November 20, 2006

Typographical bleeping antedated to 1591

It's common to disguise scatological or blasphemous language by replacing some letters with asterisks, hyphens, blanks or other typographical maskers. This avoids violating the letter of an explicit or implicit prohibition against printing certain words. Some might also see this as an instance of magical thinking, where it's safe to cause people to think of certain words, but saying them out loud, or writing them directly and completely, would invoke a sort of incantational power to harm. In any case, I've been curious about this history of this practice, and in some earlier posts ("The history of typographical bleeping", 6/10/2006; "The earliest typographically-bleeped F-word", 6/15/2006) we tracked English-language examples back to a poem by John Oldham published in 1680.

In response to my call for earlier cases, Simon Cauchi takes a form of this practice back almost a hundred years, to 1591. His note is beyond the jump.

I can offer three examples from the works of Sir John Harington (1560-1612), but note the use of parentheses rather than dashes or hyphens.

See Harington's 1591 translation of Orlando Furioso, Book 43, stanza 133:

In fine, he made to him the like request
As Sodomits made for the guests of Lot.
The Judge him and his motion doth detest
Who though five times repulst yet ceaseth not,
But him with so large offers still he prest
That in conclusion like a beastly sot,
So as it might be done in hugger-mugger
The Judge agreed the Negro him should ( )

Secondly, in Harington's epigram "Of a faire woman; translated out of Casineus his Catalogus gloriae mundi", the sixth couplet reads (in the printed edition of 1618):

A narrow mouth, small waste, streight ( )
Her finger, hayre, and lips, but thin and slender:

but there is no bleeping in the manuscript prepared for presentation to Prince Henry (Folger MS V. a. 249), where the text reads:

A narrow mouth, small waste, strayght privy member,
her fingers, hayr and lips, but thin and slender

(The spellings "strayght" and "streight" are of course to be understood as "strait".)

Thirdly, the epigram "Of Garlick. To my Ladie Rogers" is short enough to be quoted in its entirety. The printed edition reads:

If Leeks you like, and doe the smell disleeke,
Eate Onions, and you shall not smell the Leeke.
If you of Onions would the sent expell,
Eate Garlicke, that will drowne the Onyons smell.
    But sure, gainst Garlicks sauour, at one word,
    I know but one receit, what's that? (go looke.)

In the Folger MS the last line is also bleeped, but by other means:

I know but one receipt, what's that? Tobacco.

The Folger MS was intended for the eyes not only of Prince Henry but also of his father King James I, whose dislike of tobacco was well known.


Note that in these cases, the hint that allows the reader to infer the writer's intention is the (meter and) rhyme, rather than the initial letter.

The last example has a special twist: the reader is led to expect "a turd", and then sees "tobacco", a substitution that conveys an additional message. This is a familar technique, which I know that I've seen several times in humorous songs -- but at the moment, all that I can remember are a couple of fragments of tune, without the words. If your memory is better than mine, let me know.

[OK, here's one -- Antoine Hervier writes

In the movie Shrek, when the Ogre and Donkey arrive in Duloc, they are greeted with a cute little song, with these lyrics :

Please don't step on the grass
Shine your shoes
Wipe your [pause] face

I do remember that one now, but it's not the one that was on the tip of my tongue. Nor am I trying to remember Sweet Violets, sent in by George Kesteven. However, this note from Daniel R. Tobias nails it:

Regarding your request in the Language Log, one famous example of a song where a "bad word" is substituted with something that doesn't even rhyme is "Shaving Cream", originally written in 1946 by Benny Bell, sung by Paul Wynn, and redone by Dr. Demento in 1975.

A schoolyard rhyme that I remember as "Miss Lucy", but Wikipedia's entry calls "Miss Susie", consists of a series of stanzas each of which seems to be leading to a slightly naughty word, which is then made part of an innocent starting word beginning the next verse, like:

"...Miss Lucy went to heaven
and the steamboat went to

Hello operator
Get me number nine..."

It's so old that perhaps it actually dates to a time when some people had single-digit phone numbers.

Yes, "Miss Susie" is the one that I was remembering. How could I forget?

Anyhow, there are dozens of these songs out there. In some cases, the taboo word at the end of the stanza is replaced by a completely separate word which also starts the next stanza; in other cases, a homonym is used in the same way.]

[Jacob Coughlan contributed this set of variant verse, all the way from Melbourne, Australia -- but I recall hearing several of them in Mansfield Center, Connecticut:

In response to your article "Typographical bleeping antedated to 1591", in which you asked readers to give examples of humourous songs with ribald lyrics substituted for something more innocuous, here are the lyrics to one such song from my childhood, as I knew it. There are, of course, many variations.

Anyway, in this particular song, the lines run into each other, so that the beginning of the suggested dirty word morphs into the innocuous beginning of the next verse. The joke is rammed home by the shocking inclusion of an (unexpected) actual dirty word in the final verse:

Aunty Mary had a canary,
thought it was a duck,
took it round the corner
taught it how to...
Fried eggs for dinner,
fried eggs for tea,
the more you eat,
the more you want,
the more you gotta...

Peter had a boat,
the boat began to rock,
up came Jaws
and bit off his...

ginger ales,
forty cents a glass,
if you don't like it
you can shove it up your...

Ask no questions,
tell no lies,
I saw a Chinaman
doing up his...

Flies are bad,
mosquitoes are worse
that is the end
of my fuckin' naughty verse.

Hope you enjoyed that as much as I did.


[Eric's contribution:

I hope you're not getting flooded with rude, half-remembered schoolyard verse, but probably you are. I was struck by how much your quoted version resembled what I remember from childhood half a world away (Bronx, NY), and also how much it differed. So the real question is -- is someone tracking versions of Miss Susie, by time and place? Because with a little data, the next step is a cladogram!

The version I know has no "Susie" in it at all. And, in retrospect, it's almost certainly two independent pieces welded together at about "Engine engine number nine":

Ungowa! Shipowa!
Your mother don't take no shower!
I said it, I meant it,
I'm here to represent it.

Engine engine number nine
Sock it to me one more time!

Ikey and Dikey
Were playing in the ditch,
Ikey called Dikey a
Dirty son of a . . .

Bring along the children
And let them play with sticks
So when they get older
They'll know how to play with . . .

Dixie had a baby,
She named him Tiny Tim
She put him in the pisspot
To see if he could swim.

He swam to the bottom
He swam to the top
Along came a bumblebee
And stung him up his . . .

Cocktails, ginger ale
Five cents a glass
And if you don't like it
You can shove it up your . . .

Ask me no more questions
I'll tell you no more lies
A kid got hit with a bag of shit
Right between the eyes!

I like the idea of Miss Susie cladistics -- but a trendier name would be "memetic phylogeny". ]

[ Chris Conroy wrote:

In response to your request for songs with an expected dirty rhyme, here are two that came immediately to my mind.  The first is an unreleased Weird Al Yankovic parody, "It's Still Billy Joel to Me" (parody of "It's Still Rock n' Roll to Me" by, naturally, Billy Joel).

The relevant verse (the 'B' verse, if you're familiar with the song):

      Now everybody thinks the new wave is super
      Just ask Linda Ronstadt or even Alice Cooper
      It's a big hit, isn't it
      Even if it's a piece of junk

      It's still Billy Joel to me

It's a fun parody, at least if you're a Billy Joel fan with a sense of humor.  It's a shame Weird Al couldn't get the rights to release it.  (Apparently he always seeks permission from the songwriter, even though, as parody, he's not required to.)

The second example is more obscure.  It's a parody of an old hymn called Dies Irae, written about the "culture wars" going on in the Catholic Church between proponents of traditional hymnody and pop/folk-style contemporary music.  The writer is one of the former.  Most of the references won't mean much to someone outside of Catholic music circles, but I think you'll find this one verse is particularly clever nonetheless.  The three names mentioned in the last line are the three most prolific composers of contemporary music used in Catholic Masses today.  The final name does not actually rhyme with the other two line endings, though from the author's point of view, I suppose it might as well:

       Smite them, Lord, yet of thy pity
       Take their songsters to thy city:
       Even Haugen, Haas, and Schutte.

I bet that one has them ROSL (rolling in the sacristy laughing).]

[Daniel R. Tobias provides the version of Miss Susie from upstate New York in the 1970s:

All the variants of the Miss Susie / Lucy rhyme are interesting... does anybody know when and where it originated anyway? Occasionally, the versions have bits in them that seem to date them, like the "Jaws" reference in one of the quoted versions (that seems to refer to a mid-1970s movie). I note that the drink is five cents a glass in one version and forty in another; can that be charted against the Consumer Price Index in an attempt to date the variants? At least in the era before the Internet and such pop-cultural stuff as The Simpsons and South Park which like to make use of things like these rhymes, they spread entirely by kids teaching them to other kids without any assistance of the mass media.

Anyway, the version that I remember, from upstate New York in the mid 1970s, goes like this (similar but not identical to the Wikipedia-quoted version):

Miss Lucy had a steamboat
The steamboat had a bell
Miss Lucy went to heaven
and the steamboat went to

Hello operator
Get me number nine
If you disconnect me
I will kick your fat

Behind the refrigerator
There is a piece of glass
Miss Lucy sat upon it and
it broke her little [or: it went straight up her]

Ask me no more questions
Tell me no more lies
Boys are in the bathroom
pulling down their

Flies are in the pantry
Bees are in the park
Boys and girls are kissing in the
D-A-R-K, D-A-R-K...

Well, some people have pointed out that one piece of the song must have originated at the time when human operators were involved in making telephone connections, among a set of local numbers small enough that a single digit like "nine" would have been a normal selection among them (with connections made by human operators, not all numbers need to have the same number of digits...). Folklorists study this sort of thing, but I'm not sure whether there is a literature on Miss Susie.]

[Michael Mann offers a German example:

Your post "Typographical bleeping antedated to 1591" reminded me of a song that was quite popular here in Germany in 1978 (I wasn't yet born then, but I read that it was quite popular), sung by Rudi Carrel: "Goethe war gut". You can find the lyrics here:

Like the "turd"-example you gave, Carrel similarly played with the expectations of the audience, "rhyming":

"Lust" (lust, delight) not with "Brust" (breast) but whith "Brille" (glasses);

"was jeder weiß" not with "der größte Scheiß" (the biggest shit) but with "der größte Segen" (the biggest blessing)

and so on. Which means, as he does so in every second line, the song doesn't rhyme at all.

(See also:


[Ray Girvan has another German reference:

I recall a German schoolyard equivalent:

Scheint die Sonne so warm
Nehm ich Papier untern Arm,
Scheint die Sonne so heiss,
Setze mich nieder und

Scheint die Sonne so warm
etc etc


[Martyn Cornell sent in a URL for the "best-known (and much loved) British taboo-word-substitution-recital, It was Christmas Day in the Workhouse, which is a parody of the 19th century tear-jerker by George Sims, It Is Christmas Day in the Workhouse."]

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 20, 2006 06:43 AM