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Titter ye not – Swallows and Amazons goes all Victorian

In the latest film adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, the name of one of the lead characters has been changed from Titty to Tatty.

The descendants of the family that inspired Arthur Ransome’s stories are reportedly furious with the BBC, but many commentators have noted that this is not the first expurgation of Titty. The character became Kitty in a 1963 version, though in other adaptions (on radio in 2012, and in an earlier 1974 film) remained as Titty.

As reviewer Ben Dowell points out, the name of Roger, Titty’s younger brother, remains unchanged, and always has done. As Dowell comments, many of the “slightly filthy minds” which might snicker at Titty would inevitably smirk at the moniker of her brother.

But while young boys are brought into this world and named Roger, it’s hard to conceive that parents would blithely name their daughters Titty – and equally improbable that those young women, in later life, would consciously adopt that as their nickname.

So, the rationale for the BBC (though the BBC has, it seems, remained silent on this matter), might be understandable, albeit contentious from the point of view of textual integrity. Titty is now a “swear” word, a bad word, a profanity; where Roger might imply a particular set of associations, as a name it is still relatively untarnished. But everyone knows that Titty is rude.

Swearing blind

Swear words generally emerge as a challenge to social taboos, to what is forbidden in society – and this can take many forms; sexual and religious taboos being the most notable.

Within religious society, swear words are associated with transgressions against faith: calling the Lord’s name in vain, for example, or use of the word “damn” or “hell”. This is a significant point. We often use the terms “swearing” and “profanity” as synonyms, though they are from different contexts (legal and religious). In the English language, “profane” is an antonym of “sacred”. So the terms emerged within the discourse of the Christian church in direct opposition. Swearing in this context was to be profane and therefore a challenger of faith.

Edwin Booth as Hamlet, 1870.

But one could swear without profaning, a form of bad language that associated with bodily functions, particularly with sex. In our contemporary society, such swearing is more recognisable. Titty itself, as a profanity, has emerged from such a branch of practice. Take Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for example: the young prince, sitting by the side of the beautiful Ophelia, asks if he may lie his “head upon her lap”, and follows up with the witticism: “Do you think I meant country matters?” The joke resides in association of a woman’s lap with the phonetic pronunciation of the first syllable of “count/ry”.

This type of implicit “swearing” that Shakespeare revelled in became even more popular in the witty wordplay of late 17th and early 18th-century theatre. Comic shows of this period made exceptionally efficient use of figurative language to imply sexuality and sexual acts. Aphra Behn’s 1677 stage comedy The Rover, for example, makes much use of the imagery of the “bush” and the “horn”, as well as featuring another pun on “countrymen”, whose skills were as “merchants of love”. Over the centuries, theatre has made much of that type of bawdy talk as a way of circumventing social rules and forbidden phrases.

Country matters

Of course, Swallows and Amazons is aimed at children, not Restoration audiences. The kind of cleansing that has led to the exchange of Titty for Tatty is very much in line with what the Victorians did, censoring for children and in the process, creating taboos. Following Shakespeare’s lead, the 19th-century playwright Dion Boucicault intended to title his first play “Country Matters”. But when it appeared on stage in 1842 it was as the much more acceptable “London Assurance”.

Such textual expurgation has come to be known as bowdlerism, named after Thomas Bowdler, whose first “edited” volumes were of Shakespeare’s plays. The series, which went through several editions after its original publication in 1807, was lengthily subtitled:

In which nothing is added to the original text, but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a Family.

So, the sanctity of the family ear became crucial and children were thus protected, for the first time, from the evils of Shakespearean obscenities. Intriguingly, Bowdler also expurgated signs of sexual innuendo. The Bard’s “tipping rams” were removed alongside the “damns”. Under Bowdler’s censorial control, we might have lost Roger alongside his sister Titty.

Often, in our contemporary era, profanities are headline grabbers for the publicity hungry: remember FCUK? One needs only to roll call the BRITS of the past ten years to witness attention-seeking swearing. In 2008, the Arctic Monkeys launched a tirade that was expurgated from the show. And in St Kitts, where “cursing” in public is illegal, rap star 50 Cent was arrested recently and fined for saying “motherfucker”.

Swearing will exist whilst there are social taboos to break. While children this summer may have been robbed of the chance to utter titty with impunity, their time will come.

This article was amended on August 18 2016 to correct an error concerning Roger. He was not known as “the cabin boy” in Swallows and Amazons.

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