Prosecutable hate speech in 17th-century Massachusetts included calling people “dogs,” “rogues” and even “queens” (though the last referred to prostitution); magistrates took serious umbrage at being labeled “poopes” (“dolts”).

John McWhorter, the noted linguist, in his New York Times review this past weekend of Speaking American: A History of English in the United States.

(Additional fun facts about language and the law — specifically, facts about statutes criminalizing oral sex — after the jump.)

After discussing hate speech in colonial Massachusetts, McWhorter writes:

Only later did xenophobic attitudes toward other languages come to prevail, sometimes with startling result. In the early years of the 20th century, California laws against fellatio and cunnilingus were vacated on the grounds that since the words were absent from dictionaries, they were not English and thus violations of the requirement that statutes be written in English.

No, Urban Dictionary doesn’t count — and didn’t exist back then, of course. (For the record, Urban Dictionary does contain entries for fellatio and cunnilingus.)

So if a judge tried to sentence a defendant for committing fellatio or cunnilingus, the defendant could have replied, “You poope, that statute is invalid. So just blow me!”

P.S. Query whether the California statutes couldn’t have just prohibited “oral sodomy” instead. The word “sodomy” has been in the English language since at least the 13th century.

How Americans Have Reshaped Language [New York Times]
Speaking American: A History of English in the United States [Amazon (affiliate link)]


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