Monday, 29 September 2008

Sigmund Freud at the funfair

Looking back over recent (and not so recent) postings, I realise I’ve failed to keep some promises. There have been three things I said I was going to write about but didn’t:

* the advantages and disadvantages of making a life-long enemy of Andre Green

* the image Jacques Lacan kept in a cupboard — and only ever showed to a favoured few

* the limerick about the young lady from northern Hertfordshire whose amatory activities offer an accurate exposition of Mendel’s theories on genetic inheritance.

I will get to them, too, starting next week. But first, I’d like to share with you a couple of things that came out of my work on my book about swearing. The first is a story about Freud. The second is a link to a music download. There is a connection between the two.

Freud first. I’ll set the scene. A few weeks more than 99 years ago, Sigmund Freud made his only trip to America. He’d been invited to make a speech at Clark University in Massachusetts. He took some pals with him — Carl Jung from Zurich, Karl Abraham from Berlin and Sandor Ferenczi from Budapest. All three were psychoanalytic ‘sons’ of his — heir apparents with whom he would then fall out and banish. As Oedipus killed his father so Freud killed his sons, leaving his entire kingdom to his virgin daughter.

The four of them spent a few days in New York doing the tourist thing. They walked in Central Park, remarking on the potty-mouthed graffiti on a ‘beautiful marble flight of steps’ — Ferenczi’s words in his paper on obscenity. They took in Chinatown and Coney Island, too. I can’t help but wonder if they had chop suey or sweet and sour pork.

I also can’t help wondering what happened when they headed out to Coney Island. I guess they took a 5th Avenue BMT express out over Brooklyn Bridge but what did they get up to once they arrived at the oceanside resort? Did they head over to West 10th St and check out Luna Park, in the company of its usual 90,000 daily visitors? Did they take its Trip To The Moon, a dream of space travel in a dark theatre? Maybe they went to Dreamland instead, watching a chariot race round its lagoon or its Fighting Flames show — real women and real children being rescued from real fires in pretend houses by make-believe fireman. I can see Freud might have had thoughts about that.

Maybe they took a walk on the beach and saw some Coney Island whitefish — local slang for used condoms left over from the previous night’s sandy adventures. Perhaps they reflected on the name of the place. Coney is an old word, descended from the Latin cunniculus and a close relative of the Spanish conejo . It meant rabbit, a word which originally referred only to the young of the species but which, from the 16th century onwards, edged coney out of the language. Why? Because of the way coney was then pronounced. Which was? You can figure that out by the fact that it originally rhymed with another word for the same animal, bunny. In fact, bunny is probably a rhyming euphemism for coney, consciously created on account of the pronunciation problem — like, say, rollocks .

A similar thing happened in French — connil was replaced by lapin. In Spanish, a Playboy Bunny is a conejita, both a young female rabbit and deliberately close to coño. All those years, I’d thought how strangely innocent Hugh Hefner had been in calling his hostesses Bunny girls. All those years, how wrong I was. Why and how did the pronunciation of coney change? Money and honey didn’t change their sound — something taken rhyming advantage of by both Edward Lear (The Owl And The Pussycat, 1867) and Jesse Stone (Clyde McPhatter and The Drifters’ Money Honey, 1953).

It was the bible that made coney to rhyme with pony. There were lots of coneys in it: rabbits are middle Eastern thing. There were no rabbits in Britain till the Normans brought them over, which is why there is no Old English word for them. The Bible and coney problem was a reading-out-loud problem. Preachers just didn’t like to get up of a Sunday morning and inform their congregation about the habits and lifestyle choices of things whose name sounded just like the name of another thing. Or, to put it the OED way, ‘the desire to avoid certain vulgar associations with the word in the cunny form, may have contributed to the preference for a different pronunciation in reading the Scriptures.’

So what exactly did Freud and his fellow rubberneckers get up to that day in Coney Island. Myself, I like to think they hiked over to Steeplechase Park on West 17th, took a whirl on the mechanical horse race round the Pavilion of Fun, examined themselves in the full-size distorting mirrors and had a disbelieving, Mittel European gawp at what happened as jets of air — they were all over the park — squirted out through gratings and blew women’s dresses up around their hips. Not so much a day of fun by the ocean, then, as the field work for an entire psychoanalytic conference.

And so to the music link. It’s a song by Jackie Wilson and Lavern Baker.

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