Monday, October 15, 2012

Good, clean fun

In The Inklings, a fascinating 1978 book about C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and some of their friends, Humphrey Carpenter quotes Lewis describing his frequent evenings spent with Tolkien: "Sometimes we talk English School politics; sometimes we criticize one another's poems; other days we drift into theology or 'the state of the nation'; rarely we fly no higher than bawdy or puns."

Two things interest me about Lewis's use of the word bawdy.
First, he used it as a noun, not an adjective. I checked The Oxford English Dictionary, which includes an obscure usage of the word as a verb, meaning to make dirty or filthy or to defile. There is no mention of the word as a noun.

Second, the word alone, whether adjective or noun, to describe the activities of Lewis and Tolkien is somewhat surprising. Bawdy conversation - The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word as meaning lewd, obscene or unchaste - is not how most people would picture an evening involving these two scholarly and deeply religious men.

Yet according to Carpenter, the word bawdy did not mean to Lewis what it means to us today - or to The Oxford English Dictionary. Carpenter says Lewis "meant not obscene stories but rather old-fashioned barrack-room jokes and songs and puns." Lewis himself wrote that bawdy "must have nothing cruel about it. It must not approach anything near the pornographic. Within these limits I think it is a good and wholesome genre."

Lewis's use of the word may actually be closer to its original meaning. It comes from the Old French word baud, meaning merry. There is an English word, baude, now obscure, which means bold, lively or gay.

To Lewis and Tolkien, bawdy apparently just meant good, clean fun.

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