If the last three letters of the f-word are what seems most repellent about it — the sound of “uck” — that would explain how some other words ending that way still seem a bit odd, if not funny or repellent. Suck, duck, buck, cluck, yuck, muck, guck — and now BYUCK. Or why others, like ruck and snuck, are fading away. And why a word like luck, which leads in with a liquid consonant, doesn’t seem quite as bad, or why pluck, which leads with a plosive followed by a liquid consonant, seem positively upbeat. It would also explain why all of our substitutes begin with “f,” as in flippin’, fetchin’ and friggin’.[i]
If you apply such a general, and no doubt faulty, rule[ii] to some of the other less-genteel words kicking around in English, like the c-word, you come up with bunt, punt, hunt, runt, grunt, all of which have that same feature of being punched in the stomach and feeling your breath rush out. Or there’s “ass,” a perfectly fine, acceptable word for a pack animal, until it became conflated with the part of the human body that sits astride it[iii]. Gas, mass, bass, jass, lass, class, pass, sass — and especially in combinations like “pass gas” — all smack of the unsavory, even though some have perfectly acceptable contemporary uses, and some, like “lass,” are fading into poetic diction. And then there’s the t-word, which shares its nether end with bird, heard, curd, word, furred, lured, gird, nerd, purred, surd, and so on. These words appear to have fallen in with the t-word as much due to the great vowel movement as to anything else.
What most of these words have in common is a Germanic origin: even though we seem to have borrowed the f-word from a Dutch word meaning “to strike,” apparently coming into Middle-English through commerce with the Netherlands, most of these words go back to Anglo-Saxon roots, like, to use a perfectly unrelated word, the “egg” of “to egg him on,” which comes from the Anglo-Saxon “ecg,” also yielding our “edge” as in the edge of a blade — to prod someone as with the edge of a blade. For each of these blunt Anglo-Saxon words there is a more-acceptable Latin name, often sounding more clinical, like vagina or rectum, or a phrase like “to have sexual intercourse with” which, in one of the more interesting developments in word-lore, has freed the word considered obscene to expand its bailiwick, suck in more forms of speech, and extend its reach.
Milton, like Shakespeare, was very aware of this development: Shakespeare exploited it to the hilt, but Milton avoided it as much as possible. From his long practice in writing an elegant and sinuous Latin prose in defence of the Commonwealth — one aimed at a Continenal audience — he was able to develop an elegant and irriguous English blank verse for Paradise lost, one suited to be read in churches, as was the prose of the King James Bible. This conversation between Adam and Raphael demonstrates his mastery; in it, the unfallen Adam hopes to detain the angel and extend their conversation, not wanting him to leave:
Bear with me then, if lawful what I ask; Love not the heav’nly Spirits, and how thir Love Express they, by looks only, or do they mix Irradiance, virtual or immediate touch? To whom the Angel with a smile that glow’d Celestial rosy red, Love’s proper hue, Answer’d. Let it suffice thee that thou know’st Us happy, and without Love no happiness. Whatever pure thou in the body enjoy’st (And pure thou wert created) we enjoy In eminence, and obstacle find none Of membrane, joint, or limb, exclusive bars: Easier than Air with Air, if Spirits embrace, Total they mix, Union of Pure with Pure Desiring; nor restrained conveyance need As Flesh to mix with Flesh, or Soul with Soul.[iv]
At which point the congenial Raphael notes that the sun is going down, and it’s time for him to head for home — Adam (and Eve) have detained him long enough. Milton here is not being coy; in fact Merritt Y. Hughes, his editor in the present text, points out in paragraphs 36 & 37 of his introduction that Milton was giving expression to his materialist philosophy of Christianity, on which, in the treatise De doctrina Christiana, he was working at about the same time.[v] An earlier instance of the expression of this materialism is found in Adam’s invitation to Raphael:
…Heav’nly stranger, please to taste These bounties which our Nourisher, from whom All perfet good unmeasur’d out, descends, To us for food and for delight hath caus’d The Earth to yield; unsavoury food perhaps To spiritual Natures; only this I know, That one Celestial Father gives to all.
To whom the Angel. Therefore what he gives (Whose praise be ever sung) to man in part Spiritual, may of purest Spirits be found No ingrateful food: and food alike those pure Intelligential substances require As doth your Rational; and both contain Within them every lower faculty Of sense, whereby they hear, see, smell, touch, taste, Tasting concoct, digest, assimilate, And corporeal to incorporeal turn. For know, whatever was created, needs To be sustain’d and fed; of Elements The grosser feeds the purer, Earth the Sea, Earth and the Sea feed Air, the Air those Fires Ethereal, and as lowest first the Moon; Whence in her visage round those spots, unpurg’d Vapours not yet into her substance turn’d. Nor doth the Moon no nourishment exhale From her moist Continent to higher Orbs. The Sun that light imparts to all, receives From all his alimental recompence In humid exhalations, and at Even Sups with the Ocean: though in Heav’n the Trees Of life ambrosial fruitage bear, and vines Yield Nectar, though from off the boughs each Morn We brush mellifluous Dews, and find the ground Cover’d with pearly grain: yet God hath here Varied his bounty so with new delights, As may compare with Heaven; and to taste Think not I shall be nice. So down they sat, And to thir viands fell, nor seemingly The Angel, nor in mist, the common gloss Of Theologians, but with keen dispatch Of real hunger, and concoctive heat To transubstantiate; what redounds, transpires Through Spirits with ease; nor wonder; if by fire Of sooty coal the Empiric Alchemist Can turn, or holds it possible to turn Metals of drossiest Ore to perfet Gold As from the Mine. Meanwhile at Table Eve Minister’d naked, and thir flowing cups With pleasant liquors crown’d: O innocence Deserving Paradise! if ever, then, Then had the Sons of God excuse to have been Enamour’d at that sight; but in those hearts Love unlibidinous reign’d, nor jealousy Was understood, the injur’d Lovers Hell.[vi]
Now, since I just threw two long passages from Paradise lost at you, undigested by commentary or editorial intrusion, you might, with some justice, ask how long this will go on. Well, I’ve reached the end of my labours for the day; I could go on quoting Milton for a long time, and delighting in his mastery of blank verse, and pointing out how well he integrates his Latin and Italianate vocabulary into his matrix of English grammar; but you can observe that as well by re-reading the passages above; I find them convincing examples of his mastery of blank verse (of which I will say much more in my next post), and of his discounting of Rime as “the Invention of a barbarous Age.”[vii] One thing I learned in working on this post that I had only dimly sensed before was the full extent of Milton’s love of languages, and proficiency in them. As Wikipedia has it[viii], “… Milton had command of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Spanish, and Italian from his school and undergraduate days; he also added Old English to his linguistic repertoire in the 1650s while researching his History of Britain, and probably acquired proficiency in Dutch soon after.” So it can hardly be argued that Milton didn’t know the Germanic roots of his native tongue, but rather that he was so proficient in it that he could with elegance and ease incorporate the vocabulary he had labored so diligently to master.
That, and he was dictating the poem to amanuenses, since he was stone-blind by the time he had to retire from public life, which was when he started Paradise lost. And here I’m going to make a huge leap, and I hope you will grasp my outstretched hand and jump with me, even though we won’t land for several more posts. Like, say, sometime in September: although Joseph Smith lacked Milton’s formal education, and modeled his revelations on the language of the King James Bible, in his practice of dictating them to scribes some of that same ease with spoken English, some of that same fluency, comes through.
But hold on, I hear you bellow: Joseph Smith, a poet? Over my dead body!
[i] Yeah, I know, Stephen Sondheim used “Krup You” in his lyrics to West side story, but when have you ever heard one of your children say that? Or your parents, for that matter?
[ii] And it probably would belong more to the area of sociolinguistics, rather than phonetics.
[iii] In more ways than one, as Geoffrey Nunberg has amply demonstrated in his new book Ascent of the A-word : assholism, the first sixty years. – New York : PublicAffairs, c2012.
[iv] Paradise lost : a poem in twelve books / John Milton. – A new edition / edited by Merritt Y. Hughes. – New York : Odyssey, c1962; book 8, lines 614-629.
[v] Ibid., xxxvii.
[vi] Ibid., 5:397-450.
[vii] Ibid., p. 4, Milton’s preface on “The Verse.”
[viii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Milton, citing The Life of John Milton / Barbara K. Lewalski. – Oxford: Blackwells Publishers, 2003, citing p. 103.