W. H. A. in the O. E. D.
The W. H. Auden Society Newsletter has appeared more or less annually since its inaugural issue in April 1988. Plainly designed, wonderfully rich in content, scholarly but not academic, it's an indispensable omnium gatherum of all things Auden – eccentric, eclectic, unpredictable and endlessly fascinating.
My favourite Newsletter item dates back to the fourth issue (October 1989) when a young Toby Litt, long before he achieved fame as a fine novelist, contributed a dazzling little essay entitled “From ‘Acedia’ to ‘Zeitgeist’: Auden in the 2nd Edition of the OED”. (Before I go any further I have to gratefully acknowledge my debt to his essay as a source for this blog.)
Litt begins his piece with a quotation from Auden, taken from an interview in 1971:
One of my great ambitions is to get into the OED as the first person to have used in print a new word. I have two candidates at the moment, which I used in my review of J. R. Ackerley’s autobiography. They are ‘Plain-sewing’ and ‘Princeton-First-Year’. They refer to two types of homosexual behaviour.
Auden’s ambition was realized posthumously with the appearance in 1989 of the twenty-volume 2nd edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, now available online as "OED3", from which the following definitions are taken.
An admirably explicit definition of “Princeton-First-Year” cites Auden’s piece on the Ackerley autobiography (My Father and Myself) in the New York Review of Books:
"Designating a form of male homosexual activity in which the penis is rubbed against the thighs or stomach of a partner.
1969 W. H. AUDEN in N.Y. Rev. Bks. 27 Mar. 3/4 My guess is that at the back of his mind, lay a daydream of an innocent Eden where children play ‘Doctor’, so that the acts he really preferred were the most ‘brotherly’, Plain-Sewing and Princeton-First-Year.”
A later citation comes from the TLS, with a discreetly explicit Latin tag:
“1980 Times Lit. Suppl. 21 Mar. 324/5 ‘Princeton-First-Year’ is a more condescending version of the term ‘Princeton Rub’; that is, coitus contra ventrem.”
When it comes to “plain sewing” as a euphemism for both buggery and masturbation, the OED has it both ways:
“plain sewing n. (a) Needlework which is functional or practical rather than decorative; (b) slang [popularized by W. H. Auden (compare quot.1980)] , a sexual activity of homosexuals involving mutual masturbation.”
Auden enriched the language of the tribe far beyond this subversive promotion of mid-century gay slang. He appears 766 times in the second, four-volume OED Supplement published from 1972 to 1986, including quotations from works co-written with Christopher Isherwood, Louis MacNeice and Chester Kallman. Most of these citations are not for being the first person to have used a new word in print, but are included to show a change or extension of meaning. (While this is an impressive total, Shakespeare – by far the most frequently quoted single author – is the source of 33,300 quotations, of which 1,600 come from Hamlet alone.)
That Auden came to feature so prominently in the OED is partly down to the time he spent as Professor of Poetry at Oxford between 1956 and 1961. He became an acquaintance of R. W. Burchfield, a lecturer at Christ Church (Auden’s college) and, from 1957, the editor of the second supplement to the OED. Burchfield, though he had a low opinion of the poet's linguistic scholarship, decided that Auden should be among the major writers whose work merited special attention from the compilers.
Of Auden's 700-plus citations 110 are original coinages, of which around half are hyphenated compounds such as “angel-vampire”, “swan-delighting” and suchlike poetic figures that have never entered the mainstream; a further twenty-two appear under sub-headings as additional definitions of words already in existence. In all, there are twenty-eight citations (including the entry for “Princeton-First-Year”) for which Auden is credited as the first writer to use the word in print, a lexical horde that in part reflects the poet's camp and ramshackle character. Toby Litt writes:
“Among Auden's more notable citations are: the first pejorative use of ‘queer’, the first printed use of ‘ponce’ to designate an effeminate homosexual, of ‘toilet-humour’, of ‘agent’ in the sense of a secret agent or spy, of ‘dedicated’ to mean a person ‘single-minded in loyalty to his beliefs or in his artistic or personal integrity’, of ‘shagged’ meaning ‘weary, exhausted’, and of ‘stud’ for a person ‘displaying masculine sexual characteristics’. Further curiosities are the first printed appearance in English of the surrealist term ‘objet trouve’ and the first printed use of ‘What’s yours?’ as an invitation given by the person buying the next round of drinks.”
Not included in the Litt list but noted by Mendelson in his introduction to the reprint of Auden's The Prolific and the Devourer (1939) is the poet's use of the term 'apolitical', its first appearance in print. Other Auden-sourced coinages include "Mosleyite", "Disneyesque" and (from 1941) "butch", in the sense of aggressively masculine.
Where would we be without him?