Six Fancy-Pants Authors Who Snuck Filth into Their Work

That Shakespeare is some kind of potty mouth
Six Fancy-Pants Authors Who Snuck Filth into Their Work

We live in an era where you can publish pretty much anything — nothing’s going to be taken off shelves for being obscene or offending social mores. That obviously wasn’t always the case, and writers of the past had to find clever ways of getting smutty or edgy content into their work, whether by disguising it or simply alluding to it. Writers like… 

Norman Mailer’s Unconvincing Misspelling

The Naked and the Dead, Mailer’s debut novel, was a literary sensation, selling 200,000 copies in the first three months of its publication in 1948, and later making it onto umpteen lists of the Greatest American Novels. Part of its appeal was Mailer’s warts-and-all, unfiltered descriptions of the misery of life as a World War II soldier. However, his publishers Rinehart & Company insisted he clean up the language — the word “fuck” was thrown around fairly freely. The solution they came up with was to replace it with “fug,” a word that, well, sounds like “fuck.” Suddenly moving in rarified circles, Mailer was introduced to the actress Tallulah Bankhead, who greeted him with, “Ah, you’re that young man that can’t spell.”

Dashiel Hammett’s Obscure Terminology

The creator of hard-boiled detective Sam Spade worked his editors hard, putting in lots of edgy material that he knew would be taken out before publication. In his best-known book, 1930’s The Maltese Falcon, he managed to get away with a little bit. One character is referred to as a “gunsel,” an admittedly fairly obscure term for, essentially, a young man kept around by an older man and solely used for sex. Hammett’s editor, not unreasonably, assumed “gunsel” meant something like “gunman” (which the character in question also was), so it got through. Enough other authors were influenced by Hammett, and similarly assumed the word’s meaning, that it ended up being used to mean “gunman” enough times in print that it pretty much also means that now. The gunsel, then, was a gunsel twice over. The other thing Hammett somehow got away with, pretty risque for the time, was this sentence: “The boy spoke two words, the first a short guttural verb, the second ‘you.’”

Shakespeare’s Subtle C-Bombs

Think Shakespeare and you think classy, but there are a lot of dirty jokes in his work if you know where to look for them. There were many euphemisms for vagina at the time, including “nothing” — the title of Much Ado About Nothing is a smutty double entendre. Hamlet lies his head in Ophelia’s lap and mentions “country matters,” a full-on c-bomb, the dirty Danish bastard. There’s another in Twelfth Night, when Malvolio receives a forged letter and claims to know the writer’s handwriting intimately, insisting, “By my life, this is my lady’s hand, these be her very C’s, her U’s, and her T’s, and thus makes she her great P’s.” With the “and” shortened (like in rock ‘n’ roll), it’s a c-bomb and a pissing gag in one. There’s nothing classy about that! There are more smutty gags still being uncovered in the 21st century, with computer analysis finding a few unknown dick jokes in 2006.

The Horny Monks of Cambridge

Latin’s fancy! It’s a fancy language for fancy people. It’s also the source of the earliest known f-bomb. In around 1475, an unknown but highly educated poet near Cambridge wrote a poem about the Carmelite monks of Ely (a nearby town that, at that time, stood on an island surrounded by marshland) and their horniness. Written in a hybrid of English and Latin, the poem adds an extra layer to keep its filth exclusive — the word in question is presented not only in Latin(ish) but in code. “Non sunt in coeli, quia gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk” looks like gibberish, something that would trigger a spam filter, but there’s more going on. The first part is straightforward enough Latin for “They are not in heaven, since”; the final four words are encoded, however, and replacing each letter with the one that precedes it in the alphabet (subject to a few vagaries of the alphabet at the time) gets you “fvccant vvivys of heli,” or “They fuck the wives of Ely.” 

Jane Austen’s Poop Deck Gag

There’s a line in Mansfield Park nobody can quite figure out, because it reads a lot like a butt-sex joke — Austen scholars are split as to whether (a) Jane Austen, and the world around her, were far too prim and proper to fling a butt-sex joke into Mansfield Park; or (b) it is what it sounds like, a quick cheeky butt-sex joke. 

The character Mary Crawford is asked whether she knows another character’s brother, who is in the navy. She replies, “Certainly, my home at my uncle’s brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears and Vices I saw enough. Now do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.” Given that rear and vice are both types of admiral, the first part makes sense innocently enough. But the suggestion of a pun would indicate that rear and vice mean something. Like… butt sex? It doesn’t feel like a very Jane Austen-y subject, but “naval sodomy,” as it was cheerily referred to at the time, was quite a hot topic and the subject of several high-profile trials, including some that her brothers testified at. Another theory is that she is referring to la vice Anglais, the English vice — being whipped for sexy fun. Either way, butts!

Gulliver’s Travels Were Pretty Intimate

There are elements of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels that never make it to the family-friendly screen adaptations. Given that it has a reputation as being a highbrow satire of the cultural mores of the 18th century, it’s full of tits-farts-asses humor. When Gulliver is in Lilliput, the place where everyone but him is tiny, he pisses all over the place. When he’s in Brobdingnag, the place where everyone but him enormous, it’s heavily inferred that he’s, uh, used as a dildo by a fancy lady, writing, “The handsomest among these Maids of Honour, a pleasant, frolicksome Girl of sixteen, would sometimes set me astride upon one of her Nipples, with many other Tricks, wherein the Reader will excuse me for not being over particular.” 

This isn’t a case of modern eyes inferring what isn’t there — dildos (or “things” were a source of societal fascination at the time, the idea of being sexually replaced by an object horrifying many men. There are two excellent, and excellently titled papers on this subject — “Objectifying Men: Gulliver’s Travels, Fantomina and the Dildo in Eighteenth-Century Literature” and “The Sexual Politics of Microscopy in Brobdingnag.” 

They left the whole idea out of the Jack Black version, which seems a shame, as he’d probably have been up for it.

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