Hi, all. I’m back from my holiday, so let’s jump right in with a really embarrassing authorial blunder!
I heard this on an episode of QI (series N, episode “Non-Sequiturs”), although I’m pretty sure I’ve heard this before elsewhere.
In 1841, the poet Robert Browning (who has written some truly crazy shit–check out “Porphyria’s Lover“) wrote a poem called “Pippa Passes“.
It’s a long verse poem about a poor Italian peasant girl who is too humble in life to have any real influence, and yet she is so good and kind that, as she walks around town, she imagines the virtues the people around her might possess. She sings as she goes, and her song reminds these people to act with goodness. This poem was considered scandalous at the time because it addresses sexuality frankly, and Pippa sees morality even in disreputable people, like the adulteress Ottima.
However, what I want to talk about is a bit of a whoopsie made by Browning in this poem. There is a rather famous section that reads:
“But at night, brother Howlet, far over the woods,
“Toll the world to thy chantry;
“Sing to the bats’ sleek sisterhoods
“Full complines with gallantry:
“Then, owls and bats, cowls and twats,
“Monks and nuns, in a cloister’s moods,
“Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry!”
i.e., late at night owls, bats, monks, and nuns settle in for their evening meal.
Nothing particularly shocking about this section, except the word “twats”. Why in the HELL is that in here? Did it mean something different in 1841?
Nope. It meant then, as it does now and as it has done for at least four centuries, a woman’s vagina.
When asked about it, Browning had absolutely no idea of its true meaning. He had read the word in a raunchy 1660 poem “Vanity of Vanities” and completely misunderstood what it meant. The line in that poem reads:
“They talked of his having a Cardinal’s hat;
“They’d send him as soon an Old Nun’s Twat“.
Browning missed the sexual connotation and thought that a ‘twat’ was a nun’s wimple. So in his infamous line, he thought he was talking about monks’ cowls and nuns’ wimples, not monks’ cowls and nuns’ vaginas. Not sure how his editor missed that one. Someone was clearly not carefully proof reading.