too much of a good thing. Rather than talking behind its hand, slang is shouting about intoxication, celebrating alcohol in all its contradictory moods.

We remain confused by sex and its language. In 1965, appearing on the late night television talk show BBC3, the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan suggested that ‘I doubt if there are any rational people to whom the word “fuck” would be particularly diabolical, revolting or totally forbidden.’ The outraged response proved him wrong. Fifty years later his belief has yet to be wholly sustained. The taboo on ‘fuck’ and its peers has undoubtedly weakened in the face of a more sexualized culture, but it still can and does provoke. Britain’s tabloid media – whether print or digital – to which such sexualizing is often ascribed, still quail from spelling out the ‘dirty words’, although the former broadsheets appear to consider their supposedly more intelligent audience better capable of encountering such words. America, where religion remains a repressive force, is uniformly prudish, paradoxically so considering the country’s thriving pornography industry. In Anglophone countries at least, the use of such a term by a public figure triggers a kneejerk burst of moral condemnation.

Public attitudinizing should not be confused with private practice. In 1965 Leslie Fiedler described ‘fuck’ as ‘the single four-letter word no family newspaper would reprint, though no member of a family who could read was likely not to know it’, and if he was correct then, then all the more so now. The press, though still not in America, may have become less fearful, but the reality is that ‘fuck’, once worthy of court cases, can be found emblazoned on T-shirts.

The ‘canonical’ obscenities are easy to find. Fuck as a verb is first recorded in 1508 (in Dunbar’s ‘In Secreit Place this Hyndir Nycht’) and as a noun in 1654 (in the news-sheet Mercurious Fumigosus); it maintains an unbroken record ever since. Cunt, for all that it had been tabooed since the mid-fifteenth century, is recorded in 1540 (in Lyndsay’s Satyre of Thrie Estaits); prick in 1556; cock in 1450; arse, which had been regularly recorded from the late fourteenth century, appeared in a sexual sense in 1512 (it appears far earlier in Abbot Aelfric’s glossary of 1000, translating the Latin nates); ballocks/bollocks has been found since the 1380s (and is also in Aelfric, translating testiculi and spelt beallucas). There is no sense, reading the citations, that these were as yet segregated from ‘proper’ language. These were terms for the body and its functions (one finds similarly early uses of the best-known terms for defecation and urination) and one used them unabashed. They seem, even, to predate most of the ‘official’ terms: one finds testicles in 1425 and copulation in 1483, but penis is not recorded until 1578, vagina in 1682, sexual intercourse in 1753.

Vernacular use did not preclude the growth of synonyms. Between 1500 and 1600 noun equivalents to ‘fuck’ were bob, clipping, dancefalling sickness, hornpipe, leather, pleasure, running at the ring, roust, sportstroke, tillage, trade, and trick. For the verb there were: bed, bob, caterwaulclip, dance, do the deed of darkness, do it, flesh it, foin, foutre, frig, friskginicomtwig, have, jape, juggle, jumble, leap, labour leather, lie on, niggle, nockoccupy, play at … in various compounds such as play at Adam and Eveat all fours, at belly-to-belly, at blindman’s buff, at couch quail, at couple your navels and several more; the list continues with plough, rifle, seal, sportswive, thrum, thump, tick-tack, till, towze, tread, tumble, twang, vault and wap. The terms drew on standard English, on puns, on euphemism, on nature and animals, and on foreign languages. In most cases the woman is passive, even invisible; the idea of physical domination by the male is a constant. These would remain among the primary images. And the same period produces nearly fifty terms for the vagina and around forty for the penis.

Unspecified copulations and the genitals required to perform them, whether encountered in conjugal situations or otherwise, presented only one part of the whole. The commercial variety of sex, for which the lexis would in time amount to many hundred terms, was also establishing itself within the language. By 1600 the prostitute could be a white apron, hackney (who like the homonymous horse was both ‘hired’ and ‘ridden’), picked-hatch vestal, scab, smock servant, smock vermin and striker (who could also be her pimp). The key word was suburb, plus its adjective suburban. Literally ‘beneath the city’, such early suburbs – Holborn, Wapping, Mile End, Bermondsey, Clerkenwell– may have become parts of central London but, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they were beyond the City and its walls, and, as such, were home to various ‘stink’ industries – tanning, leper hospitals, playhouses and brothels. And most notoriously the last. Thus a whore could be an aunt of the suburbs, a suburb wench, a suburban strumpet, a sixpenny suburb-sinnet and a suburb lady, while the world of prostitution was the suburban trade. Her consort, the pimp, was variously an apple squire, apron squire, bellswagger, captain, hackney, smell-smock, smock merchant (or agentattorney, tearer and tenant), a smocker, smockster, smock pensioner (smock in all cases metonymizing the woman who wore it), striker, and suburban roarer (who could also be a whore).

These terms are all attested in one form of contemporary print medium or another. And with the exception of cunt, which as noted would not be retained in standard use after 1450, the supposed ‘dirty words’ had not been fully prescribed by 1700. Nonetheless there was a growing circumscription, and if in doubt, what might wish to qualify as literature opted for some form of euphemism when it came to matters sexual, if not yet defecatory. Judiciously or otherwise, slang dictionaries have chosen to offer a home to these linguistic hybrids. These are literary creations by canonical authors: they are not be confused with puns nor double-entendres: there is no humour, no nudging nor winking involved, even if such as John Cleland were undoubtedly aiming, like any other pornographer, to achieve that for which ‘dirty books’ and the ‘dirty’ words within them are created; the application of male hand to male member and, to offer some pertinent euphemisms, to undertake the hand-gallop and ensuing sailor’s joy that follows.

Take Farmer and Henley’s Slang and Its Analogues, a seven-volume slang dictionary that appeared between 1890 and 1904 (with a 1909 revision for the letters A and B). The six columns of synonyms for greens, sexual intercourse, feature a number of established literary stars. Among them we find Robert Burns (do a lassie’s by-job, a mow, or a random pushplay at houghmagandie, lift a leg on), John Marston (go bed-pressing, vaulting or bitching), Shakespeare (do a bit of business, make the beast of two backstake a turn in the lists of love), Alexander Pope (to wag one’s tail), and Thomas D’Urfey (join faces, get what Harry gave Doll).

Slang is not merely a receptacle of obscenities, for all that its critics might wish to dismiss it as such, but when dealing with euphemisms, the rendering the rough smooth and the bitter sweet, one must accept that the original word must be of such a type that writers had come to recoil from its use within what was known as ‘polite company’. Hence the euphemism, and the slang dictionary benefits from a number of such polite necessities. Euphemism was the only way that many writers were able to render sex palatable, or more important, publishable for commercial gain. Of the many users, a couple, one from the seventeenth and one from the eighteenth century, can serve as exemplars.

The first great literary creator of such terms was the word-obsessed courtier and author Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty (1611–60), a ‘logofascinated spirit’ as he described himself, who 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 loquacious 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 placketracket, her Cyprian sceptre, her tit-bit, her bob-lady. And some of the other women would give these names, my Roger, my cockatoo, my nimblewimblebush-beater, claw-buttock, evesdropper, pick-lock, pioneer, bully-ruffinsmell-smock, trouble-gusset, my lusty live sausage, my crimson chitterlinrump-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 a number of terms, typically the Old Teutonic gazdjo, all of which mean a thin pole; which may possibly be linked to the Latin hasta, a spear, and even to the Italian cazzo, also slang for penis. (Certainly the seventeenth-century gadso and catso are borrowings 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, touchtrap, 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.

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 penis, no more, no less, and taken to such variegated lengths – certainly was still unique. No slang dictionary – or more properly glossary, since no dictionary of slang proper would appear for another forty-five years – had yet approached sex so freely. The sixteenth-century whores and villains whose careers had been itemized in Awdeley or Harman 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 seventeenth-century Britons as effectively as its always has to their successors.

That is not to say that the early canting glossaries completely bypassed sex. Harman, in 1666, tells of ‘a proud Patrico’ [priest] who ‘tooke his jockam [penis] in his famble [hand], and a wapping [fucking] he went’. He also offers ‘to nygle to have to do with a woman carnally’. An early seventeenth-century ‘canting song’ attributed to Thomas Dekker has ‘And wapping Dell [a whore, lit. fucking girl], that niggles well, and takes loure [cash] for her hire’, while B. E.’s dictionary of c. 1698 picks up that same dell, citing the dictum: ‘If she won’t wap for a Winne, let her trine for a Make, If she won’t Lie with a Man for a Penny, let her Hang for a Half-penny.’ But the very insularity and deliberate obfuscation of the language involved might well have failed to conjure up the requisite images for those who lacked the insider knowledge. And while niggle crops up in a US dictionary of underworld slang in 1931, there are no contemporary cites for any of these terms outside the criminal milieu – and those either in glossaries or in contrived dramatic scenes, e. g. in Beaumont and Fletcher’s Beggar’s Bush (1622) or Middleton’s Roaring Girl (1611) that were obviously created after reading them. Thus Urquhart had, one might suggest, to start at the beginning.

After Urquhart, John Cleland. Reading his Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (generally known as Fanny Hill), it is hard for what are perhaps the coarser sensibilities of modern life to see quite how anyone derived sexual thrills from his elaborate phraseology and protracted but strangely ‘hands-off ’ copulations. Or if not coarser, then certainly far, far more exposed to what lies at the heart of Cleland’s efforts: pornography.

Urquhart’s lists are a delight, but they are lists, albeit those dictated by Rabelais, and inevitably appear at times like excerpts from a thesaurus. Cleland had no such restraints: his prose is all his own and the narrative far more ‘modern’. Other, of course, than for his stated aim: to write about a whore without using the language that was seen as part of her stock in trade. What he does is to use the usual slang themes, with the concomitant accent on male sexual aggression. Thus the penis (‘an object of terror and delight’) is variously an axe, a battering ram (with, like all the erections we encounter, a scarlet ‘head’, be it ‘ruby’, ‘vermilion’, ‘flaming red’ or whatever), a redheaded champion, a ‘delicious’ stretcher, a ‘stiff, staring’ truncheon, and a ‘terrible’ weapon. It can also be an engine (invariably ‘wonderful’, ‘thick’, or ‘enormous’), a machine (whether ‘unwieldy’ or ‘formidable’), an instrument, a picklock (the labia being ‘soft-oil’d wards’ which it opens) and a wedge with which one nails one’s partner. And if the penis is a conduit-pipe (and elsewhere a pipe), then the vagina is the pleasure conduit. It can be a staff of love, a sensitive plant (a contradictory image, since the botanical version shrinks rather than grows when touched), a wand, a white staff, and, less obviously a fescue (an old term that plays on its standard meaning: ‘a small stick, pin, etc. used for pointing out the letters to children learning to read; a pointer’) which thus is one of the wide selection of penis as pointed instrument images. Morsel is also on offer, but doubtless Fanny is only being figurative (in one thing Cleland is faithful to the porn tradition: no one ever has a small penis), and the morsel is being ‘engorged’ by her delicate glutton or nether mouth.

Fanny, being a professional, is obliged to be ‘up for it’ but she differs from most of her peers, at least as recorded, in enjoying the sex and having orgasms. But as slang (and pornography), even euphemized, makes sure, the over-riding image is of the submissive female, even slightly reluctant; her honour or at least her vagina always requiring a degree of force. Thus the vagina is the ready made breach for love’s assaults, the furrow, which ‘he ploughs up’, the saddle (‘He was too firm fix’d in the saddle for me to compass flinging him’). Its physical nature and bodily position are emphasized: the central furrow, the centre of attraction, the ‘soft, narrow chink’, the ‘tender cleft of flesh’, or the ‘cloven stamp of female distinction’ with its hint, conscious or otherwise, at the Devil’s cloven hoof. It is also a hostess for sexual enjoyment: mount pleasant (and Cleland used the plural form to mean the breasts), the seat of pleasure, the pleasure girth and pleasure pivot. It is a jewel (though lady’s jewels, like the later family ones, are the testicles), the maiden-toy, the main spot or main avenue and the mouth of nature (and as noted above, the delicate glutton and nether mouth). It is also, and here one cannot avoid Cleland’s consciously punning name for his heroine, which might be ‘translated’ as ‘Mount of Venus’, the fanny. All of which imply pleasure and enthusiasm. Only in the use of pit, slit and slash does he present another slang trope: the vagina as wound (and Fanny calls it that too) and threatening, unfathomable hole. The testicles are the tried and tested balls, not to mention the treasure bag of nature’s sweets. The pubic hair is moss or a thicket. To be naked is to be in one’s birthday suit: Rochester had offered birthday coat, but Cleland seems to have coined this longer-lasting version.

Whether one dismisses Cleland’s language as over-wrought and at best material for latter-day parody or, like the new DNB, praises ‘a stylistic tour de force, employing a dazzling variety of metaphors for parts of the body and for sexual acts, with a series of sly comic puns animating the delicately periphrastic prose’, its euphemistic role remains undeniable. If anything, and reading ahead, his style seems to set the pattern for the writers of at least some nineteenth-century pornography, typically ‘Walter’, the name popularly attributed to the anonymous author of the multi-volumed My Secret Life (1888–94). He too offers examples of machine, gristle, thatch and thicket, as well as such terms as sugar-stick, generation tool, persuader and rammer, which would not have been out of place in his predecessor’s work. But there are a vast range of obscenities too: ‘Walter’ is no euphemizer, and certainly not literary.

We need not wait for the 1890s to abandon euphemism. Whether what follows can be termed dysphemisms, and thus euphemism’s antonym, there is not the slightest effort at disguise. From title to last line, nothing is spared. Writing as an aristocratic insider the author gives us what he suggests is the true picture of upper-class, supposedly privileged sex whether among politicians (the ‘Council’) or at Court (‘Whitehall’), from promiscuity in the city, to venereal disease in the country. But this is very far from the sniggering insinuations of today’s celebrity mags, who may place the stars (at least the female variety) on pedestals the better to look, and indeed snap pictures up their skirts, but never forget that the pedestal is there. John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, who penned these lines, was seemingly more interested in digging a grave for society than raising it on high. And he used the most ‘aggressive’ terms to do so. Rochester brandishes his obscenities like offensive weapons, rendering himself excessive even in an age, so recently emerged from the Commonwealth’s grim Puritanism, that was hardly restrained. His ‘Advice to a Cuntmonger’ begins:

Fucksters you that would bee happy
Have a care of Cunts that Clapp yee,
Scape disease of evill Tarshole,
Gout and Fistula in Arsehole,
Swolne Codds, colon descending,
Prick Still weeping, never spending,
Pocky Nodes, Carnosityes,
Cunt botches, Gout and stranguryes:
Take the Councill I have sent yee,
Then fuck on and nere repent yee.

‘A Ramble in St James’ Park’, equally coarse, was still banned well into the 1960s. He outdid himself in his single venture on to the stage: Sodom: or, The Quintessence of Debauchery. This play in five acts, a prologue and two epilogues, was published in Antwerp in 1684 as a play ‘by the E. of R.’ Rochester disclaimed responsibility for what the critic Donald Thomas has termed his ‘scatalogical romp’, and for a while it was attributed to John Fishbourne, a barrister. Neither his contemporaries nor generations of scholars have been willing to accept Rochester’s disclaimer, and the original Dictionary of National Biography includes Sodom, a work of ‘intolerable foulness’, in Rochester’s bibliography. To be fair, a number of modern scholars have supported the earl, claiming on both stylistic and chronological grounds that Rochester was innocent of the play’s authorship. But the play appears in the earl’s most recent ‘Complete Works’ (1999) and so be it. It is unlikely that anyone else would wish to lay a claim.

To take it, for a moment, seriously, the play represents the first example of English libertine writing – for instance his contemporary Henry Neville (whose Isle of Pines is a salacious pun), Aphra Behn or the work of Thomas Shadwell, whose Squire of Alsatia (1688) did for criminal slang what Rochester did for filth, albeit with a great deal more popular exposure. But lit. crit. aside, what Sodom is about is filth, and the language in which it is represented. Nowhere more than in its cast list: Bolloxinion and Cuntigratia, ‘King and Queen of Sodom’; Pricket and Swivia, ‘young Prince and Princess’; Pockenello, ‘Pimp, Catamite and Favourite to the King’, Buggeranthos, ‘Generall of the Army’ and the ‘maids of honor’ Fuckadilla, Clitoris and Cunticula. That is, bollockscunt, prick, swive (an early synonym for fuck), syphilitic pocks or pox, buggery and fucking. Contemporary feminists doubtless approved the writer’s acknowledgement of the clitoris.

The entire play is devoted to debauchery and all characters copulate ceaselessly. As for stage directions, Shakespeare may have had his much-loved ‘exit, pursued by a bear’, but Rochester offers: ‘Six naked men & six naked women appeare & dance. In their Dancing ye men do obeysance to ye womens C[un]ts, kissing & tonguing them often. The women in like manner do Ceremony to the mens P[ric]ks…’ That all ‘so fall to Copulacion’ comes as no surprise. The supreme pleasure, as underlined  in the title, is sodomy, although such alternative amusements as incest are not overlooked. The play ends with the apocalyptic destruction of the kingdom.

Excerpted from "The Vulgar Tongue: Green's History of Slang" by Jonathon Green. Published by Oxford University Press. Copyright 2015 by Jonathon Green. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Jonathon Green

Jonathon Green is a lexicographer and author of "Green's Dictionary of Slang," "Casell's Dictionary of Slang" and "Chasing the Sun: Dictionary-Makers and the Dictionaries They Made"

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