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The whole damned chicken

30/05/2012

Charles Kegan Paul (1828 – 1902) was a vicar, author, translator and publisher, whose firm amalgamated in 1912 with Routledge to become Routledge and Kegan Paul, which survives as a respected academic imprint. Memories, his autobiography, first published in 1899, is filled with anecdotes and personalities from his busy life. While researching items for the blog, I had seen peripheral references to a spoonerism so gloriously risqué that I was sure it must be a fake. In 1899, moreover, they would surely never have got away with printing it, even as an example of a mistake. Surely, in the dying days of Victorianism, the whole print-run would have been pulped – and the scoundrel horse-whipped. [“Why, I’d horse-whip you, if I had a horse”]

It’s real. I remained unconvinced after checking the raw transcription on the magnificent Project Gutenberg. I went further and tracked down the facsimile text of Memories. There it is, among other examples of copy-editing flubs on page 300:It even predates Kegan Paul, though. He had clearly read it in the July 1890 edition of Blackwood’s Magazine, and remembered it for his memoirs. Gutenberg has Blackwood’s, of course, and there we find:

‘After all, the blunder was not a serious one, and was nothing like that of the lady traveller who wrote that the “whole wilderness was filled with erratic blocks,” and who, failing to revise her proofs, found that the printers had taken on themselves to correct her geological expression, and that she was made to assert that “the whole wilderness was filled with erotic blacks”!’

That’s where the trail ends, I’m afraid, and (sadly) it’s probably apocryphal; no more than a publisher’s joke coined over the port and cigars. The devout Charles KP bowdlerised the lady out of the anecdote to reduce its coarseness, but that’s it.

If it were to escape into print nowadays, of course, it would be a front-page screamer in the tabloids, and the subject of leaders and self-important op-eds in the serious papers. It would be endlessly debated for its subliminal racism on Newsnight and Question Time, and the Pavlovian trigger for interminably self-righteous finger-wagging by Trevor Phillips and all the (politically) polychrome media-whores who insist on doing our thinking for us.

It was more than a century ago, however; we are safely insulated by time, and it’s simply funny. O tempora, O mores. Looking back from the perspective 0f 2012 we wonder how they got away with ‘erotic’, whereas today the word that would cause offence is ‘blacks’.

Q: What is the difference between erotic and kinky?
A: Erotic uses a feather. Kinky uses the whole damned chicken.

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