[caption id="attachment_262" align="aligncenter" width="400" caption="Well, he made so much fuss that all the other dogs but Hence’s old bitch came in.—Fur News, 1918"]"Well, he made so much fuss that all the other dogs but Hence’s old bitch came in."[/caption] So, continuing from last time, I'm interested in trying to understand exactly what Pound means in his famous description of European civilization as "an old bitch gone in the teeth" in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. Comparing the line to one later in the Cantos, I suggested that Pound's use of the term "bitch" in Mauberley channels some of the term's obscene force while nevertheless referring primarily to an elderly female canine (and therefore being beyond reproach... or at least beyond threat of censorship). An interesting theory but how would you prove it? In the next post I'll begin to try some (slightly) more sophisticated solutions (and I am very open to suggestions, dear reader, so don't hesitate to offer 'em below). So, let's start simple. Geoffery Hughes's An Encyclopedia of Swearing: The Social History of Oaths, Profanity, Foul Language, and Ethnic Slurs in the English-Speaking World devotes about two pages to "bitch." The term, he notes, "has the longest history among animal terms as an insult, extending from the fourteenth century to the present, during which time it has steadily lost force through generalization" (23). Originally it referred to "a promiscuous or sensual woman, a metaphorical extension of the behavior of a bitch in heat" (24). The term begins to be applied to men around 1500. (Hughes doesn't spend much time breaking down the gender differences in the semantics of contemporary uses of the term.) But alongside its obscene meaning, and (as Hughes notes) not entirely unrelated to it, "bitch" continues to mean "female dog." So, to reformulate my original question: Would Pound and his readers have seen "an old bitch gone in the teeth" as obviously and indisputably offensive? Conversely, might they have seen it simply as a description of a dog, with the obscene meanings safely segregated? For that matter—how do we read this line? Is there any reason to assume readers, ninety years ago, would have read it any differently, with any more or less unanimity of reference than is available when we read it? Hughes's analysis provides a basic framework, but offers little help on the competing place of the obscene and non-obscene meanings of the term. So let's try some easy (read: lazy) solutions. Googling "bitch" reveals some interesting things—but all far too contemporary to answer this question (save, perhaps, the wikipedia page for bitch, which draws on Hughes and seem to be quite good). Urban dictionary surveys contemporary uses of "bitch" as a noun and a verb—though it doesn't do any better than Hughes in addressing the gender disparities in the word's meanings. Let's narrow this down by doing a Google Books search on the phrase "old bitch" (I use the phrase "old bitch," rather than "bitch," both to find instances with greater similarity to Pound's usage, and to reduce the sheer number of results). The results largely corroborate what one would suspect: older uses (in, for example, the materials old enough to be in the public domain) tend to be technical sounding references to canines, while more recent usage is frequently the sexist term of derogation we all know so well. Here are some of the more interesting examples Google Books offers, listed in ascending chronological order, and offered here provisionally, without any regard to the representativeness of the sample (of which, more below):
  • The Revised and Enlarged, Second Edition of The Courser's Companion and Breeder's Guide (1834) by Thomas Thacker gives this advice to the would-be dog breeder: "Most authors agree, that a similarity and maturity of age of sire and dam is requisite, as a general principle, to breed good whelps. Markham and others, however, admit, that 'to breed with a young dogge and an old bitch, may bring forth an excellent whelp;' but, on the contrary, it is contended, that when bred from an old dog and a young bitch, the whelps will never be good ones." [1834, canine]
  • The 1867 Cyclopaedia of Wit and Humor includes a story in which, "there's no telling who's constable until the election is over; it will be like the old bitch and the rabbit, nip and tack every jump, and sometimes the bitch a leetle ahead." [1867, canine]
  • Commentaries on the Law of Marriage and Divorce reports a husband who "habitually called [his wife] an old bitch, a bloody or blasted old bitch, an old bawd, and the like opprobrious name." [1881, obscene]
  • An article in the May 1884 Journal of the American Medical Association describes a rather horrifying experiment on a dog described as a "Large, fat and old bitch." (The "experiments" involved anesthetizing dogs and then shooting them with various caliber guns in order to determine the best methods for treating such wounds.) [1884, canine]
  • A 1916 issue of Fur News (!) describes a hunt, noting "The dogs all opened up at once nearly, but one of my dogs left the others . . . Well, he made so much fuss that all the other dogs but Hence's old bitch came in." [1916, canine]
  • The 1918 Pacific Reporter (which seems to collect court cases from states along the Pacific coast) includes a reference to a woman who called someone "an old wretch and an old bitch, and said she ought to go to hell" in the court of reporting a case. [1918, obscene]
  • In Noel Coward's comedy "Fumed Oak," Henry Gow recalls "My only regret is that I didn't come to the boil a long time ago, and tell you to your face, Dorrie, what I think of you, what I've been thinking of you for years, and this horrid little kid, and that old bitch of a mother of yours," Mrs Rockett exclaims (shrilly!): "Henry Gow!"; Henry insists, "You heard me, old bitch was what I said and old bitch was what I meant." [1935, obscene]
  • The narrator of Tennessee Williams's story "Gift of an Apple" describes an "old woman . . . making herself some suffer. She would eat it alone. Fat elbows planted on either side of the tin plate and her shoulders crouched way over. Wheezing a little. Washing it down with scalding black coffee. . . The old bitch. Oh, well. She would die some day. Some ugly disease like cancer. It might be already started inside her dark flesh. Just as well. A stingly old bitch like that . . . " (last ellipsis original). [c.1935 , obscene]
  • William Carlos Williams's "To a Lovely Old Bitch," a poem addressed to Sappho. [1948, obscene]
All of which is interesting. But the data, particularly in this format, seems too anecdotal. One can used the advanced search features to limit the search to certain dates (although the quality of Google Books's metadata sure ain't what it could be). The breadth of Google Books is both a strength and a weakness. In the results above (admittedly culled from a larger set) we find a poem by W. C. Williams and a play by Noel Coward alongside such oddities as the Cyclopaedia of Wit and Humor or the Pacific Reporter, which collects court decisions of the Pacific states (I think). And while we have access to wonderful publications like Fur News (finally!), it seems dangerous to draw any broad conclusions about linguistic usage from a publication that, I assume, has a very limited readership and addresses niche topic. What we'd like, I think, is to see how the word "bitch" was being used in a wider context that is roughly historically contemporary with Pound's Mauberley. Ideally, it would be nice to have, ready-to-hand, every published occurrence of the word "bitch" in 1920 (the year of Mauberley? Depending on the size of this set of references we could then manually inspect it, or further mine it to try to breakdown what percentage of occurrences were primarily obscene in denotation. And, since we're speaking in ideal terms, wouldn't it be nice to have every use of of the term in English language poetry from 1890 through 1950, to get some sense of how poetry and obscenity (and references to dogs) interacted. Well, neither of those "ideal" cases seems tractable at present. But there are some practicable solutions that may shed at least some light on the question. That's for next time... Works Cited Hughes, Geoffery. An Encyclopedia of Swearing: The Social History of Oaths, Profanity, Foul Language, and Ethnic Slurs in the English-Speaking World. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2006.