Monday, January 18, 2021

'I Was Getting Rather Pleased with My English'

“Yes, of course; ‘horny’ must go.” 

It’s not much to go on but if I asked you who crafted those six words, with their nicely deployed semi-colon, who might you guess? Probably not Vladimir Nabokov. Uncharacteristically humbled (no, not “humberted”), the future author of Lolita is deferring to the idiomatic sensitivity of C.A. Pearce, an editor at The New Yorker. He is writing on this date, January 18, in 1943. Nabokov had submitted a poem, “A Discovery,” to the magazine. The first line of the third stanza now reads: “My needles have teased out its sculpted sex.”


Nabokov writes as a professional lepidopterist. From 1942 to 1948, he was a research fellow in the Harvard University Museum of Comparative Zoology. His specialization was taxonomy. As an expert in the sub-family of blue butterflies, he focused on distinguishing species and sub-species by studying male butterfly genitalia, which he described as “minuscule sculptural hooks, teeth, spurs, etc. . . . visible only under a microscope.”


In the original draft of his poem, that ninth line read: “My needles have teased out its horny sex.” Nabokov and his family had arrived in the United less than three years earlier. He hadn’t yet mastered the niceties of American slang, as he would a decade later in Lolita. Nabokov writes to Pearce:


“I am most grateful to you for saving that line from an ignorance-is-bliss disaster. And that nightmare pun . . . This has somewhat subdued me – I was getting rather pleased with my English.”


The modern sense of horny dates from the nineteenth century and derives, for obvious reasons, from horn, as used by Joyce in the “Sirens” episode in Ulysses. The OED, as is only proper, is rather prim in its definition: “Sexually excited; lecherous. (Chiefly used of a man.)”


[The letter quoted above can be found in Nabokov’s Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncollected Writings (eds. Brian Boyd and Robert Michael Pyle, Beacon Press, 2000).]

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