A word so dreadful and rotten

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.

The top quarter of the book cover is dark green, with the text "Virago Modern Classics" in yellow, then, in larger white text, the author's name and the book title. Below them is a detail from Adolf Dietrich's painting "Mädchen mit Schürze", showing a young girl in three-quarter profile, with fair hair tied back with a black bow. She faces left and has an expression that could be either concentrating or absent-minded.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?

30 Responses to A word so dreadful and rotten

  1. Virginia Simmon says:

    What a fun entry, Stan! The phrase I grew up with that was considered risqué was our family’s description of passing gas: to “let a bird fly.” “Bird fly” was eventually, I’ve learned from my brother, who is five years younger than I, to one-word “birdfly” — a term he still uses.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks, Virginia! I love the phrase ‘let a bird fly’. It almost lends grace to the act. It reminds me a little of ‘let a dog see a rabbit’, for ‘move out of the way’.

  2. shirley bays says:

    I guessed the word correctly! I was wondering only a few days ago why ‘belly’ was a word we were not supposed to use – this was early 60s. ‘Tummy’ was okay; belly was somehow too intimate, I think.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Well done! Tummy was our default, with stomach available for more formal situations. As I got older I realised there was nothing wrong with belly, but it definitely had an aura of crudeness or something when I was younger.

  3. Taboo, in my immediate family when I was a boy: ain’t and double negatives. Only uneducated people used those. My parents, by the way, were high-school graduates, and they used the real words for all body parts.

    My grandmother always said go for urinate and make for, uh, poop. As in “Do you have to go? Do you have to make?” Important questions to ask kids before they get in the car for an hour-long ride.

    As for belly, I think we said stomach. “I have a stomach ache.” Now, living in the American Midwest, I think of the radio agriculture report when I hear belly. As in “Pork bellies are up three, winter wheat down a quarter,” and so on.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Ain’t was never really a possibility for us, even in lower registers. (And only in my teens did I discover that amn’t was not a normal part of English around the world.)

      ‘Do you have to go?’ is a familiar question from my childhood too, though we didn’t have that use of make: instead I remember workarounds like ‘Is it a sit-down?’ or ‘Will you be a while?’ – as well as more direct versions involving poo, no final-p.

      • plotliz says:

        I almost hesitate to say this as it sounds so ridiculous, but for a long time as a child I thought that poo was correctly called ‘properly’, because my (very mealy mouthed) parents would ask if we had ‘been properly’ after a visit to the loo. ‘Belly’ would also have been taboo I feel; ‘tummy’ was the correct term. As for anything ruder… never mentioned. I started to swear profusely as a teenager, probably as a reaction, and have never stopped.

  4. Sean Jeating says:

    I could, of course, like Mrs. Doyle, mention the “baaad f-word”, but, actually, I cannot remember any word in my youth that was taboo.
    I remember, though, that when our kids used words they had learned in kindergarden I would ask for ‘a little more countenance’.
    One day, when I went to pick up our five year old daughter the teacher took me aside: “Today Gordon ran around shouting all dirty words he knew, until your daugher got up and asked him for a little more countenance. Perhaps Gordon thought, that was a new swearword; anyway, he sat down and said nothing anymore. What amazed me most was that when asking D. if she knew what countenance does mean, she knew.”
    And now for something completely different.
    Recently I announced that I would go and ‘pay tribute to my peristalsis’. Five year old granddaughter, looking up from her puzzle: “Ja, Opa, geh Du Kacki machen.”
    Kind regards to the European Capital of Culture.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Hi Sean! That was an impressive feat of social steering by your daughter, not to mention linguistically precocious. I wonder what Gordon was thinking in his subsequent silence. Here in Ireland we might say she put smacht on him.

      ‘Pay tribute to my peristalsis’ is a superbly fancy expression. We should all pay such tribute to our everyday bodily functions.

  5. Josh Reyer says:

    When we were kids, our family used the euphemism “pop” for “fart.” I learned “fart” on the playground (natch), and for years it retained a kind of swear word nuance to me, on par with “damn” and “hell”. Finding it in Chaucer was one of the linguistically epiphanous moments for me.

  6. mazblast says:

    When I was growing up, no words were forbidden, but there were dreadful consequences if you used certain words, especially around relatives or neighbors. Euphemisms were allowed, but my parents insisted that we know the meaning of every word we used and what various euphemisms meant.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That sounds pretty enlightened. I think we often make too much fuss about swearing around children; they’re generally quite capable of understanding the idea of taboo words, and of refraining from using them in broader society.

      • shirley bays says:

        I must admit I was somewhat disconcerted recently to hear a three-year-old and a five-year-old, with their mother in the grocery store, shouting “O My God!” “O My God!” repeatedly, over something interesting they had seen. I suppose this is a normal expression of surprise now, even with children?

  7. John Cowan says:

    Nowadays, for many children no word is unconditionally taboo, only situationally so, and it’s very hard to learn to juggle all those situations. However, it can’t be much worse than having six or seven adults all of whom want you to put out at least a 200% effort on their particular obsessions for you.

  8. sawneymac says:

    My late father (born and raised, like me, in the West of Scotland) used to refer to large-bellied people as having “a wee bit of a kyte” on them. I’d more or less forgotten about that expression until recently when I heard someone from County Durham (in North East England) use the word ‘kyte’ to refer to his own belly. Not surprising, I suppose, when you consider that the Scots language developed out of Northumbrian Old English.

    • Stan Carey says:

      A new word to me. Its etymology seems uncertain, but the OED points to similar Germanic terms, such as early modern Dutch kijte, kiete ‘a fleshy part of the body, especially the thigh’ and Middle Low German kût ‘fleshy part, entrails’. The DSL notes modern Icelandic kýta ‘stomach of a fish, roe’.

  9. I was born in the gutter
    That’s why I’m so smelly
    I don’t like peanut butter
    Unless I’ve also got jelly
    Peanut butter and jelly
    That’s all I put in my belly
    Peanut butter and jelly
    That’s all I put in my belly

  10. In the Frequency Illusion Department: I just noticed belly in a television commercial for the prescription drug Trulicity: belly pain. Their website though refers to abdominal pain.

  11. I don’t remember ever hearing a word of any sort in my family for passing gas. Evidently one was not to talk about it. I always assumed that to say fart was bad, mostly because I never heard my parents say it, and it seemed to be an impolite topic . They, and my grandmother, also never said toilet ! but always john and it took me a while to get comfortable using that word that one heard everywhere else.

    For elimination we learned “go little” and “go big” and then later on I learned BM by osmosis for the latter, though I think I was an adult before I realized what it stood for. I never heard my parents say anything other than those except “go to the bathroom.” My father did use the four-letter-word for “go big” but only on rare occasions when he lost his temper, and I didn’t know for a long time what it’s first meaning was.

    Butt was not an accepted word in our family; we said fanny. My parents would say “Damn!” but we children never would. As with all the forbidden words, they weren’t actually forbidden to me in that I don’t recall being told not to say them, but I figured out that it wasn’t good manners.

    • Virginia Simmon says:

      What a fun discussion. I’m reminded that, in addition to “let a bird fly” for fart, my family also used “tinkle” for urinating and the standard “poo” for #2.

  12. stuartnz says:

    Having grown up and lived my entire life in parts of Aotearoa/NZ where Māori English is strong, and having married into a Māori family, I’ve probably used “puku” more often than belly. Its usage does tend to be a bit more specific than its English dictionary equivalent though. In context, it is normally used as affectionate and often self-mocking diminutive for a pot belly – I’ve NEVER heard reference to a 6-pack puku, but hearing warnings that consuming a 6-pack could be bad for one’s puku would be completely normal.

  13. “Bloody” was – afaik still is – the strongest swear word my parents ever used and I can still remember (generally with slightly hysterical laughter) that when I was about 8 I pompously declared that “bloody” was a very bad word *I* would never dream of using (but “flipping” was allowable).

    I didn’t even knew the word fuck at that point (I was still at the stage of thinking grownups made babies by rubbing their belly buttons together or something equally weird and incomprehensible).

  14. When I was growing up in the 1960s, “bum” was a word of stupendously awful rudeness, whether used as a swear word or not. It was a great puzzle to me when watching American sitcoms, such as The Dick Van Dyke Show, that Americans seemed not to realise how rude it was, as well as giving it a different meaning.

    Nöel Coward’s play Relative Values (1951) captures this linguistic divide perfectly. An American film star has entered the home of a British aristocratic family, and the Countess (wonderfully played by Julie Andrews in the 2000 film), trying to make conversation, innocently asks him what the film he’s making is about, “if it’s not a secret.” “No secret, ma’am,” he replies. “It’s about a bum.” A terrible silence falls, which the Countess eventually breaks: “Curious subject for a motion picture?”

    These days I adopt “bum” as my swear word of choice, since it is now almost completely innocuous, and only those of my generation understand just how rude I am being.

  15. shirley bays says:

    Wow, yes I’m completely with you there. Just seeing you write ‘bum’ elicits a frisson of thrilling wickedness!

  16. Michael Vnuk says:

    Went to Catholic primary schools in the 1960s here in Australia. Yes, ‘belly’ was not approved of at school or at home, and neither was ‘gut’. ‘Tummy’ or ‘stomach’ were the usual words. An expression I heard from someone a bit older than me when I lived Canberra in the 1990s was ‘pain in the pinny’, which is a roundabout way of saying a stomachache, since a ‘pinny’, short for ‘pinafore’, is a sort of apron-like garment that, in this case, girls wore over their school uniform. (Why? After all, what was wrong with normal school clothes? And it was not like they were cooking meals in school in Grade 1. And boys didn’t have to wear anything similarly protective.)

    I have similar experiences to what Perry Williams describes in his first paragraph on ‘bum’.

    The original quote referred to purity and how the main character didn’t really understand it. The concept was also very nebulous when I was in primary school, I suppose because it was so hard for nuns and other teachers to explain without introducing broader topics of sex and reproduction, and the varying societal and religious expectations around these topics. As another example, I was at St Maria Goretti’s School, and yet she was hardly mentioned, and if so, in only the vaguest of terms, because she was killed during an attempted rape. (Wikipedia adds more complexity to the story.)

  17. ianhennessey says:

    My late mother certainly regarded ‘belly’ as vulgar. The infantile-sounding ‘tummy’ is routinely used by every doctor I have heard. Euphemised language.

  18. bevrowe says:

    Having grown up in South London  in the 30s and 40s my feeling is we just didn’t say ‘belly’ but I don’t think it was taboo. ‘Fuck’ certainly was  and I was pulled up very short when I heard it in the street and innocently used it at home. I never knew, or even heard, ‘cunt’.

    We used lavatory words  that I have not heard outside my childhood family but I cannot believe we were unique. ‘Geggy’ still embarasses me to bring to mind, let alone say,  and I have never written it down before. But ‘tufftuff’ for peeing, derived from  Miss Muffet sitting on a tuffet, has always seemed to me rather charming. I did not introduce either word into my marital family.

    (I noticed that ‘geggy’ was not flagged by the spellchecker and find that it occurs in Scottish slang to mean mouth. ‘Tuff-tuff’ is also in the OED, defined as the sound of a motor car.)

  19. Tom says:

    I am seventy-five and as a very young child I remember my mother asking me whether I had to grunt. That was her euphemism for defecating. I still find the word grunt to be tinged with the earliest meaning that I remember.

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