dirty words in dictionaries: semi-final thoughts

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Thu Jun 17 23:15:06 UTC 2004

I still suppose that the entry in Wessely's late 19th century Latin dictionary, "cunnus, cunt, strumpet" was a joke or act of sabotage.  If there were folks around about 1890 advocating translating Latin erotic poetry into the English vernacular, I don't suppose that they would make their manifesto a cheap, pocket-sized dictionary apparently aimed at schoolboys.
At Jesse's request, Fred looked up "irrumare" for us in the Yale copy and didn't find it.  If Wessely's dictionary had a policy to encourage the use of English vulgarity to translate Latin vulgarity, I would expect it to appear at the words "mentula' and "stercus", which lend themselves to the translations "prick" and "shit".  I have not found my copy of this dictionary yet, and so cannot check this matter myself.

I wonder whether the Latin readers used by the students Wessely's dictionary seems to have been aimed at would have included the erotic poems that appear
in present day school anthologies.  If they didn't, then there might not be entries for those two words at all, which would support the joke/sabotage idea.

I am posting simultaneously with this message a tidbit, under the heading "fudge", giving an instance of printing-house sabotage.

It seems from HDAS that Wessely's dictionary may be the earliest printed apperance of the word "cunt" in America.  HDAS has 1748, in what I believe to be a manuscript not published until recent decades -- and at that, "cunt" is represented as "****"; 1778, from what seems a recent collection of Revolutionary War songs (where it is represented as "c---") -- I wonder whther the collection is taking this song from a printed 18th C broadside or from a manuscript; 1888, from a pornographic book; and 1919, from a diary entry by Theodore Dreiser.  If the two 18th C citations are in fact from manuscripts, and if Wessely's dictionary was published in the early or mid 1880s, before the 1888 source, which might be the case, it would be the earliest.  (Those naughty Anglo-Saxons were using it as early as ca. 1230.)  If any of the lexicographers among us (Jesse & Jonathon particularly) are inclined to use this citation, I would make an attempt to establish a date of publication.
It does not appear to have been advertised much less reviewed in the NYTimes, LATimes or WashPost.  I would inquire of the Yale and Harvard libraries whether there is anything in their cataloguing records that would suggest when their copies were catalogued.  Their shelf-list cards might carry a date of cataloguing; many libraries at one time gave books a sequential accession number, and it might be possible to say what year or range of years the accession number suggests.   Perhaps there would be other places to look for advertisements, too.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African
Theatre", Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998.

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