[off-list] Re: [ADS-L] "fanny", n.4

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Sun Dec 16 01:17:58 UTC 2012

On Dec 15, 2012, at 5:20 PM, Jonathan Lighter wrote:

> "Perh. cf." is clearly *not* intended to imply that Cleland named his
> heroine for her fanny.
> The naming, however, just may have gone in the opposite direction

Spedding and Lambert argue against that assumption too, based on the absence of evidence (which to be sure is not evidence of absence, but suspicious if not dispositive) of such a meaning between 1749 and the 1830s; they maintain there's no causal connection either way.  Their   paper concludes as follows (note the nod to the "gay" question we discuss every now and then, although they don't bring up _Bringing Up Baby_):

With no evidence for the obscene use of the word _fanny_ before the late
1830s, there is clearly no justification—at present—for positivist claims
concerning the obscene intentions of authors who used the name Fanny,
such as Cleland and Fielding, and no point to speculation concerning
the obscene meaning of Fanny in the texts penned by these authors.
Although it is always possible that evidence will emerge in future for
the slang use of fanny before 1837—and Lambert’s 119-year predating
of _snatch_ is a warning against contrary positivist claims—there is certainly
no support for the sexual construction placed on texts or passages
in which the name Fanny appears. It is also apparent that the
sometimes-elaborate interpretations based on such texts are misguided.
One might as justifiably reinterpret all pre-twentieth-century texts according
to the modern significations of _gay_, _queer_, and so on.
It is beyond the scope of this article to explain why so many lexicographers
and critics have been willing to invent, to repeat, or to accept
arguments that attempt to establish that fanny had an obscene meaning
in the eighteenth century; or to explain why no one has previously dismissed
the flimsy, improbable, and absurd arguments put forward by
these critics. But as a consequence of the acceptance of these arguments, it is not
now possible for any writer—or even group of writers—to prevent
these false arguments being repeated in future, especially given
their wide dissemination in popular and prestigious works of reference.
Just as attributions of authorship, no matter how improbable or absurd,
are repeated indefinitely (following the locution “sometimes attributed
to”), _fanny_ is likely to travel through history followed by Partridge’s “perhaps,”
Epstein’s “numerous commentators,” and Rothstein’s meditation
on “Miss Fanny, &c.”


> , _Fanny
> Hill_ being the most notorious ex. of English um-literature of the age.
> If the name "Fanny" had been applied more or less arbitrarily as a childish
> euphemism, its chance identity with the name of the fictional courtesan
> would undoubtedly have helped its career.
> JL
> On Sat, Dec 15, 2012 at 4:14 PM, Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at yale.edu>wrote:
>> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
>> -----------------------
>> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>> Poster:       Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at YALE.EDU>
>> Subject:      Re: [off-list] Re: [ADS-L] "fanny", n.4
>> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
>> On Dec 15, 2012, at 3:30 PM, ADSGarson O'Toole wrote:
>>> Here is some more information from an entry in Jon Lighter's
>>> masterwork: Historical Dictionary of American Slang:
>>> fanny n. [orig. unkn., but perh. cf. Fanny Hill (1748-49), erotic
>>> novel by John Cleland]
>>> 1. the vulva or vagina. - usu. considered vulgar. [Chiefly BrE and
>>> always rare in U.S. The *1882 quot. could possibly belong at (2),
>>> below.]
>>> *ca 1835-40 in Speaight Bawdy Songs of Music Hall 76: I've got a
>>> little Fanny,/That with hair is overspread. Ibid. 39: Johnny touched
>>> her Fanny up. *1882 Boudoir 88: Come...feel our soft little fannys.
>>> *1889 Barrere & Leland Dict. Slang I 354: Fanny (common), the fern. pud.
>> "fern. pud."  or "fem. pud."  I didn't know ferns were so equipped.
>> I seem to recall an earlier thread on the frontal "fanny", in which I
>> mentioned that the "Fanny Hill" link--endorsed widely, by among others
>> Geoffrey Hughes in his _Swearing_ (1991)--"The sense is surely implied in
>> John Cleland’s _Fanny Hill_ [sic] (1749), a punning reference to Latin mons
>> veneris)"--is highly dubious.  This point is made at length in a recent
>> essay by Spedding & Lambert*, who argue convincingly that the name of the
>> protagonist of _Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure_ cannot have been a
>> deliberate reference to the sense in question, since there is no clear
>> record of the fem. pud. meaning of "fanny" before that 1835-40 collection
>> cited in HDAS.  It's a nice paper, and quite convincing--at least to me.
>> *Spedding, Patrick and James Lambert. 2011. Fanny Hill, Lord Fanny, and
>> the myth of metonymy. Studies in Philology 108: 108-132.
>> LH
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