Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Sun Apr 23 01:23:30 UTC 2006

At 6:13 PM -0400 4/22/06, Wilson Gray wrote:
>FWIW, I first heard "twat" as the punchline of a ca.1955 joke about an
>airline stewardess who asked a passenger whether he would like some TWA tea.
>In the '70's, a former president of the Linguistic Society of America
>published a paper in which he tried to relate "twat" to "thwait" and
>"thwite." In 1985, I mentioned to a friend that a woman friend had referred
>to the girl friend that had recently dumped me as "a little twat." He was
>shocked! shocked! that a woman would use such language.
>The OED Online says that it can be used to mean "buttocks" in the U.S.
>That's news to me.
OK, with all these philological diversions I can no longer resist
(although no doubt I should).  This is from a paper of mine (don't
ask), referring  here to the Earl of Rochester, notorious Restoration
rake, letch, and general ne'er-do-well, and his ode to Nothing:
Upon Nothing, Rochester's ode to the 'Great Negative' as
only-begetter, is universally acclaimed as 'the strongest effort of
his Muse' (Samuel Johnson, cited in Griffin 1973: 266), 'undoubtedly
one of his darkest and finest poems' (Greene 1974: 117), a profound
satire on the Genesis story of the creation ex nihilo, and more
generally 'a devastating attack on revealed religion' (Paulson 1971:
118-21) , but Paulson chides the poem's otherwise perceptive
commentators for overlooking the bawdy pun concealed within the
second of the poem's seventeen stanzas.  The key line is reproduced
here as it appears in the standard Bodleian Library text.

Nothing! thou elder brother even to Shade:
Thou hadst a being ere the world was made,
And well fixed, art alone of ending not afraid.

Ere Time and Place were, Time and Place were not,
When primitive Nothing Something straight begot;
Then all proceeded from the great united What.
        Rochester [1674?]/Adlard 1974: 112-13

But a reliable early manuscript punctuates the cosmogony somewhat differently:

Then all proceeded from the great united-What?
        Danielsson & Vieth 1967: 153

Comments Paulson (1971: 119-20):

When the line is spoken aloud the combination of final plosive
consonants t and d in united cause the final d to be pronounced more
like t...The final t sound in united becomes a part of the last word
in the line producing t-W'at? (twat)...Rochester deliberately used
the dash and question mark, I think, to inform the pun and emphasize
the great question, giving the query... a pose of quizzically ironic,
wide-eyed ignorance...Figuratively and literally, "the great
united-What?" is the vagina and womb of Nothing, from which "all

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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