"For an old bitch": Mining Obscenity
I've been spending time tinkering, using a very basic question as an occasion to play with some digital tools. In this post I'll introduce the question, and in a few others talk about some of the ways I've been trying to answer it. Ultimately I'm interested in mining large amounts of text (I'm thinking mostly novels) from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to explore uses of obscenity; but that is a big question and is a long way off yet. So let's start with a more manageable question.
That question is: How "obscene" is the term "bitch"? How frequently did it appear in print? When? What did it mean?
The more immediate relevance of this question came from reading Ezra Pound. Consider two quotations, both from Pound. First:
There died a myriad, And of the best, among them, For an old bitch gone in the teeth, For a botched civilization.These lines from Hugh Selwyn Mauberley are quoted frequently as representative of modernist disillusionment after World War I. They nicely encapsulate an anger about the first World War that seems to call into question the value of culture itself. Pound returned to this anger throughout his career. Here are some lines from the beginning of Canto 42, first published in 1937:
Charm, smiling at the good mouth, Quick eyes gone under earth's lid,
For two gross of broken statues, For a few thousand battered books.
'We ought, I think, to say in civil terms: You be damned' (Palmerston, to Russell re/Chas. H. Adams) 'And how this people CAN in this the fifth et cetera year of the war, leave that old etcetera up there on that monument!' H.G. to E.P. 1918
(To quickly explain the references, as best as I understand them: the first line draws on the English response to the American Civil War. Palmerston was the British PM during the Civil War; Charles Francis Adams, son of J.Q. Adams, was Lincoln's minister to England during the war. [So is Chas. H. Adams a mistake?] Russell is Earl Russell, British Foreign Secretary during the war.
The next lines describe a comment by H.G. Wells to Pound, here referring to a statue of Queen Victoria.)
Here, however, "et cetera" replaces obscenity ("leave that old bitch up / there on that monument" was an earlier version). In the first instance "et cetera" stands in for some intensifying, presumably obscene adjective. In the latter "etcetera"—now with no spaces—stands in for "bitch."
The use of "et cetera" as a sort of circumulocution is interesting, but not unique. Compare Augustin, from Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, who replaces an actual obscene verb with "obscenity": "I obscenity in the milk of thy tiredness." In "Typhoon," Conrad's sailors replace actual obscene language with "blank":
His teeth flashed angrily in hsi dirty face. He didn't mind, he said, the trouble of punching their blanked heads down there, blank his soul, but did the condemned sailors think you could keep steam up in the God-forsaken boilers simply by knocking the blanked stokers about?Cummings, in the delightful little poem "[my sweet etcetera]", uses "etcetera" more playfully than Pound, but in an essentially similar way. (Indeed, both Pound and Cummings strategically toy with prohibitions on obscene speech to make a political point about war, but I digress. . .)
So here is the puzzle: in Mauberley, published in 1920, Pound writes "an old bitch" but in the Cantos, published nearly two decades later, (the Fifth Decad of Cantos was first published in 1937), he replaces the word with "etcetera."
That's odd, isn't it? Why would the later text be censored, rather than the earlier one?
One possible explanation is that the second passage is potentially more libellous than the first. While Queen Victoria is not named explicitly, the reference to "that old etcetera up / there on that monument" is clear enough to bring the comment into the domain of libel.
Or perhaps it is because the word is more obscene in the latter than the earlier. For while the same phrase "old bitch" is used in both, it seems to in fact have two different meanings. When, in the Cantos, Pound/Wells refers to "that old etcetera up there on the monument," the derogatory force of that obscenity is evident. But in Mauberley the word "bitch" is not necessarily used in the obscene sense. The "old bitch / gone in the teeth" for whom a myriad have died is a "botched civilisation" (botch and bitch chiming off another), not a specific (female) figure. And the abstraction of the indefinite article and the reference to "gone in the teeth" seem to make clear that if the tenor of this metaphor is "civilization," its vehicle is an old female dog.
Today "bitch" is a minor-level obscenity. However offensive some may find it as a piece of sexist insult, its obscene force is not so great that it is prohibited from broadcast television. But it is still definitely impolite. And while the semantic borders of the word seem to be quite flexible, it continues to carry gendered meanings. One can refer to a male as a "bitch" (it was not always the case), but at least part of the derogatory force of so doing comes from the concomitant emasculation.
More could be said about the gendered complexities of contemporary usage of the word "bitch," as both a noun and a verb. (And what about its short-lived career as an adjective—as in, "That fluorescent t-shirt and acid-wash denim combination is totally bitchin"?). But the primary meaning of the term "bitch" is clearly this derogatory one. To use the word to refer to a female dog is quaint. But for how long has this been so?
Here's a guess: Pound's lines from Mauberly capitalize on an ambiguity, drawing on ire of the obscene sense of bitch even while keeping the term printable by clearly attaching it to its older meaning.
Such an argument assumes a basic historical development of the meanings of the word "bitch," and a parallel, evolving set of standards of print decency; the earlier, primary meaning of bitch as "female dog" at some point takes a back seat, becoming today what I think is almost a "technical" meaning (used, for instance, by dog breeders). And the primary meaning becomes the one we're all familiar with.
Sound convincing? Well, how would you prove it?
Over the next couple of posts I'd like to use this question as an occasion for thinking about how such a question could be further explored with available digital tools.