Wednesday, 29 June 2011

On bottom

A correspondent from Shakespeare's Globe writes to ask whether bottom ever meant 'posterior' in Elizabethan England. He has noted the way some modern productions make risque jokes about the character of Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and wonders if these are what Shakespeare intended. He wonders, too, whether Bum (the name of Pompey in Measure for Measure) would have had a similar connotation.

This is the kind of case where the amazing Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary comes into its own. Type bottom into the search, and up will come all the senses of that word, grouped thematically. Find the one which means 'buttocks', and there you will find a list of over 80 lexical items for this area of the anatomy, which you can see alphabetically or in chronological order of record. They contain items which are a mixture of learned, jocular, euphemistic, and slang.

1000s: arse
1200s: cule, latter end, fundament, buttock
1300s: tut, tail, toute, nage, tail-end, brawn, bum
1400s: newscher, croupon, rumple, lend, butt, luddock, rearward, croup
1500s: backside, dock, rump, hurdies, bun, sitting-place, prat, nates, crupper, posteriorums,
1600s: cheek, catastrophe, podex, posterior, seat, poop, stern, breek, flitch, bumfiddle, quarter, foundation, toby
1700s: rear, moon, derriere, fud, rass, bottom
1800s: stern-post, hinderland, hinderling, ultimatum, behind, rear end, hinder, botty, stern-works, jacksy,
1900s: sit, truck-end, tochus, BTM, sit-upon, bot, sit-me-down, fanny, beam, ass, can, keister, batty, bim, quoit, rusty-dusty, twat, zatch, booty, bun, tush

So, bum? Yes, that would have carried a rude connotation in Shakespeare's day. But bottom? No. To exploit rude connotations here would be an anachronism. Of course, it's difficult to ignore the modern meaning, when we hear the name, but we have to try, if we want to get closer to Shakespeare's usage.


Flashdance said...

Very interesting. As another example we assume that the French language, so well guarded by the Academy has been set in stone for centuries; not true. Until the time of Napoleon the most popular word for 'yes' outside of Paris was not 'oui' but 'oik'!

Jack Windsor Lewis said...

I'm afraid, Dave, I don't agree. I think we may disregard the gap in the OED evidence. That wily old sniffer out of naughtyisms Eric Partridge quoted in Shakespeare's Bawdy the stanza from from Venus and Adonis starting at line 239
"Graze on my lips, and if those hills be drie,
Stray lower, where the pleasant fountaines lie
Within this limit is reliefe inough,
Sweet bottome grasse, and high delightfull plaine
Round rising hillocks" ...etc
That's fundamental evidence to me.

DC said...

This isn't counter-evidence at all. Bottom grass is given a separate entry in the OED (C2.e), rightly, I think, as one of a series of usages in which bottom means simply 'pertaining to low-lying ground' (along with bottom-glade, bottom-land and so on. Yes, there's bawdy here, but it is in relation to grass (i.e.pubic hair), not to bottomwhere the contrast with high suggests that these terms are being used literally.

DC said...

Ben sends me a link to the Iris Theatre production of Dream currently running at the Actor's Church in Covent Garden, London, until 5 August. Saw it the other night and it's a delight - a promenade around the gardens and into the church at the end. You can check it out via the Independent preview, and there's also a trailer.

Claudia said...

This is interesting... Midsummer Night's Dream was the first play I ever read and saw. It was 1978 and I was 12; our illuminated English teacher made us read it in Italian before she took us to see it in English in a production by Mountview Theatre School. I appropriately sat through the play as if in a dream (the setting helped, it was an old castle near Como), with my Italian translation in front of me and I loved it. I can still remember thinking I wished it'd never end. Anyway, sorry about the "amarcord" ... this was all to say that Bottom's name was translated Chiappa - which means buttock. I don't know if this is still the case in Italian productions as I never ever saw it in Italian. So were the translators completely mistaken? And did Shakespeare give the name any other type of connotation or was it just chance?

DC said...

Yes, the Italian translators missed the point completely. The name Bottom is occupation-related, as the other mechanicals' names are. A 'bottom' at the time was the name for a ball of thread - a collocation of the time was 'a bottom of thread' (see the OED, sense 15).

Anonymous said...

A very interesting topic, I agree with you stated about the use of Me/I and feel that one comes to the conclusion of using 'I' as a formality; as they assume that means that it is grammatically correct. Thankyou for your insight