A while back I wrote about Nancy Mitford’s surprisingly liberal use of the word “whore”. Today I came across an anecdote in Nevil Shute’s memoir Slide Rule, about the author’s career as an engineer in the early days of aviation. In the early 1930s his aircraft design business is growing and the work is overwhelming the firm’s sole secretary, Miss Brunton. She suggests that her sister, an unsuccessful dog breeder, be taken on. This creates confusion:
Rightly or wrongly I decreed that the girls were not to be called by their Christian names in the office. The new girl was no problem to my staff of shareholders because from the first she was known as Dog-Brunton. An unfortunate extension followed, and the office heard cries of “Bitch! Where’s Bitch? Oh, Bitch, when you’ve done Mr. Norway’s letters I’ve got some for you.” Perhaps Ethel and Joan would have been better, after all.
Nowadays this would lead to a lawsuit, but the word “bitch” in England in the 1930s was still in everyday use for a female dog, and therefore only mildly scandalous. Meanwhile, when Shute submits his first novel for publication he is told,
“The House of Cassel does not print the word ‘bloody.'” So we changed them all into “ruddy.”
There is a tendency among modern readers to snicker at the hang-ups of those who came before us; Victorian ladies blushing at the word “pants”, for example. But we have hang-ups of our own, as my surprise at these casual uses of “bitch” and “whore” illustrates.
When I read Huckleberry Finn aloud to my girlfriend not long ago, her body resting against mine as we sat together in bed, I felt her tense up each time I came to the word “nigger”, which was necessarily often. I explained that neither Twain nor Huck meant any insult by it; in their milieu “nigger” was no more shocking than “pants” is to us; but it made no difference, her revulsion was automatic. I sympathized. I’d had to gird myself to speak the forbidden word aloud.
I don’t know how long that taboo will last. As I got off the train the other day a couple of white teenage girls were getting on. I winced as one playfully shouted “Shut up, nigger” at her friend. I’m sure other old-timers in the crowd winced too, but none of us said anything, and the train pulled away with the girls loudly and unabashedly trash-talking each other in language absorbed from hip hop culture.
Who knows what those girls will be offended by, as they yell “cunt” and “cocksucker” freely on the streets.