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  • Fanny Hill, Lord Fanny, and the Myth of Metonymy
  • Patrick Spedding and James Lambert

In her 1989 essay, “Fanny’s Fanny: Epistolarity, Eroticism, and the Transsexual Text,” Julia Epstein states that “[n]umerous commentators have pointed out” that the name Fanny Hill “literally means mons veneris” and that John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1748–49) has “come to be known ‘simply’ as Fanny Hill in part as acknowledgement of this metonymy.”1 Epstein also observes that “Anal intercourse is the only sexual act [Fanny] refuses to perform. . . . The ‘fanny,’ in other words, is the one bodily site the memorialist protects.”2 Similar claims concerning the obscene meaning of fanny have also repeatedly appeared in discussions of Henry Fielding’s satirical dedication of An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews (1741) to “Miss Fanny, &c.”

Unfortunately for Epstein and a host of other commentators, there is no evidence whatsoever that, in the eighteenth century, fanny had the two meanings she suggests. In fact the evidence is to the contrary. Consequently, it is highly unlikely that any of the fictional eighteenth-century Fannys were named with the intention of suggesting the female sexual organs, however specified or identified (vagina, genitalia, pudenda, vulva, mons veneris, or mons pubis) or the male or female buttocks [End Page 108] (backside or arse). Moreover, the latter meaning of fanny is a twentieth-century usage, specific to the United States, making fanny “the most prominent example of a common word having quite different meanings in different speech communities.”3

To suggest that the usages referred to by Epstein and other literary critics are in fact evidence that these meanings were current in the eighteenth century is, of course, begging the question. Certainly, upon closer scrutiny, it becomes apparent that current usage rather than eighteenth-century usage is the basis of the interpretation of fanny as a sexual term.

The first dictionaries to define fanny were Albert Barrère and Charles G. Leland’s A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant in 1889 and J. S. Farmer and W. E. Henley’s Slang and Its Analogues in 1891. The entries contain no citations and no dates, just “the fe[male] pud[endum]” and “the female pudendum.”4 Cross-references in Farmer and Henley from naf (back-slang for fan, i.e. fanny),5 similarly defined, direct the reader to fanny and monosyllable, where one finds Fanny, Fanny-Artful and Fanny-Fair, along with scores of other terms of “venery,” succinctly glossed as “cunt.”6 [End Page 109]

The first edition of A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles (1901) did not include fanny, with either of the meanings discussed here,7 nor do these obscene meanings appear in the supplement to the 1933 reissue under the title The Oxford English Dictionary (hereafter OED).8 In 1937 Eric Partridge included the word in his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English; he defined it first, and foremost, as “The female pudenda; the pudend: low: from ca. 1860” but added “perhaps much earlier” and “[p]erhaps ex Fanny, the ‘heroine’ of John Cleland’s Memoirs of Fanny Hill [sic], 1749.”9 Partridge’s perhaps-this and perhaps-that was reiterated in eight editions of the Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English between 1937 and 1984 and has been widely adopted by other lexicographers.10 The source of Partridge’s definition is Farmer and Henley, but no citations are offered; the speculation is all his own.

In 1949, in the “Addenda” to the third edition of his Dictionary of Slang, Partridge added a ninth meaning to his entry for fanny: “The backside: [End Page 110] adopted ca. 1930, from U.S.A. Noel Coward’s Private Lives, 1930.”11 In 1972, fanny, defined thus (as backside), appeared in A Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary, where it is described as “orig[inally] and chiefly U.S.” and “Orig[in] unknown,” with citations from 1928.12

In 1989, fanny (defined as “the female genitals”) appeared in the second edition of the OED, where it is described as “Chiefly British English,” with citations from 1879.13 In 1994 Jonathan Lighter’s Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang provided...


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