My new favorite expert on obscenity is Melissa Mohr, the author of ”Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing,” which came out this year from Oxford University Press. (You can hear her on this hilarious episode of the linguistics podcast Lexicon Valley.) With her PhD in English from Stanford University, she is perhaps the only woman in the world I can call up on the phone out of the blue to ask about the word [barnyard fowl].
“Oh, that’s very interesting,” she says in her laughter-filled voice. “It’s a word used much more in Britain than in the U.S., where it became incredibly taboo, of course. But in Britain they still use the word for ‘watercock’ and ‘roosters’.”
After a quick trip to the Oxford English Dictionary, she tells me: “The first obscene use is in 1618, and it’s way down at meaning No. 20. But there’s also this amazing 15th-century lyric poem. Some scholars says it’s not a description of a penis, but it must be!”
She reads it to me. I take her off speaker-phone.
Mohr says the word was not tremendously common “until Victorian pornography — then it’s used quite a lot. But I suppose because romance novels are written for women, that word would have been seen as kind of masculine, kind of harder, and so previously, romance novels would have used other words.”