The Wordsmith


Mommy, what’s a woodscolt?

By Chris Sinacola


Open H.L. Mencken’s The American Language to nearly any page, and you will soon learn something that you did not know about how we Colonials have adapted the King’s English.


Today, let’s drop in on Chapter 6, “American and English,” and specifically on section 7, “Forbidden Words.”


Every SCRABBLE® player understands that when it comes to the adult, tournament version of the game, many an offensive word can be played, and players who are squeamish about doing so, or reluctant to offend, may find themselves at a serious disadvantage.


“Today,” Mencken writes, and bear in mind that the first edition of The American Language came out in March 1919 and the one I am quoting from in 1937, “words and phrases are encountered everywhere – on the screen, in the theatres, in the comic papers, in the newspapers, on the floor of Congress, and even at the domestic hearth – that were reserved for use in saloon and bagnios a generation ago.”


By bagnios, Mencken does not mean baths, and not even Turkish baths, although some will immediately recognize the word as identical in meaning with the Italian bagno. As used by Mencken, it carries the third definition offered by the Oxford English Dictionary – a brothel or house of ill repute – which is what many a well-intentioned bath house became.


But Mencken’s basic point – even in the late 1930s – was to reflect upon the shocking words making their way into circulation. He leads off with one familiar to us.


“A good example is nerts, in its sense of denial or disparagement. When it came in, in 1925, its etymology must have been apparent to everyone old enough to vote, yet it seems to have met with no opposition from guardians of the national morals, and in a little while it rivalled wham and wow for popularity in the comic strips.”


Let’s pause for a moment to ask whether the etymology of this word is apparent to any reader of these words in 2013. I would be surprised if that is the case.


Mencken explains that many shocking words made their way into the movies, but “presently the grand dames of Hollywood society prohibited them as a shade too raw, and they were succeeded by euphemistic forms, made by changing the vowel of each to e and inserting r after it. Nuts was not one of these venerable words, but it had connotations that made it seem somewhat raw too, so it was changed to nerts, and in that form swept the country.”


And in that form, as well as in the form NERTZ, it has put in many an appearance over the SCRABBLE board.


As for NUTS, I think most folks today think nothing of using that word, and usually are referring to peanuts, cashews and so forth, if only because of the almost ubiquituous rise of nut allergies. Some teenaged boys may still use the word to refer to a certain tender part of their anatomy, but I think most of us can just say testicles without squirming or blushing.


“At the same time,” Mencken continues, “the college boys and girls launched bushwah, hospice, horse’s caboose, and a number of other thinly disguised shockers…”

   

I love BUSHWAH and its h-free variant BUSHWA, but besides the delightful coincidence that I learned the word when George W. Bush was up to some occasional nonsense in Washington, D.C. (a trend ably continued by the Democrats, lest anyone accuse me of partisanship), I had no suspicion that it was a kinder, gentler way to say BS.


As for hospice, I presume that in Mencken’s day this was a clever way to say “horse piss.” Note that today, we use hospice to refer to compassionate end-of-life care. In half a century on the planet, I have never once heard anyone use it for horse urine.


“Horse’s caboose” is fairly clear in referring to the back end of the horse, and no doubt was applied to folks who insisted upon acting in ways that would earn them that appellation.


Much of the rest of Mencken’s section on forbidden words explores the ridiculous lenths to which Americans once upon a time would go to avoid saying words such as cock and bull.


“Bull” was so offensive that some would say “cow-creature” or “gentleman-cow.” In polite society, one did not refer to “legs,” but “limbs,” even to the extreme of the lady who at dinner asked an English traveler “to furnish here with the first and second joint.”

   

Joint of meat, you understand. Such a request made today might result in someone handing you a marijuana cigarette.


A few pages further on, Mencken notes that the Hollywood of the 1930s maintained its own index of forbidden words, including BROAD, CHIPPY, COCOTTE, COURTESAN, EUNUCH, FAIRY, FLOOZY, HARLOT, HUZZY, NANCE, SLUT, TART, WENCH, SEX, JEW, KIKE, YID, DAGO, NIGGER, GAWD, CHRIST, GUTS, HELLCAT, GEEZ, LOUSE, AND PUNK.


For SCRABBLE purposes, HUZZY# and GAWD# are Collins-only, although GAWD# is defined as “a large, ornamental rosary bead.” Only CHRIST* is unacceptable in that list.

   

Most players today, if they give it any thought at all, might just smile or chuckle when an “offensive” word is played. As we have seen from Mencken, the origins of some words and phrases are so obscure that we would not even know enough to be offended. And many players, of course, do not bother with meanings in any case.


Finally, it bears noting that, SCRABBLE aside, we ought not be too quick to congratulate ourselves upon being less prudish or more open-minded than our grandparents were in their heyday.


We Americans may drop f-bombs on every street corner and fill our airwaves with language that would have induced millions of heart attacks once upon a time, but for all that “openness,” we remain remarkably adept at devising euphemisms and using language to obscure, rather than illuminate, many aspects of our lives.


If the lifting of taboos in SCRABBLE has a wider application, perhaps it should be to remind us that in law, medicine, politics, and daily life, clear communication, saying what we mean, and meaning what we say, is a surer path to understanding than hiding behind language.

   

(By the way, the answer to the question posed in this column’s title can be found on page 308 of Mencken’s book. Or, I suppose, you could look it up on the I------t. (I hate to swear in print.)


Chris Sinacola is director of the Worcester, Massachusetts NASPA SCRABBLE® Club #600.