Sunday, March 12, 2006

Ods Bodikins

Reading on in Tristram Shandy, past the Curse of Ernulphus described earlier, I encountered Tristram’s opinions on the lack of originality on the part of contemporary blasphemers. He claims Ernulphus as the source for all decent swearing, crediting his countrymen with no original imprecations “except St. Paul’s thumb,—God’s flesh and God’s fish, which were oaths monarchical, and,… as kings oaths, ’tis not much matter whether they were fish or flesh.”

Ruth Wajnryb makes a not unrelated point about the evolving nature of cursing in her book on the topic (Chapter 8, “In the Name of God,” as a matter of fact), although she finds little evidence for a lack of ingenuity on the part of successive generations of speakers. She lists euphemisms for taking the Name of the Lord in vain, including numerous references to body parts and other items in His possession,—including ’sblood, ’slid, ’slight, ’snails, ’sbody, ’sfoot, and so forth—with, sadly, no mention of His flesh or His fish (or ’sflesh or ’sfish, which come out of the mouth a little too awkwardly for casual use). Perhaps Wajnryb has no patience for oaths monarchical. Regardless, ’tis difficult to imgine why, in hoping to avoid the wrath of some higher being, one would resort to taking an oath by some divine body part,—particularly eyelids or fingernails. Evidently, one could see the humor in it even by the end of the Eighteenth Century.

Euphemisms consistently present such challenges throught time, though, because their very purpose, of avoiding the direct (and presumably more offensive) statement in favor of a more genteel expression, is subject to the vicissitudes of meaning over time. One person’s “ods bodikins” is another’s “God damn” is another’s “fuck.”

Thus, a not completely (but increasingly) unrelated thought… In nearing the end of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, I encountered the following sentence, regarding the final victim of a pair of mass murderers (not Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, the book’s “protagonists,” as it were, but Ronnie York and James Latham, two other killers who ended up on the Kansas Death Row at the same time): “It was a girl, only eighteen; she was employed as a maid in a Colorado motel where the rampaging pair spent a night, during which she let them make love to her.” I stumbled on “make love” in this context, because although I imagine Capote uses the phrase in its most carnal sense (the book does, after all, concern murder and other prurient topics), I feel I cannot be entirely sure. After all, the current connotation of “make love” dates back to the 1950s, but at the time Capote is writing, a certain ambiguity hovers around the words.

Consulting the Oxford English Dictonary, I note that in 1950, we encounter the straightforward sentence, “One of the Carvers made love to her and she had a baby.” Seems obvious enough. But in 1966, we have Auden lumping together “stocktaking, horseplay, worship, making love.” Perhaps just because it’s poetry (or more likely because it’s Auden), one senses a slightly coquettish use of the phrase. And a year after Auden, we run smack into the current usage: “When you make love on a bunk,… the man has to bump his head.” Ouch!

So what did Capote intend? Probably the shade of meaning between the two, employing a euphemism that allowed him a double entendre of sorts, addressing audiences both urbane and popular. The nuance has dissipated over time, however, and a modern reader is left to wonder, to fill in details, to feel his or her unwholesome curiosity left unfulfilled. God’s fish! ’Tis a slippery one, that Truman.


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