Falling Arse Over Tit Through History – A Lexical Journey

It’s been interesting to see the BBC’s appreciation for ‘the vulgar tongue’ this week.

TheVulgarTongueFiona Macdonald’s article on Francis Grose explores the life and work of an eccentric soldier and unlikely lexicographer who published a dictionary of slang in 1785.

Naturally, the inclination is to compare his achievements to Samuel Johnson, whose Dictionary of the English Language was published just 30 years earlier.

If Johnson’s aspirations were to pure English, Grose’s were to the common tongue – though not just from the bottom rung of society. As Susie Dent (of Countdown fame) describes: “His aim was to put on record a patois that had hitherto been shunned by collectors of language – an effort that was as courageous as it was unprecedented”.

Falling Arse Over Tit Through History

One of the most remarkable features of his collection is the sense of history it displays, even in its infancy as a genre. Published several decades after the first edition of Johnson’s dictionary, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue contained expressions that were already centuries old.

I leap straight to a very familiar example. ‘Arsy-varsey’ dates back to at least the mid-sixteenth century. Grose describes it as a motion of clumsiness. “To fall arsy varsey, ie head over heels”.

This is a derivative that has persisted to current day. We might commonly use ‘arse about face’ in the vernacular, while more recently, the expression ‘arse over tit’ has taken on the more vulgar mantle.

However, the historical use suggests something less upwardly vertical and more broadly out of kilter from the norm. In his 1539 text, Prouerbes or adagies with newe addicions, gathered out of the Chiliades of Erasmus, Richard Taverner associates the term with setting a cart before the horse rather than behind it.

Amidst the destruction of the monasteries under Henry VIII, which revolutionised the power structures of the English monarchy, the idiom arose to reflect a considerable change in political or state affairs. Henry had broken away from Rome, declared himself head of the Church of England, and set about recuperating the wealth from some of the most revered properties in the land.

The World Turn'd Upside Down

Arsy-varsey (or arsy versy – arguably pronounced the same) would remain a common idiom to represent struggles for authority.

The frisky literature of the tumultuous mid-seventeenth century was awash with such motifs of inversion. ‘The World Turn’d Upside Down’, produced by John Taylor in the 1640s, is constructed entirely around this reversal of normality, with a rat chasing a cat, a barrow pushing a person, and the cart before the horse. Though the term arsy-varsey isn’t to be found in Taylor’s more refined descriptive poem, it’s clearly reflected by the main event of the frontispiece, where the inverted man’s head arises from between his legs.

But satirical writers were happy to take things further and play on the literal wording of the term. ‘Arsy Versy: Or, the Second Martyrdom of the Rump’, an anonymous pamphlet published early in the Restoration, is a cutting piece of scatalogical drollery. The term doubles as a motif of political upheaval and as an exultant self-description of the genre.

Anon, Arsy Versy: Or, a Second Martyrdom of the Rump

The motif of hierarchical chaos is evident throughout, with a nation shocked by the execution of the King in 1649 soon experiencing the disbanding of the Rump Parliament in 1653. The title of Lord Protector bestowed to Oliver Cromwell may have promised some stability, but Richard Cromwell failed to convince following his father’s death in 1658.

The anonymous author of ‘Arsy Versy’ delights in all manner of scatalogical humour to represent the calamity of withered Republicanism. Rump and ‘Bum’ are frequently interchangeable, there’s multiple episodes of flatulence, a reference to the rhyming slang of Richard the Third, and – my personal favourite – the reference to Thomas Atkins [18].

Atkins, or Tony Turd as he came to be known, was an alderman of London who famously soiled himself upon hearing a volley of shots during the First Civil War. In 1649, the periodical Mercurius Carolinus reported that Atkins had interceded between two boys having an argument only to discover an unfortunate ritual that involved himself.

‘one of them magnanimously answered, Sir, he hath broke the laws of our School… for he let a fart and nere cryed Atkins, this affront Tony turd had revenged, but that the fear he was put in, had caused him to make a jake of his breeches, which he needs must go home to empty’

Mercurius Carolinus, 1 (July 1649)

For boys to be openly mocking the alderman upon breaking wind, and for newsbooks to be revelling in it, is quite a statement of comic intent. But the anonymous author of ‘Arsy Versy’ cannot resist going one step further, labelling Atkins as ‘provided to shite out the fire’.

It’s like South Park in the 1660s.

Giving and Taking Offence

Reading the preface to the second edition of Grose’s volume, it’s interesting to see how he responds to public reaction. He rejoices at the scale of public demand, which, in addition to another print run, has prompted a ‘very considerably enlarged’ edition.

But there is also compromise, of self-censorship and refinement. He explains: ‘Some words and explanations in the former edition having been pointed out as rather indecent or indelicate… these have been either omitted, softened, or their explanations taken from books long sanctioned with general approbation’. Grose’s project was to entertain and educate rather than to offend.

Therein, we are reminded how words gain power by the context in which they are used. By documenting history, we tend to strip away the cause from which these expressions were born unto offence.

This is what allows championed lexicographer David Crystal to exalt in saying the ‘c’ word on a recorded podcast at LSE earlier this year (53:00) – and then to remind us that one would never dream of using it in any circumstance… other than at the LSE Literary Festival.


Highlights:

  • The history of terms of endearment (when Middle English got creative), and then stages of drunkenness [21:00].
  • How vocabulary exposes forgeries [33:00].
  • Yours truly asking about original pronunciation, and being thoroughly educated on the term authenticity [1:01:30]

LSE Literary Festival 2015

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s