Defining obscenity

(Note: the following contains explicit discussion of profanity.)

From its first publication onwards, the OED’s inclusion—and exclusion—of obscene language has excited comment.

In December 1893, the National Observer complained that ‘one looks [in Dr. Murray’s dictionary] for the “bad words”, and one regrets to find them wanting’ (Whibley 1893: 164). The dictionary’s Crouchmas–Czech fascicle had come out a month before, and cunt had been conspicuously absent. By the time the lexicographers had reached the end of the alphabet and published their first Supplement in 1933, the linguist Alan S. C. Ross (1934) was able to criticize the OED’s ‘Victorian prudishness’ in overlooking not only cunt but fuck, roger, balls, and several other coarse sexual and anatomical words. These omissions would only be rectified in the OED’s second Supplement—a fact to which its editor, Robert W. Burchfield (1972), would draw special attention. As noted elsewhere, although James Murray and the other editors of OED1 endeavoured to be impartial historians of language, their work was not immune to personal bias (see ‘Standards of “Correct” English’). However, in the case of obscenity, they were also beholden to the law.

In 1857, Richard Chenevix Trench declared to the London Philological Society that the ideal dictionary should include ‘every word occurring in the literature of the language it professes to illustrate’ (Trench 1857: 2). Coincidentally, the same year saw the passage of Britain’s first Obscene Publications Act, which banned the public exposure of any text judged to be indecent. Authors and printers were understandably cautious. While the National Observer criticized the OED for omitting cunt, the newspaper dared not print the word itself—a fact that its editor, William Ernest Henley, was forced to concede in a letter to an understandably irritated Murray (940108A).

Writers wishing to skirt the obscenity act had to print their works privately. This is what John Stephen Farmer chose to do for his scholarly slang dictionary, Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present (1890–1904)—co-edited by none other than Henley—which included both cunt and fuck. Farmer and Murray corresponded about their respective work: Murray read Farmer’s dictionary proofs (900723A, 910530A) and allowed him, at the suggestion of Frederick J. Furnivall, to borrow examples of ‘naughty words’ from the OED’s collection of quotations (910530A, 910603A). Yet even Farmer’s dictionary hit an obstacle when the printers he had hired, Poulter and Sons, refused to typeset certain obscene words that ‘range[d] themselves under “C” and “F”’ (910603A). Farmer was able to secure other printers, but when he took Poulter and Sons to court for breach of contract in 1891, he lost his case: although an obscene book might be produced for private circulation, the court decided that nobody was obligated to print it.

Still, what counted as ‘obscene’ was not always easy to pin down legally or lexically. As Farmer wrote to Murray, ‘in reality […] the distinctions of “decency” usually drawn are somewhat inconsistent’. He personally thought, for instance, that ‘Bugger & Buggery, as popularly used, are far more obscene than the vernacular words for the penis, the female pudendum, & the verb’ (900723A)—meaning cock, cunt, and fuck. Other correspondents offered alternative rankings. In 1890, Robinson Ellis felt that cock and cunt ‘seem to stand much on the same footing as “arse”’, an entry for which had appeared in the OED in 1885 (900307A). He advised Murray that both genital words should be included with supporting quotations, but with a preference shown for historical rather than contemporary sources. Ellis also relayed the opinions of three other Oxford academics, Robert William Raper, Joseph Thomas Fowler, and Ingram Bywater. Raper and Fowler agreed that both cock and cunt should appear in the OED, though Raper specified there should be no more than one quotation given for each. On the other hand, Bywater was ‘rather against’ cock but ‘strongly in favour’ of cunt (900307A).

The matter of cunt was raised again a year later by another of Murray’s counsellors, James Dixon, who felt that a brief definition should be printed without quotations. He reminded Murray, ‘The thing itself is not obscene […] But it is insulted by having an obscene name given to it’ (910217A). This distinction between an obscene thing and an obscene name is an example of what the linguist Allen Walker Read (1937) would call a taboo of concept versus a taboo of word. A taboo of concept occurs when a particular subject is socially unacceptable. A taboo of word occurs when a subject is acceptable, at least in some contexts, but a particular word used to denote it is offensive because of the register to which it belongs. Dixon seems to have felt that because the genitals were not inherently taboo, an offensive term for the vulva could be included in the dictionary. On the other hand, a concept that was taboo could render a word that denoted it inadmissible. Thus, when Dixon sent Murray a quotation for the word condom some years before, he surmised that the word—which represented ‘a very obscene subject’ (i.e. contraception)—would prove to be ‘too utterly obscene for the Dictionary’ (881206A).

In the end, Murray and his co-editors had to settle on their own ‘distinctions of decency’ for the dictionary. OED1 included bugger, buggery, and cock, but condom was excluded along with cunt and fuck. As we have seen, this decision did not please all parties. Apart from the public complaints of journalists and linguists, one user of the dictionary named J. Hamilton wrote privately to Murray to express dismay at the omission of cunt: ‘The mere fact of its being used in a vulgar way, does not ban it from the English language […] In reality it is no more vulgar than bowels or womb, & hardly so vulgar as a certain word inserted in your Dictionary, to indicate the posterior under letter B’ (990901A). Hamilton did not deign to specify whether the vulgar word for the posterior was backside, behind, bottom, breech, bum, butt, or buttock, all of which had appeared in the OED—though it noted that bottom was ‘Colloq.’ and behind was ‘colloq. and vulgar’. (Murray did decline to include the compound bum-clink, which George Augustus Sala had told him was a kind of cheap ale named for ‘some supposed effect which its excessive consumption had on the rectum’ (890906A); but this exclusion was likely motivated more by the word’s rarity than its rudeness.)

The lexicographical policing of obscenity was inflected by norms of gender as well as sexuality. When he sued his printers, Farmer vouched to the court that he had ‘asked [the press’s] managing director to take care that the copy or the sheets [of his dictionary] should not get into the hands of women or children’ (Pall Mall Gazette 1891: 7). A similar anxiety led Edward Arber to advise Murray that John Bulwer’s Anthropometamorphosis, a seventeenth-century treatise on body modification, would be a useful source of quotations for the OED because it contained ‘a number of words relating to the human frame: but it should be read for the Dictionary, by a man’ (841224A; see also ‘Women and the Dictionary, Part I: Assistants and Volunteers’). In fact, Anthropometamorphosis had already been read for the OED by two people, one of whom was a woman: the author and poet Jennett Humphreys (Murray 1884: 602). Bulwer’s book ended up being quoted repeatedly in the OED—including, J. Hamilton might have been distressed to learn, under buttock.

In 1902, the OED explained the dominant sense of obscene to be ‘2. Offensive to modesty or decency; expressing or suggesting unchaste or lustful ideas; impure, indecent lewd’. But beyond defining obscene in the abstract, the lexicographers also had to determine in practice what was and wasn’t obscene when it came to compiling a public record of the language. The diverse expectations that people placed on the OED had caused Murray to lament after the publication of its first part, A–Ant (1884), ‘every body [has] his own likes & dislikes in the way of words, & the spirit moves many to communicate them to me […] The worst thing, so far as I am concerned, is, that these “winds of doctrine” blow from all points of the compass, opposing one another, & giving me little help’ (840222A). When it came to charting indecent language in particular, the lexicographers were caught between the forces of scholarly diligence, social decorum, and legal censorship: whichever way they turned was perilous.

Further reading

Gilliver, Peter. (2010). ‘Collaboration, Competition, Confrontation: The Oxford English Dictionary’s Associations with Other Dictionaries, c. 1880–1900’. In Michael Adams (Ed.), ‘Cunning Passages, Contrived Corridors’: Unexpected Essays in the History of Lexicography (pp. 57–84). Monza: Polimetrica.

Mugglestone, Lynda. (2007). ‘“Decent Reticence”: Coarseness, Contraception, and the First Edition of the OED’. Dictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America, 28, 1–22.

Turton, Stephen. (2020). ‘The Confessional Sciences: Scientific Lexicography and Sexology in the Oxford English Dictionary’. Language & History, 63(3), 214–232.