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Getting off at Gateshead, By Jonathon Green
Hail to the professor of profanity
Friday 21 November 2008
Jonathon Green is the nation's indefatigable lexicographer of filth, a tireless troweller in the slurry of the unsayable. His Cassell's Dictionary of Slang (1998) and Chambers Slang Dictionary (2008) are phenomenal compendia of "non-standard usages," ranging across the whole lexicon of English bar-room coinages. But he has a soft spot for rude words. Over a quarter-century, he has delighted in taxonomising thousands of terms for body parts, sexual activity, disease and bathroom practices that are not generally discussed in the presence of children, clergymen, great-aunts and Mr Charles Moore.
This is the reeking fruit of his labours: an A to Z of taboo usages, from Arse (where he distinguishes "give one's arse a salad," meaning to have sex outdoors, from "give someone arseholes," meaning to attack verbally) to Zoo, where the animal imagery of sex includes "slapping the monkey" (masturbation) and "shooting the beaver," (looking up a lady's skirt). In his introduction, Green makes the point that, in the God-fearing middle ages, blasphemous words were taboo, but four-letter terms for bodily functions were perfectly acceptable. When the 18th century Enlightenment downgraded religious awe, polite society began to clean up the lexical world of genitalia and defecation.
The "Dirty Dozen" banned usages were first uttered aloud on a California stage in 1973 by the American stand-up, George Carlin. Cover your eyes and ears, everyone. They are: fuck, shit, piss, cunt, tits, cocksucker, motherfucker, fart, turd, cock, twat and ass.
Between the author's breezy etymologies – nice to know that shit comes from the Anglo-Saxon scite and was dated in the OED to 1308, whereas the origins of fuck lie shrouded in mystery before it was first recorded in a poem by William Dunbar in 1508 - lies a dizzying gallimaufry of terms: bone-smugglers and turd-burglars, cock-yoghurt and population paste, rainbow neckers (practising oral sex on a woman who is in her flowers), and gong-farmers (cleaners-out of privies), rump-splitters and fanny-rats, granny-jazzers (don't ask) and the lonesome self-indulgence of pencil squeezers.
Green revels in the prodigious inventiveness of taboo-stretchers down the years. He is marvellous company, cod-academic, unshockable but fastidious (the occasional really gross usage draws from him the comment "charming"), tirelessly fascinated by words and hostile to the "diehard and tediously vocal group" who try to suppress them in the 21st century.
And he tells good stories. How Robert Browning read in a 1660 poem the lines, "They talkt of his having a Cardinalls Hat/ They'd send him as soon an old Nuns Twat," innocently assumed the word meant something like a "wimple," and included the line "cowls and twats" in his verse drama Pippa Passes. It became a school text, much sniggered over. Browning died without anyone daring to explain his mistake.
It's also good to know that the phrase "the arsehole of the world" was first used about Holland in 1660 ("the Buttock of the world, full of veins and blood but no bones in't") and that the Australian name for an unimpressive semi-erection – sited halfway, so to speak, between the turgid cities of Melbourne and Ballarat – is a "Bacchus Marsh", the birthplace of Booker winner Peter Carey. And the title? You must wait until page 313 to learn the meaning of Getting off at Gateshead. It's the experience of emerging before one has actually arrived, of getting off at the stop before your destination, of alighting at Gateshead when you'd rather go all the way to Newcastle. If we must be coy, it's coitus interruptus.
Only Green would know that similar usages involve descending at Broadgreen before Edinburgh Waverley, at Edge Hill before Lime Street, Liverpool, or Fratton before Bristol Dockyard. Few readers of this joyous celebration of linguistic bawdy will, I suspect, be tempted to leave before the gospel.
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