I’m just going to talk about the English language in this post but I’m sure other languages have plenty of similar examples where a word is commonly mixed up with other words, for example, in English people often mix up their/there/they’re, are/our, affect/effect. There are also times when you hear/read a word that is absolutely being used incorrectly and it turns out the speaker/writer had heard the word somewhere but misunderstood what it meant.
While it would make for a pretty embarrassing WordPress post, imagine if you were a well-respected Victorian poet and misused a vulgar word in a poem that you’d published!
You’ve heard of Robert Browning, right? A very-well respected Victorian poet who wrote a lot of ‘epic’ (really long) poems. Wikipedia tells us he:
was noted for irony, characterization, dark humour, social commentary, historical settings and challenging vocabulary and syntax
which makes him sound very dry, which I think is unfair. If you’ve not read anything by him before maybe don’t jump in with the really long stuff though, I’d recommend his poem The Pied Piper of Bremen as a good starting point.
So, in 1841 Browning published Bells and Pomegranates No. I: Pippa Passes, which is a play written in verse about young, innocent Pippa who goes for a walk on her day off. It’s quite good but probably best known for this bit from Pippa’s closing song in Act VI:
But at night, brother howlet, over the woods,
Toll the world to thy chantry;
Sing to the bats’ sleek sisterhoods
Full complines with gallantry:
Then, owls and bats,
Cowls and twats,
Monks and nuns, in a cloister’s moods,
Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry!
Wait, did he just say twats?
Now, it has been said that Browning was a nice man and so was unfamiliar with vulgar slang. In Select Poems of Robert Browning edited with notes by William J. Rolfe and Heloise E. Hersey (published in 1886), there is the following note about this:
Twats is in no dictionary. We now have it from the poet (through Dr. Furnivall) that he got the word from the Royalist rhymes entitled ” Vanity of Vanities,” on Sir Harry Vane’s picture.
Vane is charged with being a Jesuit.
‘Tis said they will give him a cardinal’s hat:
They sooner will give him an old nun’s twat.”
“The word struck me,” says Browning, “as a distinctive part of a nun’s attire that might fitly pair off with the cowl appropriated to a monk.”
Vanity of Vanities was published anonymously in the 1660s and this line clearly refers to the genitalia of an elderly nun rather than anything she might be dressed in, but apparently this just passed Browning by.