Italo Calvino said 'A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.' Reading a classic more than once, perhaps at different times of your life, you will get something different from it each time. Thinking of the last time I read Wuthering Heights a few years ago, I chose Wuthering Heights for Februaury as a great romance to coincide with Valentine's day. Instead this time round I have found a gothic curse and cannot see the story in any other way. In fact what has hit me this time has been the violence. I have been shocked by the language of Heathcliff and some of the other characters, for example ('Your land, insolent slut!'). I live in the twenty-first century so I can't imagine how shocking it was for the Victorians!
It's always difficult to understand how rude a bad word is in a foreign language, like the difference between 'poo' and 'shit'. So I thought it could be interesting to look at some of the other bad names and insults in the book, their origins and exactly how strong they might be.
1. Go to the deuce - Chapter 1 - 'The 'walk in' was uttered with closed teeth, and expressed the sentiment, 'Go to the Deuce'.'
Here 'deuce' replaces 'devil' so is a substitution, a way of avoiding saying the word 'devil' and therefore less strong. In the fifteenth century 'dews' ( coming from the Latin 'duo' ) meant the nunber two in dice or cards. It came to be a mild swear word in the eighteenth century as two was the lowest score.
2. Heathen - 'Chapter 9 - You’re worse than a heathen — treating your own flesh and blood in that manner!’
A 'heathen' is a derogatory term for someone who lives in the country (think of heath - an area of uncultivated land). It's meaning extended to indicate a person lacking culture, and a person not belonging to a mainstream religion (not Christian or Jewish), a pagan. Is this the reason behind Heathcliff's name? Oh I think I have just discovered something - I love that!
3. Blackguard - Chapter 1 1 - 'what notion of propriety must you have to remain here, after the language which has been held to you by that blackguard?'
Apparently, this one was really offensive. It originally referred to the lowest kitechen servants in charge of coal, pots and kettles. 'Black' could refer to the black of the coal and dirty pots or mockingly to the contrast with the elaborate uniforms of the armed guards. The term became synonymous with menial jobs, guard of attendants, dark in person, clothes or character and then a following of 'black' villains.
4. 'Scoundrel - Chapter 10 - 'Scoundrel! He is not altogether guiltless in this illness of mine; and that I had a great mind to tell him.'
Speakers of Latin based languages can do some investigating with this word! How do you say 'hide' in Italian? 'Nascondere. If you are hiding you must have something to hide, right? There may also be an association with a Scottish word 'skunner', coming from Middle English, meaning 'to shrink back', 'cause to feel disgust at'. 'Scunner' still exists as a derogatory term in North Yorkshire for a young criminal. Not nice but just derogatory.
5. Cipher - Chapter 20 - 'I guess you’ll report what you hear and see to the cipher at the Grange; and this thing won’t be settled while you linger about it.’
If you want to insult someone, you don't have to imply they are a criminal, just put them down, make feel worthless - call them a 'cipher'. 'Sifra' is Arabic for zero. Latin based language spaekers, sound familiar? 'Chiffre' in French meansd number of figure as does 'cifra' in Italian. All our numbers come from Arabic, right? So the meaning spread from 'zero' to mean any number.
I have enjoyed exploring these bad names so much that I have decided to do an infographic on other insults? Let m wknow if you find nay other examples that you would like to explore further. Would you like to receive my infographic? Send me your email address and I will be happy to send it to you.
Every month, I publish a review of the book I ahve read that month.