Cicero, Epistulae ad Familiares (English) (XML Header) [genre: prose] [word count] [Cic. Fam.].
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I like modesty in language: you prefer plain speaking. [Note] The latter I know was the doctrine of Zeno, a man by heaven! of keen insight, though our Academy had a serious quarrel with him. However, as I say, the Stoic doctrine is to call everything by its right name. [Note] They argue as follows: nothing is obscene, nothing unfit to be expressed: for if there is anything disgraceful in obscenity, it consists either in the thing meant or in the word: there is no third alternative. Now it is not in the thing meant. Accordingly, in tragedies as well as in comedies there is no concealment.

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For Comedy, take the character in the Demiurgus : [Note] you know the monologue beginning "Lately by chance," and you remember how Roscius recited, "So naked has she left me": the whole speech is covert in language, in meaning is very immodest. As for tragedy, what do you say to this: "The woman who"—notice the expression—"uses more than one bed." Or again, "He dared intrude upon her bed, Pheres." Or again: A virgin I, and sheer against my will
Did luppiter achieve his end by force.
[Note] "Achieve his end" is a decent way of putting it; and yet it means the same as a coarser word, which however no one would have endured. You see then that though the thing meant is the same, yet, because the words are not so, there is thought to be no impropriety. Therefore obscenity is not in the thing meant: much less is it in the expressions. For if the thing meant by a word is not improper, the word which signifies it cannot be improper. For instance, you call the anus by another name; why not by its own? If mention of it is improper, don't mention it even under another name. If not, do so for choice by its own. The ancients called a tail a penis; whence comes the word penicillus ("paint-brush"), from its similarity in appearance. Nowadays penis is regarded as an obscene word. "But," you will say, "the famous Piso Frugi in his 'Annals' complains of young men being given up to lust (peni)." What you call in your letter by its own name, he, with more reserve, calls penis. Yes; but it is because many use the word in that sense that it has become as obscene as the word you used. Again, suppose we use the common phrase: "When we (cum nos) desired to visit you"—does that suggest obscenity? I remember once in the senate an eloquent consular expressing himself thus:

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"Am I to say that this or that is the greater culpability?" Could it have been expressed more obscenely ? [Note] "Not so," you say, "for he did not mean it in that sense." Therefore obscenity does not consist in the word used: I have shewn that it does not do so in the thing meant: therefore it does not exist anywhere. How entirely decent is the expression: "To exert oneself for children "? Even fathers beg their sons to do so, though they do not venture to mention the name of the "exertion." Socrates was taught the lyre by a very famous musician named Connus: do you think the name obscene? When we use the numeral terni there is no suggestion of obscenity: but if I speak of bini there is. "Only to Greeks," [Note] you will say. That shews that there is nothing obscene in a word, for I know Greek and yet use the word bini to you; and you assume that I am speaking Greek and not Latin. Again, we may speak without impropriety of "rue" (ruta) and "mint" (menta); but if I wish to use the diminutive of menta (mentula)-as one can perfectly well use that of ruta (rutula)-that is a forbidden word. So we may, without a breach of good manners, use the diminutive of tectoria (tectoriola); but if you try to do the same with pavimenta (pavimentula), you find yourself pulled up. Don't you see, then, that these are nothing but empty distinctions? That impropriety exists neither in word nor thing, and therefore is non-existent?

The fact is that we introduce obscene meaning into words in themselves pure. For instance, is not the word divisio beyond reproach? Yet in it there is a word (visium or visio, "a stench") which may have an improper meaning, to which the last syllables of the word intercapedo (pedo iripow) correspond. Are we, therefore, to regard these words as obscene? Again, we make a ridiculous distinction: if we say, "So-and—so strangled his father," we don't prefix any apologetic word. But if we use the word of Aurelia or Lollia we must use such an apology. Nay, more, words that are not obscene have come to be considered so. The word "grind," he says, is shameful; much more the

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word "knead." And yet neither is obscene. The world is full of fools. Testes is quite a respectable word in a Court of law: elsewhere not too much so. Again, "Lanuvinian bags " is a decent phrase; not so "bags" of Cliternum.

Again, can the same thing be at one time decent, at another indecent? Suppose a man to break wind—it is an outrage on decency. Presently he will be in a bath naked, and you will have no fault to find. Here is your Stoic decision—"The wise man will call a spade a spade."

What a long commentary on a single word of yours! I am pleased that you have no scruple in saying anything to me. For my own part I maintain and shall maintain Plato's modesty: and accordingly, in my letter to you, I have expressed in veiled language what the Stoics express in the broadest: for they say that breaking wind should be as free as a hiccough. All honour then to the Kalends of March! [Note] Love me and keep yourself well.

Cicero, Epistulae ad Familiares (English) (XML Header) [genre: prose] [word count] [Cic. Fam.].
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