Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Unnameable, Unspeakable, Unmentionable [II, 47]

In 1769 the English jurist William Blackstone described the “crime against nature” as a “subject the very mention of which is a disgrace to human nature. It will be more eligible to imitate in this respect the delicacy of our English law, which treats it in its very indictments, as a crime not fit to be named, peccatum illud horribile, inter Christianos non nominandum,”

Similar themes of excoriation had circulated for some time on the European continent. In 1700 Lodovico Sinistrari summed up this trope in the following terms: peccatum mutum (silent sin), vitium nefandum (unspeakable vice) and vitium innominabile (unnamable vice), all designating the crime against nature or sodomy.

These aspersions were sometimes glossed by adducing a speculative etymology of the Hebrew word Sodom, interpreted as “pecus tacens” or silent herd.

The taboo on naming has a religious background. This shows a curious convergence of the holy (e.g. the name of Yahweh was not to pronounced) and the taboo (thus the substitution of “expose the nakedness of” for to have sex). In the Greek Septuagint version of the Bible “anathema” means both consecrated and accursed.

Hoping to turn the tables on his accusers Oscar Wilde drew upon this tradition when he spoke at his trial of the “love that dare not speak its name.” He was quoting from an 1894 poem by Lord Alfred Douglas, “Two Loves.”

In Germany in 1906 the activist John Henry McKay held that, as there were no suitable terms for same-sex behavior, it would have to be termed die Namenlose, the nameless.

Everyday usage in modern languages provide various equivalents for such euphemisms as that way or one of those. In French one may speak of en être and comme ça. The expression ces messieurs dates from the eighteenth century. With its so, German is very economical In Italian we find così and uno di quelli or with somewhat greater clarity quel peccato, quel vizio. Such expressions can connote either strong distaste for such practices, or a wish to avoid embarrassment (sometimes both). The ultimate in erasure occurs when one merely makes dismissive movements, e.g. displaying a limp wrist for a gay male or performing a stomping gate to indicate a lesbian.

Such devices are usually adopted by outsiders. However gay people themselves sometimes use codewords that reflect a form of delicacy, usually combined with a desire to keep heterosexuals “out of the loop.” One expression that has gained currency is in the life.

Degaying is a recent term for the tendency to limit or ignore the gay elements in a person’s life (as formerly with Walt Whitman, and recently with the early work of the artist Robert Smithson).

In 2004 a popular program appeared on American cable TV entitled “The L-Word.” In this case everyone knows that the “suppressed” word is lesbian.

Interesting in this connection is the designation MSM (Men who have sex with men). This euphemism (if it is that) is said to derive from HIV-prevention groups to reach men who do not regard themselves as having homosexual identities, but who nonetheless engage in same-sex relations. Some of these men may be closeted, others bisexual. The expression on the down low performs a somewhat similar function for some African-Americans.


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