"The Modesty of Our Lexicographers" (Well, 1846 Lexicographers)

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

From the report of Edgar v. McCutchen, an 1846 Missouri Supreme Court case:

McCutchen sued Edgar for slander. The slanderous charge was carnal knowledge of a mare, and the word "fuck" was used to convey the imputation. After the verdict for the plaintiff, a motion made in arrest of judgment, for the reason that the word used to convey the slander, was unknown to the English language, and was not understood by those to whom it was spoken ….

Per Curiam.

Because the modesty of our lexicographers restrains them from publishing obscene words, or from giving the obscene signification to words that may be used without conveying any obscenity, it does not follow that they are not English words, and not understood by those who hear them; or that chaste words may not be applied so as to be understood in an obscene sense by every one who hears them.

Makes sense to me.


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  1. Language is wonderful and mysterious.


    Right up till the time this book went in the mail there was practically a running feud among a number of people over the filthy and vulgar language. Pop argued hard that the least I could do was blank in the filthiest and the vulgarest.
    “I can swallow the “damns” and the “hells” and even worse,” said he, “but as for the “f—s” they are simply too much for my eyes to bear. I wish you would blank them in, Hank.”
    “I suppose I could blank them in at that,” I said, “but I cannot see where the gain is.”
    “It will protect the women and the children,” said Pop.
    The Aaron whipped out this book called “Tom Jones” by an Englishman with the following underlined in ink in Chapter 10 of Book 4: “D—n in, what a sly b—ch ’tis.” “Read it out loud,” said Aaron to Pop.
    Pop read out loud as follows: “Damn in, what a sly bitch ’tis.”
    “Ho ho,” said Aaron, “you have blanked out the blanks in your mind.”
    “But at least it is not there for the eye to see,” said Pop.
    “How are the women and the children of England protected?” Said Aaron to Pop.
    “I do not know,” said Po, “but they are protected nonetheless.”
    “Would not England be better off for forcing their eyes to face up to the words?” said Aaron.
    “To hell with England,” said I. “I am sick and tired of the wrangling, and the book must go in the mail. I will blank word in and put an end to the whole rhubarb.”
    I suppose the women and children will fill it in to suit themself, though. That’s up to them. I blanked them in, for Pop’s sake, and whoever blanks it out again learned the word from somebody else, not me.

    -Mark Harris, The Southpaw

  3. Fair enough, though I’m puzzled by the implication that someone was trying to have carnal knowledge of an ocean. Takes all sorts, I suppose.

    Mr. D.

    1. Especially one 230,000 miles away.

  4. At least it wasn’t an ewe.

  5. Goddamned bowdlerized lexicography.

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