Gism (1901): something odd

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Thu Sep 20 00:09:26 UTC 2007

At 4:40 PM -0700 9/19/07, Jonathan Lighter wrote:
>HDAS has "gism" (s.v. "jism") from 1842.
>   JL

But with the 'semen' sense from 1854, and then specifically referring
to the spray of a polecat.  The first really clear use of
"gism"/"jism" for (non-polecat) semen is evidently from 1888.  The
earlier 19th c. cites seem to be more metaphorical somehow (=
'energy, spirit'), often referring to a quality possessed by a lively
woman. There's a nice cite of "jismatic" from Ezra Pound (1917).  (Of
course the noun may have been widespread with a literal
interpretation in non-recorded speech during that period.)


>"Douglas G. Wilson" <douglas at NB.NET> wrote:
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>Sender: American Dialect Society
>Poster: "Douglas G. Wilson"
>Subject: Re: Gism (1901): something odd
>>Um, guys? Openly published 1901. In Philadelphia. About refined
>>ladies of the previous century.
>>  A mess of "poke" may not be what you think.
>>  Whatever standard sense of "nectar" is intended, my guess is that
>>  "gism" was an undignified term for some or any kind of liquid or "juice."
>>  My guess too is that "Bellespore" is the name of the estate,
>>  possibly meaning "beautiful sowing."
>I assume "poke" refers to a plant, likely pokeweed (like in the song
>about Poke Salad Annie), possibly skunk cabbage or some other plant
>(see DARE).
>I assume "nectar" here exemplifies an elevated or poetic
>word/concept, while "gism" is its vulgar equivalent: the gods have
>nectar, the plain folks have ... what? gravy? juice? spunk?
>I can't find "Bellespore" elsewhere in the book, or anywhere else, on
>brief search. It is apparently not the name of the amateur poetess'
>home, which was a farm named "Settle". I should have speculated "Bel
>Espoir", although I find "Belle Espoir" and other variants here and
>there too. This is possibly a place name, or maybe the name of some
>local event, or even something from poetry or classics given the context.
>The author, Mrs. Gillespie, was born in 1821, and the story is one
>about her mother's youth, presumably told by the mother. The date
>might be 1795-1805 or so. The mother was born in 1781.
>Anyway, it seems likely that the 80-year-old author in 1901 saw
>"gism" as something innocent enough, and it seems likely that the
>ladies ca. 1800 also did. Of course we can't be 100% sure that the
>100-year-old quotation is genuine/correct, but the fact that part of
>it is incomprehensible suggests that it was not entirely a 1901 invention.
>If the quotation is reliable, would this be the earliest known use of
>"gism" in ANY sense?
>The whole book can be read on-line, but I've read only part.
>-- Doug Wilson
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