Lexicon Valley

Primeval Profanity

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by flydime/Wikimedia CC.

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing

On Facebook, Jay Dillon posted an intriguing verse that appeared in Prize Translations, Poems, and ParodiesReprinted From The Journal of Education (1881). Jay muses that the line “What the digamma?” might actually be a disguised form of “What the fuck?” since the archaic Greek letter digamma (Ϝ) strongly resembles the Latin letter F (even though it was originally pronounced as /w/). So was the author of this verse cleverly using Homeric Greek to express a proto-WTF?

A 19th-century WTF, even obliquely rendered, would be a remarkable artifact in the annals of fuckology. In The F-Word, Jesse Sheidlower reports that what the fuck is dated in unexpurgated form to 1942 (Henry Miller’s Under the Roofs of Paris: “I don’t know what the fuck to say”) while combinations of the fuck with other question words can be found a bit earlier (who the fuck from 1934 and where the fuck from 1936).

Pushing back further, we have the close-but-no-cigar what the puck in Joseph Wright’s 1903 English Dialect Dictionary (“What the puck are you doing?”). That uses the Irish English intensifier the puck, which is attested as early as 1864 in J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s novel Uncle Silas (“And why the puck don’t you let her out?”). But since puck means “an evil spirit or demon,” what the puck could simply be understood as an Irish variant of what the devil. Jesse Sheidlower speculates that “the similarity of both the phonetics and the construction may have influenced the development of the present usage of fuck.”

Regardless of how puck fits into things, what the fuck was clearly modeled on earlier widespread use of what the devil, as well as more euphemistic versions like what the deuce and what the dickens. Similarly, as I noted in my post on “I’m going to science the shit out of this,” the construction “VERB the TABOO TERM out of (something)” finds its roots in “beat/scare the devil out of.” (For more on this, see Jack Hoeksema and Donna Jo Napoli’s “Just for the Hell of It: A Comparison of Two Taboo-Term Constructions,” Journal of Linguistics, 44 (2008), 347–378.)

So what about “What the digamma”? Was the digamma intended to evoke other D-words like devildeuce, and dickens? Was it meant to suggest fuck based on the Ϝ/F letterform resemblance? Or could it have stood somewhere in the middle, like puck?

The 1881 Journal of Education collection Prize Translations, Poems, and Parodies didn’t credit an author of the “digamma” verse. Nor did A. D. Godley when he used a slightly modified version to introduce his poem “A Handbook to Homer,” which was published in Oxford Magazine in 1891 and then the following year in the book Verses to Order.

A reviewer of Godley’s Verses to Order in Oxford Magazine praised the “digamma” line: “A. G. has enriched language by one new oath, cordially commended to testy dons.” Godley responded that he was merely quoting the verse and “could not claim the credit of having raised the Digamma to the rank of an academic expletive.” He attributed the verse to an unnamed “Oxford humorist.”

The actual author was Joseph Dunn Lester, as G.H. Hallam revealed in the March 29, 1923, issue of the Times Literary Supplement. Hallam was a classmate of Lester at Shrewsbury School in the early 1860s. After attending Shrewsbury, Lester went on to Oxford and then served as a master of Wellington College before dying in 1875 at the tender age of 33. Lester’s light-verse satire of Homeric Greek was composed before 1870, according to Hallam.

The verse has earned Lester a place in the OED, thanks to polyphloisboisteros, which blends the Homeric epithet polyphoisboio πολυϕλοίσβοιο (“loud-roaring,” describing the sea) with English boisterous. (The -os ending mimics Greek -ος; later writers spelled it polyphloisboisterous.) There’s also some grammatical humor about the augment, an additional “e” syllable (ε-) prefixed to past-tense verbs (obligatory in ancient Greek but not in Homer).

And what of the digamma? An article in The Living Age of May 12, 1923, discussing Hallam’s TLS piece, explained: “The letter Digamma has long been the cause of much tearing of hair among schoolboys reading Homer, but it remained for this poet [i.e., Lester] to make it into an oath on its own account.” So if the digamma was a diabolical stumbling block for students of Homeric Greek, perhaps that is enough for us to think of it as a playful substitute for devil/deuce/dickens without invoking the F-bomb.

As it turns out, Lester may have actually borrowed “What the digamma?” from a colleague at Wellington, John Wordsworth (later Bishop of Salisbury). A 1915 biography of Wordsworth by E.W. Watson tells the story:

Another of his recreations gives Wordsworth a modest place in the history of lighter verse. Toward the end of his days at New College, but while he was still in statu pupillari, he was visited by his brother from Cambridge. They went to play pool at a billiard-room in Holywell, and one of the company, missing a stroke, used an expletive for which John Wordsworth suggested, “What the digamma,” as an alternative. The fame of this reproof spread abroad; it had reached Wellington before Wordsworth arrived there, and gave him a reputation for readiness of wit which perhaps was not quite sustained. Mr. J.D. Lester, a Wellington master with some of Caverley’s gifts, borrowed the phrase for one of his jeux d’esprit on the classical authors.

In a footnote, Watson says that when Godley’s version of the “digamma” verse appeared in Oxford Magazine in 1891, “it is remembered that Mr. C. L. Dodgson was so shocked that he proposed that the Christ Church Common Room should no longer subscribe to the peccant magazine.”

So the appearance of “What the digamma?” in a magazine was evidently indecent enough to scandalize the good Rev. Dodgson—who, when he wasn’t busy lecturing in mathematics and curating the Common Room at Oxford’s Christ Church, wrote children’s books under the pen name Lewis Carroll. That’s enough to suggest there was something else going on beyond simply using digamma as a stand-in for devil. Watson’s story of the Wordsworth brothers at the billiard table circa 1865 also makes it sound like it’s meant to euphemize some pretty coarse language.

Still, I’m not completely sold on the rebus-like interpretation of digamma → F → fuck. For one thing, or eff is only recorded as a euphemism for fuck starting in the early 20th century: The F-Word’s first citation is from Robert Graves’ 1929 autobiography Good-Bye to All That. (WTF, in its many different expansions, dates to 1985.) Not only that, if the fuck reading was actually implied, how could it get printed over and over again? Perhaps “What the digamma?” was able to pass under the radar because it seemed more innocuous than it truly was, and it took a master of wordplay like Lewis Carroll to pick up on what was really going on.