Boccaccio And Double Entendres In A Patriarchal Society

In his review of a new translation of Giovanni Boccaccio‘s The Decameron (by Wayne A. Rebhorn, Norton, 2015), Stephen Greenblatt writes:

Many of these stories are scandalously obscene, but the scandal has nothing to do with filthy words….circumlocutory words, or periphrases…have nothing to do with prudery. They are part of Boccaccio’s inexhaustible bag of metaphorical tricks, and they work because, except for the crudest and most tongue-tied of us, everyone resorts to such tricks constantly, if rarely with such inventiveness. As Boccaccio writes “The Author’s Conclusion,” “Men and women generally…go around all day long saying ‘hole’ and ‘rod’ and ‘mortar’ and ‘pestle’ and ‘sausage’ and ‘mortadella’ and lots of other things like that.” The point is not that such words should rightfully be innocent of double entendres but rather that we gleefully carry our sexual energy over into everyday language, and we love it. It is part of what it means to be healthy and alive.

As the unsurprising popularity and ubiquity of the ‘That’s what she said’ and ‘said the actress to the bishop’ formulations shows, our language is littered with ample opportunities for such ‘interventions.’ Quasi-hecklers and budding comedians especially delight in these: the innocent speaker launches forth, utters the fateful phrase–say, perhaps, “I kept pushing hard” or “there was no point in stopping” or “it had quickly hardened”–and the would-be Michael Scott, sensing an opportunity, steps in with his interjection. Titters and snickers follow. Easy pickings indeed. (I cannot tell a lie; I have indulged myself on occasion in precisely such a fashion.)

But we don’t all “love it” and we don’t all find the reminders of this “sexual energy” in our “everyday language” to be part of the meaning of “what it means to be healthy and alive.” There are times when the constant, knowing, deployment of double entendres or ‘That’s what she said’ interjections can, in certain social and conversational contexts, become occasions for discomfort, for displacement, for silencing, and thus even contribute to a form of harassment. As women have often complained in workplace settings, the deployment of double entendres in conversations by their male colleagues–with nods and winks at other accomplices–has often contributed to an uncomfortable work environment. (Sometimes their gentlemen colleagues–in the bad old days–would bring their “sexual energy” to the workplace by watching porn at their work desks, or by putting up pinups of scantily clad women on their desks.)

In a society riven by unequal gender relations and dynamics, by patriarchy and sexism, our carrying over of our “sexual energy” into our “everyday language” includes carrying over a great deal of that  same inequality and imbalance. The woman whose uttering of “it wasn’t as long as it could have been” is interrupted by a “that’s what she said” in the workplace is, in all likelihood, surrounded by men who make more than her, whose work is taken more seriously, who are listened to more carefully and respectfully.

Our “everyday language” does not just contribute to our politics, it also reflects it.

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