The sex secrets of Kennedy's Latin Primer
A friend (and distinguished contributor to the TLS) e-mailed me at the week-end on the subject of Kennedy’s Latin Primer. He had come across an old article in the Guardian by the no less distinguished Valentine Cunningham, suggesting that the “Memorial Lines on the Gender of Latin Substantives”, which form an appendix to the Primer, were a “camp semaphore” – in other words, a cover for a series of steamy references to pederasty. It was an argument about Kennedy I had missed.
For those who do not number Kennedy (seen here with "the gerund") among their bed-time books, these “Memorial Lines” are a series of jingles to help the young learner remember which Latin nouns are masculine, which feminine and which neuter. (“To nouns that cannot be declined/ The neuter gender is assigned. .” as one of the more memorable examples goes.) To judge from my father’s memory up to his death bed, they were once drilled into the heads of the young. Already in my day, they seemed a bit quaint.
Cunningham was really interested in the re-use of the jingles by Benjamin Britten in his version of the “Turn of the Screw” (no problem with the camp there). What caught my attention was his claim that, by a very careful choice of examples, old Kennedy himself – whose Revised Primer came out in 1888 and is still going strong (even if we don’t do the jingles much any longer) -- encoded a very similar message.
My first instinct was to scoff. But after a bit of work, I wasn’t so sure.
The particular example Cunningham, and Britten, were interested in was this (you’ll have to say it out loud to get the flavour):
“Many Nouns in is we find
to the Masculine assigned:
amnis, axis, caulis, collis,
clunis, crinis, fascis, follis,
fustis, ignis, orbis, ensis,
panis, piscis, postis, mensis,
torris, unguis and canalis,
vectis, vermis and natalis,
sanguis, pulvis, cucumis,
lapis, casses, Manes, glis.
Kennedy translates all the Latin words he uses here in a sober fashion: “river, axle, stalk, hill, hind-leg, hair . . .”. Cunningham points out that a surprising number of them had other meanings. Clunis (“hind-leg” for Kennedy) is anus; caulis (”cabbage-stalk”) can also mean “prick”; follis (“bellows”) is slang for scrotum. And so on.
For Cunningham, this was “school-master funnies” for “other Latin masters in the linguistic know”. I checked all this out with the vade mecum of Latin smut, J. N. Adams’s Latin Sexual Vocabulary (which is what I imagine Cunningham had done) and found myself agreeing that an awful lot of this Latin did have a decidedly sexual second meaning.
A bit more work brought to light an article replying to Cunningham -- by Christopher Stray, who knows more about Benjamin Hall Kennedy (Head of Shrewsbury School and Regius Professor of Greek in Cambridge) than any man alive. Stray poured cold water on the whole idea. For a start Kennedy was born more than a century before Adams investigated Latin sexual slang – and the dictionary he would have used (Lewis and Short – also still going strong) doesn’t register many of these double entendres. Besides Kennedy was a productively married man, with a son and four daughters (two of whom, Marion and Julia, effectively wrote the Primer that goes under their father’s name – as Stray himself has shown). If he translated raunchy terms into bland euphemism (“hind leg” for “anus”), that was just Victorian prudishness.
Fair enough, and I am loath to take a different line from Stray. But I still have a feeling that there is here no smoke without fire. Kennedy’s Lewis and Short Dictionary may have turned its back on quite a lot of smut, but it still recognises “caulis” as “membrum virile” (and, in any case, I bet that the acute Latinists of the late nineteenth century knew more than what was in their dictionaries). And the fact that Kennedy was married with kids is no proof at all that he wasn’t well into the pederastic culture of the period.
Besides the more you look at it, the queerer it gets. It doesn’t take much to see another word lying behind Kennedy’s “panis”. And – taking a look through the other “memorial lines” – it is strange, to say the least, that all the dodgy words seem to cluster in this particular verse on “the masculine”.
But don’t let on, else they’ll try to ban it.