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1898 baseball cursing policy, amply illustrated
December 2, 2007 4:17 PM   Subscribe

"In terms of language, it is also the most offensive official Major League baseball document that we have ever seen." An auction house obtains a one page letter sent to baseball players in 1898, outlining the league's new anti-cursing policy. Includes lots of examples of the kind of language that is not allowed. Nervous auctioneers not sure how to exhibit it. Purely of historical interest, naturally.

It says at the bottom of the document "may not be mailed - must be delivered by express". I wonder if it couldn't be mailed because of its obscene content?
posted by LobsterMitten (86 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
via Baseball Think Factory.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:18 PM on December 2, 2007


Good lord, that reads like an outtake from Deadwood! Oh, if I had the money...
posted by Banky_Edwards at 4:19 PM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


Sounds like Dick Cheney.
posted by DenOfSizer at 4:20 PM on December 2, 2007


Fuckin' A!
posted by jonmc at 4:26 PM on December 2, 2007


...is that Century Schoolbook?
posted by heeeraldo at 4:27 PM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


At Baseball Think Factory, there are some other links to fun 1890s cussin' sources. (Also some speculation -- inconclusive so far -- about whether this letter might be a hoax, or might be a joke from the 1890s that was never actually circulated by a league.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:28 PM on December 2, 2007


Wow, I think I just fell in love with baseball again.
posted by faster than a speeding bulette at 4:28 PM on December 2, 2007


A Hoax?
posted by lobstah at 4:28 PM on December 2, 2007


Well, one would think that things would have changed in a hundred odd years, no? Interesting to see that, if this is real, such useful phrases as "go fuck yourself" have resisted modification for so long.
posted by jokeefe at 4:30 PM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


I just love how forbidden language is extensively listed, so that everybody knows what the dirty words are, cocksuckers !
posted by elpapacito at 4:30 PM on December 2, 2007


Sounds like Baseball was ahead of its time. Compare this bill from 2003.
posted by about_time at 4:31 PM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


"But as we examined the paper, found that this language did exist in the 1890s"

It's interesting and perhaps a bit pernicious how we get such a cleaned-up view of history that these people are sort of surprised cuss words existed a hundred years ago. I'd feel bad telling the author that, during the 1890s, people engaged in adultery, prostitution, drugs, homosexuality, pedophilia, etcetera as well as foul language.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 4:32 PM on December 2, 2007


I'll never listen to the baseball song in Ragtime, The Musical in quite the same way ever again. [lyrics]
posted by louie at 4:36 PM on December 2, 2007


Metafilter: A dog must have fucked your mother when she made you!
posted by dismas at 4:38 PM on December 2, 2007


TheOnlyCoolTim: I'm not surprised to find out they had cuss words, but I am a little surprised to find out they used those specific cuss words. Like jokeefe said, it's amazing how well many of those insults have survived the years.
posted by brett at 4:39 PM on December 2, 2007


Well said, TheOnlyCoolTim.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 4:40 PM on December 2, 2007


...is that Century Schoolbook?

More like Century Expanded.
posted by tepidmonkey at 4:41 PM on December 2, 2007


Orioles legend Earl Weaver (mp3), working blue.
posted by Kinbote at 4:41 PM on December 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


Bull Durham:
MILLIE: Crash musta called the guy a cocksucker
ANNIE: God, he's so romantic...
posted by McLir at 4:44 PM on December 2, 2007


Goddamn I fucking love cunt-lapping baseball.
posted by wfrgms at 4:47 PM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


...is that Century Schoolbook?

I fucking love Metafilter.
posted by flashboy at 4:48 PM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


*shrug* Reads like a typical day on MetaFilter.
posted by Quietgal at 4:53 PM on December 2, 2007


Nervous auctioneers not sure how to exhibit it.

Wha? Put it with the nudes.
posted by DU at 4:53 PM on December 2, 2007


"In terms of language, it is also the most offensive official Major League baseball document that we have ever seen."

Because overall, this is the most offensive MLB document.
posted by ALongDecember at 4:54 PM on December 2, 2007


Most interesting is the note at the very bottom -

"Unmailable- must be forwarded by express."

Post Office'll get you ever time.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:00 PM on December 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


Epony-fuckin-sterical
posted by not_on_display at 5:00 PM on December 2, 2007


I'm not surprised to find out they had cuss words, but I am a little surprised to find out they used those specific cuss words. Like jokeefe said, it's amazing how well many of those insults have survived the years.

That is a bit surprising. They seem a bit too modern. Has cussing stopped evolving since then?
posted by caddis at 5:01 PM on December 2, 2007


hoax was one of the first things i thought of, and was inspired to seek out the origins of 'fuck':
It is often classed as one of the archetypal Anglo-Saxon four-letter words, but it isn’t Anglo-Saxon — it’s not recorded until the fifteenth century. The first known appearance is in a Latin poem dated sometime before 1500 that satirises the Carmelite friars of Cambridge. It includes the line Non sunt in coeli, quia gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk. The code can easily be broken to read Non sunt in coeli, quia fvccant vvivys of heli. Being translated, this says “They are not in heaven because they fuck wives of Ely”. Fuccant (in modern spelling) looks like Latin, but it’s a humorous fake — fuck is actually Germanic, related to Middle Dutch fokken, Norwegian fukka and Swedish focka.

The word seems from the start to have been regarded as unacceptable in polite company. It remained almost entirely unprintable other than in privately circulated material until the 1960s, though it has been in sustained and constant use in coarse speech, of course. In 1948, the publishers of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead forced him to bowdlerise it as fug, leading to the (surely apocryphal) story that Dorothy Parker remarked on meeting him, “So you’re the young man who can’t spell fuck?”


from world wide words. he doesn't list cocksucker, but he does have tuzzy muzzy.
posted by msconduct at 5:07 PM on December 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


This is a hoax. An old hoax, probably dating to the 1890s. A printer's joke. Not circulated. Not an official document. There's probably been a similar document run up by somebody every 25 years for the past century. The first one probably dates back to the Roman Empire, and is signed by order of one Biggus Dickus.
posted by Faze at 5:10 PM on December 2, 2007


The first one probably dates back to the Roman Empire, and is signed by order of one Biggus Dickus.

Et Tu, motherfucker?
posted by jonmc at 5:11 PM on December 2, 2007 [6 favorites]


Apparently the Deadwood Mets were charter members of the Black Hills League.
posted by kirkaracha at 5:17 PM on December 2, 2007


Most of those "cuss words" and insult themes can be found in Shakespeare, for heaven's sake. I find it very hard to beleive that dealers in historical documents had never encountered this before. Some of Mark Twain's writing - published only posthumously - is a hell of a lot bluer than this. 19th-century erotica is full of it. Gangs of New York, anyone?

There is nothing particularly modern about cursing - in fact, the gift of modernity may lie in developing 'cleaned-up' language, not in developing epithets and sexual insults.

The whole post is disingenous and definitely the work of an auction house trying to drum up bidding interest. When I clicked on it, I expected to see some stuff that would make my fingernails curl; based on my experience with historic narratives, anything they were this full of warning about would have had to be red-hot. Nah. This is mild! And mercenary. I mean, the tone sounds like the classic carnival barker saying "The things you'll see inside this tent will make grown men blush in shame. We hesitate to recommend this exhibit for any impressionable young men, and certainly not for the ladies. For a mere two bits, you, too, can see sights few women ever display...." The tone is maidenishly handwringing.
So what should we do with it? Should we return it to the consignor? Then we would not be able to share it with those who would be amused by it and/or appreciate it as a significant historical item. Should we put it in the catalog for the spring auction? That is our inclination, because it’s such an interesting item, not because it’s particularly valuable. But we are still a little concerned that we might wind up offending some readers. To help us decide how to proceed, we sent a copy of the document to a few collectors and historians for their thoughts....So, while we’re deciding exactly what to do with this item, we’re putting it here on the REA blog. We know that some collectors and historians will enjoy seeing this. If we get complaints, we can always take down it down. This item will appear in the REA spring catalog.
You don't say!

Really, though, anyone who thinks people only acted 'proper' in time periods before our own should start delving into the past. You'd be surprised.
posted by Miko at 5:17 PM on December 2, 2007


kirkaracha, I own that very shirt
posted by jonmc at 5:26 PM on December 2, 2007


Yeah, y'all need to go read some authentic Victorian porn, for example...
posted by jokeefe at 5:27 PM on December 2, 2007


Great post, and warms this baseball fan's heart during the long, cold off season!

This is a hoax. An old hoax, probably dating to the 1890s. A printer's joke. Not circulated. Not an official document.

See, if you had any basis for saying that other than your own preconceptions, it might be a worthwhile comment. As it is, it's just bluster. (It could well be a printer's joke, of course, but your tone of certainty is ridiculously unwarranted.)
posted by languagehat at 5:30 PM on December 2, 2007


Sounds like Dick Cheney.

Nope; while the Cleveland Spiders did try to recruit him in 1898, his aversion to drafts of any sort won out in the end.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 5:30 PM on December 2, 2007 [5 favorites]


Miko: yeah, I agree about the auction house tone (fake shock), but I assume they meant it partly in fun.

I am surprised by the modern sound of the full phrases (ie, the fact that some of the phrases appear unaltered in present day use) even though I'm not at all surprised they used those words and worse.

ALongDecember: he bet on baseball. Get over it.

Faze: do you say that just by gut reaction, or do you have some reason to say it about this specific document?
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:31 PM on December 2, 2007


This is mild!

Oh, please. How about "Not as inventive as I would have liked"? No need to show off how unflappable you are. This is not "mild" by anybody's standards.
posted by languagehat at 5:32 PM on December 2, 2007


Metafilter: I fucked your mother, your sister, your wife!
posted by Dasein at 5:34 PM on December 2, 2007


I sometimes wish high schools included John Wilmot in the standard curriculum.
posted by dilettante at 5:40 PM on December 2, 2007


I'm not showing how unflappable I am, languagehat: I meant mild in comparison with other raw language contemporary to this piece.
posted by Miko at 5:44 PM on December 2, 2007


I know that people didn't use language like that when there was still prayer in the schools and women knew their place.
posted by 2sheets at 5:49 PM on December 2, 2007


One tricky bit: I'm having trouble finding any record of a National League meeting in Philadelphia in November, 1897. The NYT archive mentions meetings in Baltimore and New York, but they are in early spring and not in Philly. Anyone?

Also, it says it was "distributed to all National League players" - amazing that it would not have been found until now, startling as it is. No other records of the document pop up under the searches I'm doing.

I hope there's more authentication done and that the baseball historians that are dealing with it can shed some more light.
posted by Miko at 5:51 PM on December 2, 2007


Whether or not this is a genuine MLB document, it's a very neat little historical artifact that encapsulates obscene American speech of the 1890s, and I'm glad that I got the chance to read it.
posted by Faint of Butt at 5:54 PM on December 2, 2007


Oh, here we go, this would be the meeting.
posted by Miko at 5:55 PM on December 2, 2007


Well, it does sound like a joke then. But a good one!

(I have some good sources on 19th-century baseball, but they're still in boxes. Damn my indolence!)
posted by languagehat at 5:56 PM on December 2, 2007


Miko - one of the commenters at Bastball Think Factory offers this site by way of confirmation that the meeting was in Philly that year.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:56 PM on December 2, 2007


On non-preview: so maybe it's not a joke... except, as you say, "distributed to all National League players" implies it should have been known before this.
posted by languagehat at 5:57 PM on December 2, 2007


My office desk would do well is a name plaque reading "Go Fuck Yourself"

Then they'd know what to do with their rent assistance forms.
posted by mattoxic at 5:57 PM on December 2, 2007


Interesting to see that, if this is real, such useful phrases as "go fuck yourself" have resisted modification for so long.

Especially considering the infrequency of compliance.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 6:00 PM on December 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


Someone over at BBTF says
Robert Lifson (Robert Edward Auctions) is perhaps the most respected sports memorabilia auctioneer in the country. If he doesn't doubt this item's provenance, that's a pretty strong endorsement right there.

Someone else suggests this pleasing possibility:
I'm willing to believe it's from 1897 (because, heck, I've got ephemera that old), but it really seems odd for an official memo. My guess is that there was an actual memo circulated with euphemisms and that this is a parody (also from that era) of that memo. That actually makes me like it more.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:01 PM on December 2, 2007


I have no proof that this is a hoax, but c'mon, gentlemen, use your heads. It's knee-slapping, dirty humor from the days of Uncle Billy's Whiz-Bang. Probably got folded up and hidden in the band of some wag's derby, to be whipped out at the pool hall for the guffaws of Gilded Age no-goods in bull-nosed shoes. Yeah, this is an official bulletin from the league -- a stern order delivered from beneath a handle-bar moustache by a grim-faced baseball bureaucrat in a vest and a watch chain. "Why is everybody laughing? Did I say something funny?" Yeah right. That's my proof.
posted by Faze at 6:08 PM on December 2, 2007


I love nymphae-lapping Metafilter. Thanks, jokeefe.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 6:12 PM on December 2, 2007


I agree, it has the feel of an insider joke.

Here's a free Times article about the first day of the meeting [PDF]
posted by Miko at 6:18 PM on December 2, 2007


...is that Century Schoolbook?

No way, look at the date. Has to be Century-Before-Last Schoolbook.
posted by Malor at 6:21 PM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


Wow, that Times archive is fun.
posted by Miko at 6:29 PM on December 2, 2007


Check it out - things line up interestingly with help from Charlton's Baseball Chronology.

From February 1898: "President John T. Brush of the Cincinnati club dismisses criticism of his proposed league resolution to punish players who use vulgar and obscene language on the field‚ saying newspaper criticism is the result of ignorance."

March 1898: At a league meeting in St. Louis‚ Reds president Brush pushes through his resolution to "suppress obscene‚ indecent‚ and vulgar language on the ball field by players." There is considerable discussion‚ but it passes unanimously.

May 1898: "May 1 The Board of Discipline of the National Baseball League adopts a set of rules to suppress rowdy ball playing. John T. Brush said the resolution‚ which he proposed‚ "has worked like a charm."

June 1898: Cap Anson is quoted as saying‚ "the Brush rule (against rowdyism on the field) does more harm than good."

December 1898: Baltimore manager Ned Hanlon‚ not unexpectedly‚ speaks out against the Brush resolution to curb rowdyism‚ cited by some as resulting in less interest and smaller crowds. "This past season I saw none that ought to scare anyone."

Looks to me like this could be a snarky commentary on Brush's rules. What were the rules - who can find his resolution itself?
posted by Miko at 6:42 PM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


[More, sorry]

From 1895:
"A Philadelphia scribe, in commenting on the rowdy ball playing of 1894 in the League ranks, says: "We could fill pages with evidence of the rowdyism indulged in by the majority of the League teams during the season of 1894, and that, too, if we were only to confine ourselves to the local reports of the season at Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and half a dozen other cities." As the Cleveland Leader hadit, in commenting upon one of the Baltimore-Cleveland games:

"I say it with reluctance--for I have always admired Ned Hanlon's pluck--that the national game never received so severe a set-back as it did during the last Baltimore series here. The effort to spike players, the constant flow of profanity and vulgarity, the incessant and idiotic abuse of an umpire, all combined to make the Baltimore club--that local people have been led to believe was made of a crowd of earnest, honest players--thoroughly despised and detested. In ten years' experience in scoring games in Cleveland I have never heard such a torrent of vulgarity, profanity and brutal, senseless abuse heaped upon an umpire as Lynch stood from the Baltimore players upon the field here."

Similar charges against visiting teams were made by the Pittsburgh people against the Cleveland team; by the Philadelphia scribes against the Bostons, etc. In fact, proof, and plenty of it, was easily attainable from the reports from every League city during 1894, to a more or less extent.

The question apropos to this comment is, "What are you going to do about it" in 1895, Messrs. Magnates?
posted by Miko at 6:48 PM on December 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


John T. Brush at the Baseball Biography Project:
Prior to the 1898 season Brush floated another "Brush Rule" past his fellow owners, this one stating that any player who addressed an umpire or fellow player in a "villainously filthy" manner would be brought before a three-man disciplinary board and banished for life if found guilty. The players received the rule about as well as Brush's 1889 edict limiting their salaries, and it had about the same lasting impact
.
posted by Miko at 6:50 PM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


I want to believe. I shared Miko's doubts, but I think that with the confirmation from the NY Times archive that there was such a meeting, the evidence suggests the document is genuine.

And the F-bomb was in currency at least as early as late colonial Virginia. Somebody on the H-Net early American history discussion group once linked to a Library of Congress image file of a 1760s law book that had been kept in a tavern. Some wag had written a sentence with fuck and cunt in the margins. I'll be fucked if I can find it now though.
posted by LarryC at 6:52 PM on December 2, 2007


A good essay on the first appearances of many "bad words", much of it drawn from this book.
posted by Miko at 6:59 PM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: Some indecent and infamous invention of depravity
posted by ism at 9:15 PM on December 2, 2007


A lot of those Spalding Baseball Guides are available in facsimile form through LOC.
posted by Rumple at 9:30 PM on December 2, 2007


F Jackie!
posted by lometogo at 9:52 PM on December 2, 2007


Language Logger Geoff Nunberg Runs down the history of swearing. (For more on our previous favorite source of old-tyme f-bombing see also Slate article The linguistic brilliance of HBO's Deadwood).

Nunberg, a professional linguist, cites an earliest usage of "Go Fuck Yourself" as 1920, which makes me a bit skeptical of the piece.
posted by mrflip at 2:38 AM on December 3, 2007


According to the highly enjoyable
OED entry on fuck
(note: most people won't be able to see this sorry), the earliest cite for fuck as an abstract profane verb is 1922 (that is, fuck /not/ used to mean copulation).
2. Used profanely in imprecations and exclamations as the coarsest equivalent of DAMN v. 5.

1922 JOYCE Ulysses 587 God fuck old Bennett! 1929 F. MANNING Middle Parts of Fortune II. xv. 379 ‘Fuck the bloody thing!’ he said fiercely under his breath. 1955 S. BECKETT Molloy 69 Fuck the son of a bitch. 1959 F. KING So Hurt & Humiliated 151 ‘Suppose any of the neighbours were to look out and see them.’ ‘Oh, f{em} the neighbours!’ ‘Really, Henry!’ 1969 ‘J. MORRIS’ Fever Grass ii. 24 Why don't you..tell whoever it is to go fuck themselves?
"Fucking" used in a non-copulation sense ('as a mere intensive') goes back much further, to mid-1500s:
Hence {sm}fucking vbl. n. Also as ppl. a. and adv., used esp. as a mere intensive.
a1568 A. SCOTT Poems iv. 55 Thir foure, the suth to sane, Enforsis thame to fucking. 1680 ROCHESTER Poems on Several Occasions (1950) 30 Through all the Town, the common Fucking Post, On whom each Whore, relieves her tingling Cunt. 1707 [see FRIGGING vbl. n.]. c1888-94 My Secret Life III. 228 This house had but eight rooms, and two mere closets to let out for fucking. Ibid. VIII. 307 She was..a magnificent bit of fucking flesh, but nothing more. 1893 FARMER & HENLEY Slang III. 80/2 Fucking..Adj., A qualification of extreme contumely. Adv. Intensitive and expletive; a more violent form of bloody. 1922 JOYCE Ulysses 580 I'll wring the neck of any bugger says a word against my fucking king.
James Joyce really seems to be the pioneer in this field.
posted by mrflip at 2:53 AM on December 3, 2007


Nunberg, a professional linguist, cites an earliest usage of "Go Fuck Yourself" as 1920, which makes me a bit skeptical of the piece.

Nunberg is a professional linguist, but that doesn't make him omniscient. Had he known about this document, presumably he would have changed his analysis. Since these are not the sorts of words and usages that turn up frequently in published documents until very recently, it's quite possible that people had been saying "go fuck yourself" for a century before 1920.

I shared Miko's doubts, but I think that with the confirmation from the NY Times archive that there was such a meeting, the evidence suggests the document is genuine.

A genuine 1898 document, but probably not a genuine League document—I think Faze is probably right about that, even though I got snarky with him above. (Sorry, Faze!)
posted by languagehat at 6:01 AM on December 3, 2007


Nunberg, a professional linguist, cites an earliest usage of "Go Fuck Yourself" as 1920, which makes me a bit skeptical of the piece.

There's already been some OED antedating of "fuck." This article is interesting:
An even more important term than politically
correct is fuck. This is, of course, an ancient word,
traced by the OED back to 1503. Recently, an entire
book was devoted to the history of the “F word,” enti-
tled The F Word and compiled by Jesse Sheidlower,
the Principal Editor of the OED’s North American
Editorial Unit. In his introduction, Sheidlower
writes, “The word may not have been openly printed
in any form in the United States until 1926.”
Lexis and Westlaw show otherwise. John Baker,
a securities lawyer and amateur philologist in
Washington, D.C., recently discovered through a
Westlaw search that fuck was printed in the Reports
of Cases Argued and Decided in the Supreme Court
of the State of Missouri in 1846. The case of Edgar
v. McCutchen, appearing at 9 Mo. 768, consisted in
its entirety of the following...
See the article also for comments on "cocksucker."
posted by Miko at 6:04 AM on December 3, 2007


That article is so much fun to read that I recommend based only upon that. Open the PDF and look for its charming title: "The Politically Correct US Supreme Court and the Motherfucking Texas Court of Criminal Appeals" on p. 10. In the article, the author (a Yale law librarian) describes using Lexis/Nexis to antedate the phrase "politically correct" to 1793, and also to antedate the first known American printing of "motherfucker." That occurred in 1889 in a case called Levy vs. State. An excerpt:

According to Sumner, he spoke of defendant as "that God damned, lying, thieving son of a bitch;"... and according to McKinney "that God damned, mother f___ing, bastardly son-of-a-bitch." There is another case in 1897 with similar language, this time spelled out. That ought to put the question of whether anyone had invented these slurs yet to rest. He also dates "cocksucker" to 1902.

Keep in mind that earliest print citations are just that. They lag somewhat behind spoken English, as is evident every year when the dictionaries announce the new words they're adding - invariably, they're words we already know. Also, propriety in print was a strong force in America, especially in the days when the means of production - the printing press - was expensive to own and rare, the owners enjoying at least some form of social status.

My awareness of off-color language comes from folklore more than print material. Sea chanteys and sailors' private journals are full of crass language and innuendo. Looking beyond printed sources gives a fuller picture of people's actual language use and preoccupations outside of formal culture.

At this point I have no doubt that the piece is genuine, but I suspect it is a joking parody of initiatives like Brush's, not something that was actually distributed throughout the league.
posted by Miko at 7:49 AM on December 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


This feels like a modern parody to me, too. I'm willing to believe the usage of "fuck" is period (although a bit surprised). But was "cock-sucker" really a common swear in 1898?

(The spacing in the document also doesn't look hand typeset to me. But I'm no expert.)
posted by Nelson at 8:00 AM on December 3, 2007


This feels like a modern parody to me, too.

"Too"? Everybody else is saying it's an 1898 parody.

But was "cock-sucker" really a common swear in 1898?

Yes. Read Miko's link.
posted by languagehat at 8:14 AM on December 3, 2007


If you like dirty limericks, the BBTF link at the top of this thread has now turned into a series of dirty limericks involving baseball players of the 1890s. Some of them are really quite fine.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:59 PM on December 3, 2007


It's knee-slapping, dirty humor from the days of Uncle Billy's Whiz-Bang.

Uncle to you, maybe, Capt. Billy to the rest of us. Billy was Fawcett, who built the publishing empire of that name, giving us such timeless periodicals as True, Cavalier, True Confessions, and, why not? Mechanix Illustrated.

(For the nostalgic, it appears you can still get copies. Solid, Jackson!)
posted by IndigoJones at 5:13 PM on December 3, 2007


Thanks IndigoJones! Finally, something of value came out of this thread. Interesting!
posted by Faze at 5:42 PM on December 3, 2007


IndigoJones: cool, I didn't know about that magazine at all.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:24 PM on December 3, 2007


On Salon, King Kaufman's sports column covers this today, including running it past some experts, with variable results.
posted by Rumple at 7:03 PM on December 5, 2007


Thanks very much for posting that, Rumple, it's an interesting read. I'm surprised Nunberg is so dismissive: "It is inconceivable that the authors of such a document in this period would have quoted the player's 'Go fuck yourself' verbatim, or repeated any of the other imprecations (not even the 'damn' of 'didn't give a damn,' which would have been rendered as 'd____')." It's highly unlikely for an official document, sure, but he doesn't even seem to be considering the "printer's hoax" hypothesis. I can't help but think he's influenced by his previously published statements about the late usage of these terms.
posted by languagehat at 7:11 PM on December 5, 2007


I haven't really been following the ins and outs of this, but isn't Nunberg's point that, not only would they not have printed this, but that the words are used out of context - that is, in the 1890s "cocksucker" was used literally as "one who sucks cocks".

The printer's hoax theory seems reasonable though -- an in-house joke, but a time consuming one to produce with lead type?
posted by Rumple at 7:27 PM on December 5, 2007


That is, in Nurnberg's link here, from the Salon article.
posted by Rumple at 7:30 PM on December 5, 2007


Thanks, Rumple.
lh, I find it funny that you say I can't help but think he's influenced by his previously published statements about the late usage of these terms... since I'm sure that's exactly what he's influenced by, and it's not inappropriate for him to be influenced by it. (That is, he has better foundation than most people do for a belief about whether it's plausible for these phrases to appear so early. Not an unassailable foundation, but still. It's not like it's pure dogma that's motivating him, it's all the research he did.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:24 PM on December 5, 2007


But yeah, it's a bit surprising that he is quite so dismissive, rather than just being very skeptical.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:26 PM on December 5, 2007


I'm sure that's exactly what he's influenced by, and it's not inappropriate for him to be influenced by it.

I didn't make myself clear. Sure, it's appropriate for him to be influenced by his own research; what I meant was that he might be influenced by his having publicly committed himself to a certain position. In other words, if he had done the research but not written about it publicly, he would certainly still be skeptical, but perhaps not quite so dismissive. He's a fine scholar, but he is human, and it's only human to be reluctant to see oneself undermined.

That said, his strong position on this does give me pause.
posted by languagehat at 5:11 AM on December 6, 2007


an in-house joke, but a time consuming one to produce with lead type?

By 1890, patent machinery like the recently developed Linotype allowed small jobs like this to be completed - and multiple impressions made - in well under an hour. Even before that, with hand compositing, an averagely skilled typesetter could set about 50 lines of type per hour, or about 10 hours per one broadsheet-size page of newsprint - several times the word count of this memo. There was plenty of junky, jokey stuff printed. This was the period that gave rise to the pulp periodical because of that. In fact, the impact of Linotype machines was considered by some a nearly Gutenberg-level leap in communications technology, something that changed print culture quite a bit.

From the article:

it would represent the earliest printed record of two obscenities.


Which is really cool, and doesn't in itself give me enough reason to doubt this. Something has to be the earliest record, after all - so why not this, a document created in response to concerns over spoken vulgarity, profanity, and obscenity that by all other historical accountings was rife during this era?

a member of SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research, says that even if the letter's a fake, it could still be from the 1890s. "If it's a hoax, I'd bet it's an internal hoax," he says, something "somebody in the [league] office or on one of the ball clubs produced to hand out to the boys as a little rib-tickler. Making fun of the bosses for this nonsense that they're doing, in the language the bosses would have used."

Having looked around on this a fair bit and used my own judgement and experience with historical documents, I am siding with this hypothesis. When you look into manuscript and folkloristic material, you find plenty of nasty language. Yes, it's a lot rarer in printed material, since usually only institutional voices could speak when the means of print production was rare and more tightly controlled. But the arrival of Linotype-style printing may itself contribute to an explanation of the sudden appearance of documents like this. In 1886, it became a whole lot easier to print things quickly with less skill. Why not, then, expect an increase in less formal printing material? Why not expect the guys who printed the proceedings for league meetings and the programs and rosters for the baseball games to spend 45 minutes after work jobbing up a joke document for their own amusement? Why not expect an explosion of user-generated content similar to the arrival of easy-to-publish weblogs? It would be interesting to look into the history of printed material to see what other sorts of unofficial parodies and jokes were being printed through time, and see whether there was an exponential increase in such material around the time of this document. I think there probably was.

Also, as to print parody, I've never worked in a newsroom production area where there wasn't a fake front page mocked up with stupid, raw, shocking, goofy, or ridiculous content and photography under the official nameplate. Print culture is pretty strong and has a lot of survivals to this day - the parody using official format is a common trope in that field, IF this document is authentic, as I am inclined to think it is, it represents a pretty interesting confluence of the occupational cultures of printing and ballplaying.

I started out feeling fairly skeptical, but the thing is, everything about this document checks out with the lore, culture, and history of the period. There really are no false notes other than the surprise of the language appearing together in print in one document. But everything else is consistent with the purported time and place.

Something like this can give rise to a pretty important and interesting conversation among lexicographers, folklorists, historians of popular culture and baseball, historians of print and communications, and documentary historians. The auction house could make a lot more of this and I hope they will - or perhaps the eventual buyer will. There are methods of paper and typeface analysis that can help to date the document - they won't be conclusive in themselves, but they will lend evidence to the authentic vs. nonauthentic argument. As long as the weight of evidence leans to 'authentic,' that's the side I'm on; and so far, we have nothing other than individuals' gut feelings, really, to sway us from believing it's the real thing.

What a very interesting conversation.

posted by Miko at 8:58 AM on December 6, 2007


Thanks Miko, for the Linotype link. Very interesting. I had been thinking the right-justification of the document suggested a standard of care and time investment inconsistent with a prank, but I see the Linotype machine more-or-less automated the justification process, which is quite the clever trick to do mechanically in the age of early typewriters!

Good point about an interesting study of ephemera across the Linotype transition, then -- though there was a lot of casual printing well before then wasn't there, in the form of pamphlets, etc.
posted by Rumple at 10:55 AM on December 6, 2007


N.b.: King Kaufman has added the following to his Salon piece (linked by Rumple above):
Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large at the Oxford English Dictionary and the author of the excellent scholarly book "The F Word," agrees that an official letter wouldn't spell out those words. But, also writing by e-mail, after this column was first published, he argues that the letter is probably a joke from the period: "If it is a contemporaneous hoax -- a send-up of management -- it's more likely that these words would be spelled out, and that the variety of examples offered would be so extreme. It's funnier that way!"
I'll be extremely interested to see if there's any followup from Nunberg.
posted by languagehat at 12:55 PM on December 6, 2007


Oh, and Kaufman also added this:
Sheidlower, the "F Word" author, corrected an assertion made in this column's original version that the letter contained the earliest printed use of the word "cocksucker" as an insult and the phrase "go fuck yourself."

"The Historical Dictionary of American Slang has an 1897 example of 'go and fuck yourself,'" he writes -- a citation this column missed. "And I have found evidence of nonliteral 'cocksucker' from the 1860s, in Civil War court martial records."
posted by languagehat at 3:24 PM on December 6, 2007


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