Digging Old Dirt: Historical Novels and the Vulgar Tongue

My novel, Arauco, begins in Spain Gargantuabefore Cervantes was born, and ends when he was more or less six years old, (roughly fifty two years before the publication of the first volume of Don Quixote).   It is therefore set in Rabelaisian, not Cervantine times, an age when many of the sailors and soldiers recruited (or pressed) to go to the New World were criminal and/or of very low class. These adventurers were by and large illiterate, many unable even to sign their names. Therefore I had absolutely no doubt in my mind when I began to write that—accurately to represent the times—the lowest of vulgarities would have to be reproduced by my “Rabelaisian” pen. And at that point in researching mid sixteenth century Spain I encountered a void…. No problem with the clothing of the era. No problem with the food. No problem with the larger historical “props,” such as—to cite one example—the distinction between a caravel and a nao. Also no real problem with “higher matters”—the religious and intellectual currents of the time, including Catholicism and Humanism. My problem lay in giving voice to the vulgar tongue, for, not only were there no dictionaries as we know them at that time, there was no particular interest in even portraying the “lower” classes” as such, the depiction of their cant and argot lying far beyond even that event horizon….

The irony here, of course, is that Don Quixote is considered by many to be the first modern novel, and that in huge part this has to do with its inbuilt break with–and thematic critique of–the literature of the time … namely the chivalric romances. And much of that huge part is that at long last vulgus–the common man–is given voice by Sancho Panza (and his “paunch lines”).

There’s a wonderful dialogue in the novel, which speaks to the vulgarity of both Sancho and his tongue:

Donquixote“Take care, Sancho, not to chew on both sides, and not to eruct in anybody’s presence.”
“Eruct!” said Sancho; “I don’t know what that means.” 
“To eruct, Sancho,” said Don Quixote, “means to belch, and that is one of the filthiest words in the Spanish language, though a very expressive one; and therefore nice folk have had recourse to the Latin, and instead of belch say eruct, and instead of belches say eructations; and if some do not understand these terms it matters little, for custom will bring them into use in the course of time, so that they will be readily understood; this is the way a language is enriched; custom and the public are all-powerful there.”
“In truth, señor,” said Sancho, “one of the counsels and cautions I mean to bear in mind shall be this, not to belch, for I’m constantly doing it.”
“Eruct, Sancho, not belch,” said Don Quixote.

The conceit of Don Quixote, of course, is that the hero experiences life from a perspective which is not that of life but of literature, and a literature written by the upper class for the upper class at that—not unsurprising in an age when even most priests were illiterate.  And of course the Quixote had it absolutely wrong linguistically … for in lexicography usage is everything; inescapably, the Sanchos of this world determine that, as far outnumbering the Quixotes. The vulgus does not have to read or write, all it has to do is speak and speak, mispronouncing the words of the past in the present to create the words of the future, until with time—as if language were a skeleton–its bones are eroded and rebuilt by numberless agents, like the osteoclasts and osteoblasts which respond, precisely, to usage. So, a new “linguistic skeleton” is created. As in, say, how the structure of Spanish, a ‘romance’ language, evolved from Roman bones … so that the Quixote, scolding Sancho for not being Latinate enough, ironically does so with a language built bit by bit from Latin by a myriad Sanchoses of the past.

The more important point is that Don Quixote had it more fundamentally wrong—all of human life, and almost all human language, happens outside literature.  And until very recently the European vulgus made rare appearances in literature and history (and not at all in the first dictionaries, which–as we know them–began to happen in Europe in the eighteenth century).

The sad, perplexing and thoroughly annoying bottom line is that a historical novelist can do much to flesh out civilizations down into even ancient times, using a great variety of sources.  And the language of the upper classes is largely available as well.  But the vulgar tongue was not recorded until about three centuries ago (at least in Europe).

Some historical novelists choose to “fill in” this blank by inventing early vulgarity.  Bernard Cornwell in his 9th century Saxon Tales–which depict the creation of Englaland–is one of these … as in, for example: “slime coated pieces of human dung,” and “you wall eyed piece of ungrateful toadshit.”  Largely, Cornwell confines his unimaginative imagined vulgarity to the insults that were apparently a mandatory part of warfare in general–and single combat in particular–at the time of his novels.   But Cornwell’s solution did not appeal to me, at all.  What I wanted was the richness and wild inventiveness, the rough and tumble poetry of genuine vulgarity, and I found nothing like it for the time and place of my novel.

I spun my wheels, therefore, until I stumbled across a remaindered copy of Francis Grose’s, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (in the edition depicted below).

Vulgar TonguePublished in England in 1811, it was not the first European effort to compile the vulgar tongue–this fact acknowledged by Grose, who begins his preface by stating that he follows in the footsteps of “the Satirical and Burlesque Dictionary of Monsieur le Roux”  (What Grose loosely cites is the Diccionnaire comique, satirique, critique, burlesque, libre et proverbial, by Philibert-Joseph Leroux, published in 1718 … and for those of you interested in early 18th century French vulgarity–historical novelists or no–here’s the text–Diccionnaire comique…).

For my purposes, The Classical Dictionary concerned itself with vulgar language at the wrong time and in a wrong country.  But as I was writing my novel in English, seeing no better alternative, I took the plunge and, faute de mieux, ended up mining Grose (than whiom, no author has ever been more aptly named!) for the vulgarity in my novel.  And, given the alternatives, I do not regret this anachronism and anatopism.  I might point out in my defense that England and Spain, without exactly sharing the “English” channel, lie not far apart, and have osmotically shared much culture over the centuries–despite recurring enmiity–part of that porous whole now made officially an European Union.   I cite as one example a definiton from Grose: Cacafuego. A sh-te-fire, a furious braggadocio or bully huff–a nickname one of the characters in my novel gives himself.

And I add in self exculpation that I was scrupulous not to take from Grose that which was in any way distinctly British, but to choose such language as stems from  the universal vulgar condition which obtained for many centuries In Europe, having to do with such cultural constants as priests and cutpurses, hangings and beheadings … and of course, human sexuality….

As a passionate logophile and etymologist, I have been dipping into and browsing dictionaries for much of my adult life, and this is the only one I have actually read with great enjoyment, end to absolute end.  It is short of course, as an addendum to “higher” speech, which helps.  And it is highly self referential, the vulgar often defining itself vulgarly, so that for example, “Mother of all Saints” is defined as “the monosyllable.”  This is a self contained underworld of words, which until extremely recently did not see light in print,

Grose is definitely worth dipping into for all you other logophiles interested in digging old dirt.  There are a number of editions available on Amazon, and a kindle edition is offered for free, here: Grose.  To pique your interest, I offer some entries maybe worth your while … to guess at … or look up….

Apple dumplin shop
Blue skin
Cackling farts
Doodle sack
Elbow grease
Grin in a glass case
Hob, or, nob
Irish beauty
Jockum gage
Queer plungers
Rantum scantum
Scotch fiddle
Thorough cough
Urinal of the planets
Vaulting school
Wolf in the breast
Xantippe (only entry for X)
Yellow belly

PS And a last–distantly relevant–aside….  It seems that Don Quixote is the most mispronounced name in literature, the price of being famous absolutely almost everywhere: Don what…?