10 Words You Didn't Know Used to Be Dirty

The following piece first appeared on i09. 

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.

10. Earnest

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.

9. Occupy

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.

8. Nunnery

"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.

7. Token

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."

6. Scumbag

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.

5. Hat

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.

4. Berk

Here's one that's so innocent nowadays that it made it into the pages of a Harry Potter book. In his description of Elphias Doge, Dumbledore says, "That old berk. Thought the sun shone out of my brother's every orifice, he did." The word "berk" is rhyming slang. Expanded it means, "Berkeley Hunt," which rhymes with "cunt." Oh, Dumbledore. For shame. (Important Note: I have been told that Dumbledore's brother said that. What a relief to know the sainted head of Hogwarts doesn't use that language!)

3. Feet

Let's get Biblical, people. In the Bible there are several odd references to feet. A man goes into a cave and uncovers his feet. A woman goes to a sleeping man and uncovers his feet. Other people cover their feet and are caught doing it. Feet and their relative levels of coverage aren't really of so much concern to the writers of the Bible. The "feet" were used to stand in - and yes, that is a deliberate pun - for the general lower half of the body. "Covering the feet" was used then the way "going to the powder room" is used today. People wore tunics and when they squatted their feet were covered. "Uncovering the feet," meant flipping up the lower garments, which in turn meant that something important was going on with the lower half of the body.

2. Bread and Butter

Notice how buttered bread slices kind of slide around on top of one another? Guess what that reminded some people of, all the way back in the 1800s. Even in open-faced sandwiches the bread and butter were right on top of each other in what people considered a very suggestive fashion. Makes the modern-day phrase "earning your bread and butter" pretty dirty. (Note: people of the same era considered the phrase "giving a green gown" to be suggestive as well. The easiest way to make someone's gown green is to to give it grass stains.)

1. Fascinate

Sometimes when you want to get dirty, you have to head to Rome. A fascinus was a little penis charm that the Romans used to carry around and use in their various spiritual ceremonies. Sometimes they decided to work magic with the fascinus, and practice a kind of sorcery called fascinare. It's this word, fascinare, that you'll generally see when you look up the etymology of the word fascinate. "Fascinare" is usually translated as "ensorcell" or "enchant." It's actually something more along the lines of "to hypnotize someone with your penis magic, which is done using your big metal erect penis charm."


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