Thursday, July 9, 2009
My Juggy My Puggy My Honey My Bunny
[Here's the latest installment in the Women's Art is Women's Work series. Eberle explores euphemism & taboo. For what it's worth, I'll note that this might be a bit more "PG" than your typical Robert Frost's Banjo post, but I'll also put that in perspective by saying there are more explicit bits in Chaucer & Shakespeare. Hope you enjoy it!]
Taboos are curious and curiously invisible things. A nineteenth century woman walking into a twenty-first century living room would be shocked to see family snapshots of people in swimsuits—but no more shocked than we would probably be walking into a nineteenth century parlor and seeing a photo of a dead baby in a coffin, prominently displayed, with the body arranged among flowers and propped up to face the camera. The absence of memento mori, objects intended to remind us of our mortality, would seem a striking feature of twenty-first century daily life to a time-traveler from the past. No coffins displayed on the street outside carpentry shops, no people in the urban crowd wearing tokens of mourning, only a rare funeral passing by, no hired mutes, no black plumes. It might appear that a whole dimension of life was strangely invisible.
From our vantage point looking back to the nineteenth century the invisibility of sex is what strikes us, the way the subject was constantly skirted—the invisibility of women’s legs, for instance, skirted linguistically as “limbs” as well as skirted to the toe in the home and on the street. We might be shocked to see a coffin in a store window, but underwear openly displayed leaves us unmoved, unlike our sisters of yore who heard these garments referred to, at least in public, as “unmentionables.” The idea back then was that words like legs and drawers and garters possessed the power to lead the mind to another even more unmentionable place.
Just because something is not named and not visible doesn’t mean it isn’t present and powerful. In fact, not naming things can give them a certain power, a charged magnetism that they don’t have when spelled out—as thriving modern-day sales of nineteenth-century style undergarments indicate. To call Victorians prudish on the basis of what was and was not talked about is probably to miss the boat completely.
For one thing, not naming something leads to the invention of endless ways of talking about it without naming it. So what exactly are we not naming here? Is there a word that even in our modern and self-proclaimed openness about sex we still hesitate over before pronouncing? That we might refer to as muffin, fish pie, or honey-pot? To go to the heart of the matter (heart also being an ancient symbol of female anatomy and sexuality) what we are not talking about here is: “the monosyllable,” as Francis Grose put it in his 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. Here is the entry under “bun”:
Bun. A common name for a rabbit, also for the monosyllable. To touch bun for luck; a practice observed among sailors going on a cruize.
Baked goods, lucky rabbit’s feet, and playboy bunnies all meet here. What Francis called the monosyllable, Aphra Behn in 1684 described as an altar:
Where Gods of Love do sacirfice:
That Awful Throne, that Paradice
Where Rage is calm'd, and Anger pleas'd;
That Fountain where Delight still flows,
And gives the Universal World Repose.
Euphemisms for bun run the gamut from eternal fountain to porridge. “Crowdie mowdie” meant porridge in the sixteenth century and was used as a term of endearment along with “honey cakes” —echoing in the eighteenth and nineteenth century terms “honey bunny” and “lovey dovey.” (Which came first, the phrase “bunny cakes” or the popularization of baking cakes in bunny form?) “My Juggy my puggy my honey my bunny” is a line from a book of popular songs published in the early eighteenth century by the leading music publisher of that time. Many of these songs were spicy, salty, gamy, or saucy, and spell out love in the kitchen—the powerful underground link between food and sex.
The bun and bunny connection has a rather checkered past. Coney, a word meaning rabbit, used to be pronounced as rhyming with bunny or honey—creating a lingual proximity with the monosyllable that was just too hot to handle in the nineteenth century, when a “formal” pronunciation of coney with a long “o” was suggested. Taken in this light, ancient spring rituals using rabbits and eggs as totems pungently evoke the presence of a goddess figure.
Rabbit was a commonly eaten meat during its inception as a euphemism, and many animals that found their way onto the table and into the mouth were used as pet names for lovers—like “lambkin” and “unweened calf.” Other food terms from the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: apple dumpling shop for “a woman’s bosom.” Phrases that need no explanation: buttered bun, mackerel, laced mutton; and on the male side of things, sugar stick and lobster. Lobster was a slang term for soldier and Francis gives us this interesting bit of history:
“ ‘I will not make a lobster kettle of my ****,’ a reply frequently made by the nymphs of the Point at Portsmouth, when requested by a soldier to grant him a favour.”
One can only assume that Francis, in the interests of his dictionary, hung out among the prostitutes of Portsmouth waiting for slang to drop from their lips.
The kitchen landscape is a fertile source for euphemisms about death as well. We say: he’s toast, his goose is cooked, he’s food for worms. In the trenches during the First World War, different kinds of shells came to be known as jam pots, sausages, plum puddings, or potato mashers. Lurking behind all this language, shadowy but present, meting out the best and the worst life has to offer, seems to be the eternal image of a kitchen goddess—invisible, unnamed, all-powerful.
Pix from top
Title page from Francis Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue
A photograph by Wiki Commons user Tangi Bertin. This file is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 License
Photo of a Rabbit by Wiki Commons user Love Krittaya. This photo has been released into the public domain by Krittaya
William Hogarth, Industry and Idleness, Plate 7; The Idle 'Prentice return'd from Sea, & in a Garret with common Prostitute