January 19, 2005

Twat v. Browning

In response to Monday's post about dismortality/epismetology and puppetutes/pompatus, ACW emailed that "[y]our Language Log piece about the 'etymology' of Steve Miller's 'word' reminded me of the famous Twat v. Browning case".

In Robert Browning's poem Pippa Passes, Browning uses the word "twat" under the misimpression that it was an article of nun's clothing:

   Then owls and bats
   Cowls and twats
   Monks and nuns in a cloister's moods
   Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry

I don't have a reference to hand, sorry.  Internet resources on this seem to be scarce, but I think the whole story is in the OED entry for "twat".

Anyway, bemused etymologists eventually tracked down the source of Browning's confusion.  It was a 17th-century satirical poem called "Vanity of Vanities"; the relevant lines are:

   They talk'd of his having a Cardinall's Hat
   They'd send him as soon an Old Nun's Twat

This somehow reminds me of how Miller reinterprets Green's adolescent homespun pornographic "puppetutes".

Well, the OED entry certainly suggests a story, but it's far from whole. In fact, the entry is a curious and interesting document:

low slang.
[Of obscure origin.]

1. (See quot. 1727.)
Erroneously used (after quot. 1660) by Browning Pippa Passes IV. ii. 96 under the impression that it denoted some part of a nun's attire.

1656 R. FLETCHER tr. Martial II. xliv. 104.
1660 Vanity of Vanities 50 They talk't of his having a Cardinalls Hat, They'd send him as soon an Old Nuns Twat.
a1704 T. BROWN Sober Slip in Dark Wks. 1711 IV. 182 A dang'rous Street, Where Stones and Twaits in frosty Winters meet.
1719 D'URFEY Pills III. 307.
1727 BAILEY vol. II, Twat, pudendum muliebre. Twat-scowerer, a Surgeon or Doctor. E. Ward.
1919 E. E. CUMMINGS Let. 18 Aug. (1969) 61 On Tuesday an Uhlan To her twat put his tool in.
1934 H. MILLER Tropic of Cancer 55 A man with something between his legs that could..make her grab that bushy twat of hers with both hands and rub it joyfully.
1959 N. MAILER Advts. for Myself (1961) 101 The clothes off, the guards are driving them into the other room, and smack their hands on skinny flesh and bony flesh, it's bag a tittie and snatch a twot.
1970 G. GREER Female Eunuch 39 No woman wants to find out that she has a twat like a horse-collar.
1973 P. WHITE Eye of Storm iii. 137 This young thing with the swinging hair and partially revealed twat.

2. A term of vulgar abuse. Cf. TWIT n.1 2b and CUNT 2.
[quotations omitted]

3. U.S. dial. The buttocks.
[quotations omitted]

In the first place, sense 1 is not given a gloss, but instead refers us to the 1727 quotation, which gives the gloss in Latin ("pudendum muliebre"). This is oddly circumspect, given that elsewhere in the OED, cunt is defined straightforwardly (if incorrectly?) as "the female external genital organs". Continuing the circumspection, Fletcher's 1656 translation of Martial and D'Urfey's 1719 quotation are given only as citations, without the quotes. This is odd given the Cummings, Miller, Mailer and Greer quotations, which are hardly demure. Is this perhaps a residue of changing editorial policies over time?

But the reference to Browning seems especially unusual to me. A citation is given without a quote, and the citation is to an idiosyncratic usage that is identified as a lexical misunderstanding on the part of the poet. Even curiouser, the editor confidently identifies the specific source of the mistake as misunderstanding of the 1660 quotation from Vanity of Vanities. Is this because Browning fessed up to the error somewhere? or has the editor done some more indirect literary detective work?

To add to the mystery, the author of Vanity of Vanities is not identified, and the title is not in the OED's bibliography, at least as far as I can tell. And the quote in question ("They talk't of his having a Cardinalls Hat, They'd send him as soon an Old Nuns Twat.") is not found in the otherwise compendious LION database.

Browning's Pippa Passes does exist -- it's an 1841 verse drama about Pippa, a girl "from the silk-mills", best known for Pippa's song from Part I:

222      The year's at the spring
223      And day's at the morn;
224      Morning's at seven;
225      The hill-side's dew-pearled;
226      The lark's on the wing;
227      The snail's on the thorn:
228      God's in his heaven---
229      All's right with the world!

The twat reference is from Pippa's evening song, at the end of the play in Part IV:

102 Day's turn is over, now arrives the night's.
103 Oh lark, be day's apostle
104 To mavis, merle and throstle,
105 Bid them their betters jostle
106 From day and its delights!
107 But at night, brother howlet, over the woods,
108 Toll the world to thy chantry;
109 Sing to the bats' sleek sisterhoods
110 Full complines with gallantry:
111 Then, owls and bats,
112 Cowls and twats,
113 Monks and nuns, in a cloister's moods,
114 Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry!

From the context, it makes sense to interpret twats as referring to nuns' headgear. Certainly the more standard interpretation is at variance with the religious imagery and with Pippa's fresh-faced girlishness. But without the OED's guidance, I would have read it simply as evidence that Browning's 1841 interpretation of Austrian girlishness was less demure than I might have expected.

One last question: how did Pippa Passes, KY come to be named for Browning's play?

[Update: a bit of Googling uncovers the fact that Language Hat mentioned Browning's mistake (?) last year, and gave a link to the missing Fletcher translation of Martial II. xliv. ]

[Update #2: See here for more answers... ]


Posted by Mark Liberman at January 19, 2005 07:59 AM