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VOL. 39 | NO. 31 | Friday, July 31, 2015

Who could reject scholarly history of dirty words?

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It’s been said that the Web is a Mecca for writers who are not good to start with and don’t know how to rewrite, revise and edit.

An apt quote on this concept may be found in the current I Swear Cross-plug – uh, Crossword.

Recently, I was remembering a book I stumbled upon in the University of North Carolina library in 1974. I’d found it while researching an article I intended to write about Ben Franklin’s plagiarism, to which I’ve alluded in recent columns. Much of Poor Richard’s wit and wisdom was lifted from European lore.

In 1974, I was straight out of college and had several months before the next school year would begin. I wrote a half-dozen articles – none of them more than first drafts, I’d admit later. Then I watched dejectedly as rejection slips piled up. Before I got around to revising, rewriting and editing those pieces, I set about getting into law school.

I kept those rejected articles in a folder, along with old college and high school papers, for years. The idea was that someday someone somehow would enjoy reading them. How that idea sustained itself for 20-plus years is a mystery to me now.

These items gave me no joy. Each time I’d open the file, I’d start to read one and, within minutes, I’d put it down, thinking, “Really?! Could I have been this bad?” I shredded the entire file a decade ago.

The recent Franklin columns got me thinking about this one article, which I actually never wrote. I wound up writing a different article altogether after finding this ancient book.

It was a book of sayings, adages and proverbs from all over Europe, and each item was printed in four languages – English, French, Italian and Spanish. That’s all I could remember.

So, the other night, I Googled a few key words and, within a matter of seconds, had in front of me the entirety of “Paroimiographia Proverbs, or, Old Sayed Sawes & Adages in English (or the Saxon Toung), Italian, French, and Spanish, whereunto the British for their great antiquity and weight are added ...” [sic]. Collected and published, in 1659, by one James Howell (1594-1666).

Howell was an Anglo-Welsh historian and writer. Well-traveled and fluent in several languages, he was the son of a Welsh clergyman and brother of Thomas Howell, Lord Bishop of Bristol. Howell is credited with over two dozen published literary works.

Reading through it, I remembered what became the angle of the article I did write back in 1974, the one that was rejected. It was a scholarly essay on the history of dirty words in proverbs (I probably sent it to Playboy).

Who knew that X- and R-rated words (a) filled the vocabulary of common folks back in those days and (b) actually found their way into print?!

No, I am not going to print representative samples in this column. Google Howell’s collection if you’re interested in reading some of them. For me, it’s back to basics – Franklin as Plagiarist, the item I meant to write 45 years ago.

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.

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