Mind your language


23 November 2013

9:00 AM

23 November 2013

9:00 AM

Catching up with the excellent biography of the 3rd Marquess of Bute (the man who built Cardiff Castle among other eccentricities) by Rosemary Hannah, I came across this seasonal horror for Stir Up Sunday. In the Greek islands that Bute toured, they laid out grapes to dry as currants.

‘The beds these currants are laid to dry on,’ he wrote, ‘are thickly smeared with dung, not fresh, but the real cess pool business, including, I think, our own aunt as well as that of other animals, in an advanced state of corruption… They say it keeps the currants hot below, and I daresay it does — but it don’t stimulate one’s appetite for plum pudding.’ This memorable passage contains a euphemism that I had not met for decades, and certainly not in an aristocratic setting: aunt meaning ‘excrement’. Bute, who enjoyed ill health and showed some interest in coprological matters, often used aunt.

Aunts, in our lifetime, have generally been at worst giddy. P.G. Wodehouse’s last completed novel may have been called Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen (published in the United States as The Cat-Nappers), but aunts fulfilled in his mythical universe the role of surrogate mothers, either minatorily in the guise of Aunt Agatha, or indulgently in the Aunt Dahlia avatar.

A little more dubiously, ‘My Aunt Fanny!’ was used in the 20th century as an expression of disbelief. But historically aunt has been a slang term for just about everything. In the linguistically inventive era of the Authorised Version it was commonly used to mean ‘a prostitute’ or ‘procuress’. Once rhyming slang became the vogue, Aunt Maria (like Obadiah or Jeremiah) was used for ‘fire’. More recently, Aunt Maria joined the long cast list of slang synonyms for ‘marijuana’.

Just now, with the passing fashion for slang derived from the unpredictable effects of predictive text technology on mobile phones (with book being used as a joky synonym for ‘cool’, since that is how the mobile renders it, and carnage for ‘barmaid’), aunt has become a variant of the very rude word with a different initial letter. That won’t last, but Bute’s aunt has shown surprising staying power, though it is a word that, in his sense, I would rather live without.

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  • Yarny O’Knitman

    and now the Butes are miserable tax exiles