restricted access "Decent Reticence": Coarseness, Contraception, and the First Edition of the OED
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"Decent Reticence": Coarseness, Contraception, and the First Edition of the OED Lynda Mugglestone Pembroke College, Oxford Decent Reticence: Victorian Morality vs. Empirical Commitment 66"\7Ou & I are of Victorian era, and History, if it remembers X us, will so describe us" (MP/27/3/05). James Murray's words to Edward Arber, written in March 1905 — and well into Murray 's second decade of editing the CTED — were in some respects to be remarkably prescient. It was, for example, Murray's Victorianism which Robert Burchfield singled out for comment in the biographical entry he wrote for Murray in the new DNB) . He noted too its critical influence on the making of the OED: "As was to be expected of a Victorian lexicographer, Murray drew a veil over all coarse words: none of the ancient 'four-letter' words was included in the dictionary" (Burchfield 2004). As Burchfield had earlier stressed as he introduced the first volume of the OED Supplement in 1972 (p. xv), it was only at this point that such words had found themselves being given a history within the scholarly environment of the OED. Born in 1837, the year in which Victoria ascended the throne, Murray's Victorianism is, in a historical sense, inescapable. His formative years, as well as the majority of his working and family life, would all fall within Victoria's reign. Being Victorian, however, as the OED itself confirms, resonates with meanings other than the merely historical . "Resembling or typified by the attitudes supposedly characteristic of the Victorian era; prudish, strict; old-fashioned, out-dated," as sense 2 of Victorian now states (in an addition made by Burchfield himself in Dictionaries:Journal oftheDictionary Society ofNorth America 28 (2007), 1—22 Lynda Mugglestone the 1986 Supplement to the OED). Indeed, in the popular mind, as the historian Kristine Ottesen Garrigan attests, the term Victorian is still able to evoke an enduring set of "hackneyed images of prudery" — "pantalooned piano legs, the censorious Mrs. Grundy as well as hypocritical worshippers of Respectability like Dickens' Podsnaps and Pecksniffs " (1992, 1). Stereotypes such as those of the 'Victorian" possess, of course, their own significance, providing, as the linguistJ. C. Wells points out, "simplified and standardized conceptions . . . which we share with other members of our community" (1982, 29). Yet such simplifications also demand further exploration. The facts ofVictorian history alone make all too clear that this stereotypical prudery co-existed with, say, extensive public discussion of prostitution during the implementation of — and appeals against — the Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860-80s (which sought to limit the spread ofvenereal disease among the troops stationed at ports and garrisons). History similarly confirms a burgeoning industry of pornography (and of prostitution), alongside the increasing prominence given to issues of contraception and human sexuality over the later decades of the Victorian era. Being Victorian seems, in reality, to be capable of a range of meanings, and especially perhaps during those years in which the OED itself was gradually coming into being. Indeed, while Murray worked on the early fascicles of the dictionary , publishing ?-Ant in 1884 and Ant-Batten in 1885, with the words between Bra and Cass following three years later, a number of critical shifts in social thinking were taking place. As the historian Lesley Hall (2000, 1) points out, for instance, a "definite change in sexual attitudes, and in ways of talking about and dealing with sexual issues," can be isolated from c.1880, putting classic Victorianism under threat and leading, as Peter Gay notes (1984, 318), to a "literature of sexual enlightenment [which] flourished in the late nineteenth century as it never had before." Jeffrey Weeks agrees: "Far from the age experiencing a regime of silence and total suppression, sexuality became a major social issue in Victorian social and political practice" (1989, 19). This was, he adds, particularly true of the final third of the nineteenth century . In matters of sexual taxonomy, this period was moreover of starding significance. It was, as Tim Hitchcock confirms, "the late nineteenth century [which] named the categories and sub-divisions which characterize the history of sexuality" (1997, 2). For a historian of language, particularly one working, as Murray was, on a dictionary which affirmed...


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