Dirty Words

Being mother to a five year old, I am only too aware of the delights of toilet humour.  Small children, like poets, can’t resist the urge to see if they can shock you with new words they have learned at school.  The beginning lines of The Owl and the Nightingale have a rather scatological fixation too.  This opening, the initial argument which unfolds before the birds agree to ask Nicholas of Guildford to arbitrate, works as a prologue for what follows.  Nicolette Zeeman, in an essay on ‘Imaginative Theory’ in Middle English: Oxford Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature, argues that we can only recognize the full extent of medieval writers’ ‘literary self-theorization’, that is their self-reflexive analysis of their own literary practice and perhaps also of literature itself, when we realise that some of this theorization appears in texts in figurative or metaphorical form.

The ON-poet makes interesting poetic choices, selecting octosyllabic couplets (a characteristically French and Anglo-Norman verse form) yet not using many words borrowed into English from French in the poem.  He also makes some interesting choices about types of English.  One of the obvious stylistic decisions each poet makes concerns vocabulary.  Of course, a poet thinks about what they want to say in terms of meaning, but they also make decisions about the type of words, that is the diction they choose.  A poet might choose everyday words or learned words.  They might choose formal words or informal words.  A poet might choose to use words from a particular sociolinguistic field or register.

The opening of ON seems particularly attracted to bodily language, especially the language of bodily functions as the Nightingale accuses the Owl and her chicks of fouling their nest.  We are also told about spitting, revulsion and anger which is physically shown, viste (‘wet farts’), noises which are guttural not verbal, and threats of bodily violence.  This may be one of the poem’s purposes, to entertain its audience by testing out the boundaries of decorum and by juxtaposing issues of moral seriousness with toilet humour.  The poem certainly gives us evidence of early medieval sociolinguistic consciousness of different types of words.  The Owl explains her solitary habits by saying that she avoids all of the small birds who mock her (281–86).  She doesn’t want to engage with them, to abuse them with foul or filthy language, the sort of language used by shepherds.

Me is lof to habbe reste
And sitte stille in mine neste
Vor nere ich neuer no þo betere
Yif ich mid chauling and mid chatere
Hom schende, and mid fule worde,
So herdes doþ, oþer mid schitworde.

I would prefer to have some peace
and sit still in my nest:
For I wouldn’t be any better off
If I with jabbering and with chattering
Abused them, and with foul language,
As shepherds do, or with shit-words.

Shit in early Middle English is simply a medical/veterinary term for diarrhoea and various animal diseases, and does not seem to be generally used figuratively at this point.  The verb shiten is not generally considered a rude word in Middle English (as Horobin and Smith point out in their Introduction to Middle English), appearing in medical texts and the Wycliffite Bible.  But here is a figurative usage, schitworde, a clever compound to describe dirty words.  If this is a version of Zeeman’s self-theorization, it also names the linguistic taboo with which the ON-poet has been flirting.  As Karen M Gasser has pointed out, the previous line puns self-reflexively on foul and fowl language.  Here is the beginning, I think, of English poetry’s sporadic flirtation (which is also a sort of self-torment and self-delight) with dirty words, the idea that poetry cannot resist them and might be nothing but schitwordes, yet simultaneously that literature is that which has licence to delight in many words which other discourses cannot.

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