Thursday, 21 August 2008

Literary tw*ttery

It's probably still silly season at the newspapers, as at the moment they're carrying variants on 'Offensive' word to be removed from Jacqueline Wilson book (Alison Flood, The Guardian, August 21 2008). This is the story of how Wilson's latest and favourably-reviewed novel My Sister Jodie is to be amended - the word "twat" to be changed to "twit" - after getting three complaints (against 150,000 copies of the book sold). Bizarre; I can't imagine why a major publisher should cave in to such clearly unrepresentative objections, unless it's about fears of losing a major stockist, the Walmart-owned Asda, to whom Anne Dixon complained. Whatever the word's biological meaning, I'd judge it to be one of the milder UK expletives these days. Here's the context in the book (Harley is a posh geeky boy, Jed a gardener, and Jodie the narrator's rebellious sister):

"I think you'll find that's heavily disputed," said Harley. "In fact some experts think it's the cattle that give the badgers TB."

"Toffee-nosed twit," Jed said softly to Harley, turning his head so that Mr Wilberforce couldn't hear.

"Come on, Sakura, lead the way," said Jodie hurriedly.

We walked out with all three little ones. Harley loped along too, his fists clenched. "Did you hear what he called me?" he said.

"No," I lied tactfully.

"He called you a toffee-nosed twat," said Jodie, thinking she was being helpful. "Nothing to get too steamed up about."

"What? I'm so steaming I'm boiling."

"He didn't mean it. And even if he did, so what? You are toffee-nosed, Harley. No one could talk posher than you. And you deliberately act like a twat half the time, you must admit."

This looks pretty inoffensive to me, and you'd need a tin ear for prose to fail to understand how it has been used here, where animosity between two characters has been cranked up by Jodie's "Chinese Whispers" repetition of a sotto voce comment; and the whole exchange is about defining characters and exploring class conflict via attitudes and reactions to the insult. As Michael Rosen comments in his Guardian blog - Children are swearing already, so why can't Jacqueline Wilson? - "Jacqueline is a sophisticated, knowledgeable and subtle writer. If she chooses to use the word 'twat', it's because she has sensed that it is entirely appropriate".

Of commentary I've seen so far, I was particularly struck by that at the blog i am no friend of mine, which notes the irony of the most-reported complainer finding nothing wrong with Famous Five and Secret Seven by Enid Blyton, about whose works solid arguments have been made concerning their overt racism, sexism and classism ("But wasn't she a misogynistic, racist snob? ... Any basic analysis of Blyton's work suggests so". The Big Question: Should Enid Blyton be hailed as the best writer for children?, Sophie Morris, The Independent, 21 August 2008).

The t-word has made a number of guest appearances in Language Log, mostly focusing on the curiosity of its use in the Robert Browning 1841 dramatic poem Pippa Passes (the story of a virtuous young girl who over the course of a day, her only holiday a year, passes unscathed and unseen through the corrupt streets of Asolo, Italy, unware of the life-and-death scenarios acted out around her, but inspiring people to moral action by her singing - a bit like Amélie, I guess). It turns up in a section where Browning likens the owls and bats to monks and nuns at their night-time devotions:

But at night, brother Howlet, far over the woods,
Toll the world to thy chantry;
Sing to the bats’ sleek sisterhoods
Full complines with gallantry:
Then, owls and bats, cowls and twats,
Monks and nuns, in a cloister’s moods,
Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry!

As Language Log explained (see Twat v. Browning and More on Browning, Pippa and all) this puzzled the editors of the OED too, who asked Browning why he thought the word meant a nun's headgear. He told them he'd read it in Vanity of Vanities, or Sir Harry Vane's Picture, an English satirical broadsheet attacking Sir Henry Vane the Younger. Vane was a Parliamentarian politician in the Civil War who tried to game the system, Vicar of Bray style, to stay in power through both administrations, but was executed for treason on restoration of the monarchy. Among various other jibes of fairly obscure context are found the lines that make Browning's mistake understandable:

They talk't of his having a Cardinalls Hat
They'd send him as soon an Old Nuns Twat

Language Log mentioned another unusual occurrence of the term in Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton's 1871 science fiction novel Vril, The Power of the Coming Race. It features a subterranean super-race, the Vril-ya, who are revealed to be descended from frogs, and features the passage

Among the pithy sayings which, according to tradition, the philosopher bequeathed to posterity in rhythmical form and sententious brevity, this is notably recorded: "Humble yourselves, my descendants; the father of your race was a 'twat' (tadpole): exalt yourselves, my descendants, for it was the same Divine Thought which created your father that develops itself in exalting you."

In this situation, I suspect it might have been inspired by the dialect word "twud" (="toad", according to various dialect glossaries).

Various asides: in the previous post I mentioned the Broadview Press edition of The Water-Babies. Their edition of The Coming Race (ed. Peter W. Sinnema, Broadview Editions, 2008, ISBN: 9781551118369) looks equally interesting for its similar inclusion of appendices explaining the social and scientific context. Bulwer-Lytton, in contrast to Charles Kingsley, was anti-Darwin, and The Coming Race satirises Darwinism; the "twat" comment, for instance, appears in Chapter XVI, which uses the morphological arguments of 19th century Darwinists regarding human ancestry to argue for the Vril-ya's descent from frogs. Darwin appears likewise in Bulwer-Lytton's What Will He Do With It? (Project Gutenberg #7671) as "Professor Long", author of a boring two-volume treatise on limpets.

The "vril" in the book is a kind of electrical life-force energy. Its appearance in the brand name "Bovril" is no accident. Many readers took Bulwer-Lytton's novel seriously - it appealed to a lot of master-race fantasies - and the word got into general parlance via the Victorian mystical circuit: as the Unilever page explains, "Bovril" was coined from "bos" (=beef) and "vril".

Bulwer-Lytton would have been disappointed to know that in some circles he's primarily remembered these days for the introduction to his 1830 novel Paul Clifford (Project Gutenberg EText-No. 7735)...

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

... which is widely cited as an example of the worst of would-be literary style, and which has inspired the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, whose entrants are asked to write more in the same vein for comic effect. His descendant, The Honourable Henry Lytton Cobbold, takes issue with this, and a debate with the competition founder, Professor Scott Rice, is due on August 30th - see 'Literary tragedy' of Bulwer-Lytton's dark and stormy night under debate (Alison Flood, The Guardian, August 19 2008).
- Ray

Addendum: Trivia from The browser (The Observer, Sunday August 24 2008), which notes that ASDA are still stocking Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach, with its "no fewer than two mentions of the word 'ass'?". There's a cross-cultural problem here: as mentioned in a number of reviews, US readers think that "ass" means "arse" in sentences like "Of course I'm not talking to you, you ass!" so (at least according to Wikipedia) when the Cartoon Network airs the film, the word is redubbed to "pedant".

Addendum 2: I totally forgot the poem of that name from the punk poet John Cooper Clarke.
- Ray

1 comment:

  1. A fine post. I found the amendment to this book ridiculous and if I were Jacqueline Wilson I would be very disappointed with my publisher. I also enjoyed the "i am no friend of mine" blog that was linked in this piece.