Antonia White’s coming-of-age novel Frost in May, published in 1933, became Virago Press’s first Modern Classic in 1978, which is the edition I recently read. It tells the story of Fernanda (‘Nanda’) as she progresses through the Convent of the Five Wounds, coming to terms with its norms and her evolving relationship with religion.
Frost in May is apparently based on White’s own experiences in Catholic boarding school. Tessa Hadley describes it in the Guardian as ‘exquisitely poised between a condemnation of the school and a love letter to it’. The convent applies a severe form of discipline, which now and then encompasses language use:
Nanda dropped her lily with awe. It stood, she knew, for some mysterious possession . . . her Purity. What Purity was she was still uncertain, being too shy to ask, but she realised it was something very important. St. Aloysius Gonzaga had fainted when he heard an impure word. What could the word have been? Perhaps it was “___,” a word so dreadful that she only whispered it in her very worst, most defiant moments. She blushed and passionately begged Our Lady’s pardon for even having thought of such a word in her presence.
In the book, the unspeakable word appears within the quotation marks. I’ve removed it to see if you can guess what it is. The answer appears further down. I’ll give you a clue: it begins with ‘b’, and it’s not a slur or swear word.
The next excerpt shows how low the threshold is to verbal offence in the school:
“I don’t see you as a nun, Léonie,” said Hilary. “You’d make a rotten, I mean a hopeless novice.”
“A rotten novice, but a first-class Reverend Mother. And as a future Mistress of Discipline, my dear Hilary, may I remind you that there is a fine of sixpence for using the word rotten?”
I’m not sure why rotten was proscribed. Maybe it was too colloquial, slangy bordering on vulgar. There’s also its association with moral turpitude, death, and putrescence. It doesn’t feature in Judith Neaman and Carole Silver’s Book of Euphemism, but it is among the ‘terms of disapproval’ used to express ‘juvenile repugnance’ that are listed in Iona and Peter Opie’s 1959 Lore and Language of Schoolchildren:
blinking awful, bloomin orrible, boring, cheesy, chronic, corny, daft, disgraceful, flipping awful, foul, fusty, frowsy, ghastly, hateful, idiotic, lousy (very frequent), mardy, mildewed, mingy, misery-making, mouldy, mucky, nasty, no fair, no good, orrid (usual spelling), outrageous, pesky, putrid, poor effort, revolting ‘just like turnip and swede’, rotten, rotten shame, rotten swiz, scabby, shocking, soppy, spiteful, stale, stingy, stinking, super-ghastly—Ugh! O lor! Gosh! Golliwogs! What a chiz!
A fun list!
The word so dreadful that Nanda could only whisper it ‘in her very worst, most defiant moments’ is … belly. See my earlier post on euphemisms for the stomach, including the peculiar ‘little inside’.
So tell me, what words were taboo or risqué for you, growing up, but which later came to seem perfectly mild? Aside from profanity, that is. What did you call your stomach, and do you call it something different now, or does it depend on the context? How do you feel about belly?