We chortle today at the number of "ejaculations" in Sherlock Holmes stories, and laugh at how old newspaper stories describe the "erection" of skyscrapers. But previous generations would snicker just as hard at us. A look at archaic slang shows that we say a lot of very suggestive things without knowing it.
Here are ten terms that were once quite dirty, and are now mostly harmless.
This is going to be the most controversial entry on the list. The Importance of Being Earnest is Oscar Wilde's most popular play. Wilde was prosecuted and imprisoned for homosexuality soon after the play came out. Since then, in literary circles, it has been whispered that "earnest" or "ernest" was a code word for homosexuality. The whispers compounded, claiming that "Cecily," the name of one of the characters, was slang for a young male prostitute, and "bunburying," the act of inventing a sick friend so one could get out of social obligations, was a sly reference to gay sex. All of these claims are hotly disputed by many, including two of the actors who acted in the original play. They called it nonsense. On the other hand some people have found suggestive references to "Earnist," in 19th century documents. The major piece of evidence in favor of the cheeky version of the name comes from a classmate of Wilde's. John Gambril Nicholson was at Oxford with Wilde, and towards the end of the century came out with a book of homosexual love poetry called Love in Earnest. You decide if Wilde was going for a double meaning.
Here's another word that wasn't officially a sexually suggestive word but definitely had a sexual connotation. Once upon a time people would use "occupy" the same way people today use "penetrate" or "enter." The practice started in the 15th century and became so irksome that, by the 17th century people had stopped using the word "occupy" in nonsexual situations. No one can be sure when exactly the word was redeemed and brought back into normal use. Suffice it to say, if you transported a load of 16th century peasants to an Occupy Wall Street rally, there would be a lot of toothless, plague-ridden giggling.
Occupy Image: David Shankbone
"Get thee to a nunnery! Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?" That's what Hamlet says to Ophelia during one of his all-too-frequent bouts of being a jerk. He was being even more of one than usual with that turn of phrase because, as everyone in Shakespeare's time knew, there were two meanings to the word "nunnery." It could either be a convent or a brothel. Either way, Hamlet could have just told Ophelia that he needed some space and refrained from offering her career advice.
All the modern day bumpkins who spent the last few decades scrambling for video game tokens, and who thought they were being genteel when they offered their lover a "token of their affection," would inspire a lot of derisive laughter from the people of 1811. In those days, according to Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (which itself sounds like it could be dirty slang) a "token" meant a venereal disease. When syphilis was being passed around like mints, the trendy way to refer to its passage from one person to another was to say, "he tipped her a token."
Here's a word that, today, sounds almost hokey. It's acceptable to put it on children's shows. But put it in the New York Times crossword puzzle, as the staff of the Times did in 2006, and you'll get complaints. Adults do the crossword puzzle. Some adults who do the puzzle were alive in 1939. In 1939, a "scumbag" was slang for a condom - typically a used condom. The fact that, for most of the population, scum has become innocent again doesn't shake loose that association for those who grew up with the slang. Historically speaking, scum and scumbags, seem to have worked their way into and out of being dirty. They were originally used, just as they are used today, to describe the foam and flotsam that collect on water. How condoms got in the mix is anyone's guess.
I had originally not intended to use slang terms for genitalia, because as we see from this old entry, everything was once used as slang for genitalia. I couldn't resist this one. In the 1700s, a "hat" was the term used to describe the genitalia of a "loose" woman. Why? Because it was "frequently felt." Let me give a slow clap to that explanation. Well done, people of the 1700s. Very well done.