Monday, March 01, 2010
Wellsian Swearword Question
I’m still thinking about 2666; when my thoughts have mulched down a little more I’ll post an overview. But in the interim I’m puzzling over this: the opening paragraph of H G Wells’s Food of the Gods (1904).
In the middle years of the nineteenth century there first became abundant in this strange world of ours a class of men, men tending for the most part to become elderly, who are called, and who are very properly called, but who dislike extremely to be called--"Scientists." They dislike that word so much that from the columns of Nature, which was from the first their distinctive and characteristic paper, it is as carefully excluded as if it were--that other word which is the basis of all really bad language in this country.
I give up. What is that other word which is the basis of all really bad language in this country? Does it rhyme with ‘scientist’? Does is start with the letter? I’m sure I’m being stupidly dense here, but ... does anybody know?
I’m going to guess that the word is “philosophy”, as in “natural philosophy”.
I’ll just hazard a guess and say “religion”?
The basis of all really bad language: goddamnit, jesus christ, etc.?
I dunno, though. I’m not sure how scientists felt about religion back in the late 1800s; I just can’t do a good job of separating contemporary interpretations of it.
As far as I can see, Wells is just saying that scientists avoid “scientist” as if it were a terrible curse word - there’s no suggestion that the words are similar in sound. So we’re just looking for a swearword that was prodigiously generative by the turn of the twentieth century, with a very strong taboo.
That certainly applies to “fuck”, but there are probably other candidates I know nothing of.
I have always assumed that the one swear word that can never be uttered is “bloody”! As per Pygmalion & associated uproar: http://www.wordorigins.org/index.php/bloody/
’Politician’, without a doubt. The only profession (besides maybe ‘lawyer’)whose title has been constant epithet since the term’s creation.
Interesting. Like Ava, I suppose I was assuming ‘fuckers’, on the grounds that sex is the ground of so many swear words. But maybe small-a adam is right; religion is the other ground. I’m still puzzled, though.
I’ll say this, though: in this short novel Wells keeps returning to this ‘expletive deleted’ tic.
Bensington argued with his (female) cousin, in whose flat he is living, as to whether he can conduct his experiments there. She says no, there’s some to-and-fro and ‘then he gave way completely and said—in spite of the classical remarks of Huxley upon the subject—a bad word. Not a very bad word it was, but bad enough.’ 
‘“Good heavens!” cried the curate, or (as some say) something much more manly ...’ 
Mr Skinner asks a lime-burner, a man flustered by the appearance of giant hens in the district, ‘you aint eard anything of Mithith Thkinner?’ ‘The lime-burner—his exact phrase need not concern us—expressed his superior interest in hens’ 
There are a couple of other examples I can’t lay my finger on right now. It’s enough to make me believe that something is going on.
It’s a novel about food. Surely the “basis of all bad language” in this case would be the corresponding word, shit. It is “excluded from the columns of Nature” but not those of nature.
It could be Wellsian cynicism or humor too—for example, if that “other” word was “truth.” In which case, Wells meant for us to imagine a variety of fill-ins for this most awful of bad words…