Words and dirt

Jean Fezas jean.fezas at wanadoo.fr
Sat Nov 2 10:50:26 UTC 1996

Dear Indology members,
        I wonder if dirt attached to words in classical languages. The use
of latin for translating 'obscene' passages was not a way of hiding them to
the eyes of common people, but aimed at the elimination of obscenity,
because this notion did not exist in latin. When, for instance, Martial uses
_futuere_ it is certainly not a dirty word, it only describes an act for
which no circumlocution was needed in his times. I suppose that
Shakespeare's English, just like Rabelais' French abounds in words deemed to
be 'obscene' or 'dirty' for the hypocritically correct. 
          In _kathaa sariit saagara_ VI.2.156sqq, kaliGgasenaa tells to her
friend (sakhii) somaprabhaa, the story of a brahmin who invoked a demon
(pizaaca) to heal an ulcered wound. The 'obstinately persistent' demon,
after curing him, asks for another wound to heal. The brahmin's widowed
daughter, to help her father, offers the Pizaaca a natural wound which,
despite his efforts, he is unable to heal; worse, taking a closer look to
the wound, he discovers another one under it (VI.2.180 dvitiiyaM tasyaadhaH
sa paayu-vraNam aikSata)... frightened by the impossibility of the task he
runs away, never to come back.
        Tawney's translation omits this passage, replaced by 'eventually he
baffled the Pi's'aca by the help of his daughter...', and refers to Wilson
in a note : I have been obliged to omit some portion of this story. It was
acceptable to the _conteurs_ of Europe, and is precisely the same as that of
'Le petit diable de Papefigue' of [Jean de la] Fontaine. Obviously french
language of the 17th century was 'latin-like' for Victorian english translators.
        This would only an example of 'histoire coquine' in sanskrit, if in
VI.2.173 kaliGasenaa did not stop a while before resuming her story, because
she was 'ashamed of telling a 'dirty' (azliila-) story (_ity uktvaa virataa
madhyaad azliilaakhyaana-lajjayaa /_). This shows that, if one can doubt
that words could be felt as 'dirty*' by sanskrit authors, the idea that some
stories were 'shocking' (dirty) exists in sanskrit. 
*for the etymology of azriila- / azriira- cf. M. Mayrhofer s.v. & sv. zriiH
(_zriira-_ schoen anzusehen). When, in my childhood, I used a 'dirty word',
my mother used to tell me 'ce n'est pas beau', never 'c'est sale'...
NB. azliila is not recorded in the English-Sanskrit dictionary of Monier
Williams (542b, s.v. obscene), where we find 'obscene word': _apazabdaH,
_apazabda_ is, according to Renou (Terminologie grammaticale du sanskrit 1
p. 48) a "forme vicieuse, barbarisme" glossed by "mleccha-", an equivalent
of _apabhraMza_ I hope that this association of obscenity and foreign
language should heal any one I could have wounded...

(URA 1058 CNRS - Université Paris III)  
        prabhavanti yato lokaaH pralayaM yaanti yena ca.
        saMsaara-vartma vivRtaM kaH pidhaatuM tad iizvaraH..
(Somadeva, KathaaSaritSaagara 6.2.182)

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