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Identifying Sexual Vocabulary

Monday, February 12, 2018 - 07:00

Sexual activity has a long and creative history of being described and referred to by slang and euphemism. But when the source domain of the euphemism--the "literal" meaning--is an equally ordinary everyday action, the ambiguity creates problems of interpretation. And in a field like the study of historic same-sex relations, where there is a long tradition of going to some contortions to deny even the scraps of available evidence, euphemism has long been interpreted selectively depending on the genders of the participants. "They weren't, you know, sleeping together, they were just sleeping together."

This article examines one of those euphemisms in a context where both the wider use of the phrase and supporting evidence from the text argues for an unambiguously sexual interpretation. (The article also gives me a new historic text to try to track down.)

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Watt, Diane. 1997. “Read My Lips: Clipping and Kyssyng in the Early Sixteenth Century” in Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality, ed. Anna Livia and Kira Hall. New York, Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-510471-4

Publication summary: 


A collection of linguistics papers relating to queer and feminist theory. From a historic context, the coverage is somewhat shallow and oddly focused (most likely due to having been written by linguists rather than historians). In particular there are regular gaps in knowledge about this history of terminology, or confusion about linguistic transmission and equivalence across languages. I have only included the three papers with relevance to the Project.

Watt, Diane “Read My Lips: Clipping and Kyssyng in the Early Sixteenth Century”

This article examines the context of the phrase “clippyng and kyssyng” that occurrs to describe physical interactions between the female protagonists in the early 16th century English translation of the tale of Yde and Olive (in the Huon of Bordeux cycle). The translation is from an early French text, but this article is specifically concerned with the 16th century English context.

Although “clipping” (hugging, embracing) and “kissing” could occur in non-sexual contexts generally without erotic implications, in the tale it is juxtaposed with the emperor’s reaction that, if the two individuals engaging in it are indeed both women (which is true, but an unproven accusation at this point in the tale), then what they are doing is “boggery” (buggery) and deserves the death penalty. The article summarizes the context of the story (for which, see items tagged with Yde and Olive) and discusses the general context of women crossdressing in religious and secular literature. In general, the disguise is a means to an end, especially one that inolves freeing oneself from female roles and hazards. But Watt considers Yde and Olive to stand outside this tradition to the extent that it overtly creates a context for homoerotic feelings and actions, especially Olive’s choice to continue as a loyal and loving wife after she discoveres Yde’s female identity.

“Clipping and kissing” are common as an activity in Middle English texts and both words can cover both sexual and non-sexual contexts. In heterosexual contexts the phrase can be used as a eupehmism for sexual intercourse. The actions occur in this tale in a context where physiology is not revealed--Yde’s identity as a woman is disclosed verbally later. But the emperor’s assignment of the word “buggery” makes it clear that he sees the clipping and kissing as sexual. At the time of the original French text (which also uses a form of the word buggery) the word buggery had implications of heresy as well as sodomy.

Watt discusses the oft-proposed idea that a lack of terminology for female same-sex relations indicates their non-existence. She notes the OED as a basis for the late entry (late 19th century) of the words “lesbian” and “sapphist” into English but then gives a nod to Emma Donoghue’s work that identifies earlier examples of both words. Watt indicates that no similar vocabulary survives in English from the 16th century but notes that texts such as Yde and Olive demonstrate that the concept of sex between women didn’t require specific terminology. As another example, she cites Brown’s work on the trial of Benedetta Carlini (early 17th century Italy) where a wide variety of language is used to refer to same-sex acts that--from the descriptions--are clearly sexual.

The artcile has a survey of European medieval and Rennaissance penalties for women’s same-sex activity but Watt notes the significant differences between continental and English legal traditions. She concludes with a discussion of how, based on the evidence, women’s same-sex relations were considered transgressive to the extent that the women were considered to be claiming male prerogatives, rather than for the sexual acts themselves.

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