Modesty of speech has a deep and primitive basis, although in modern Europe it only became conspicuous at the beginning of the eighteenth century. “All over the world,” as Dufour put it, “to do is good, to say is bad.”
Reticences of speech are not adequately accounted for by the statement that modesty tends to irradiate from the action to the words describing the action, for there is a tendency for modesty to be more deeply rooted in the words than in the actions.
“Modest women,” as Kleinpaul truly remarks, “have a much greater horror of saying immodest things than of doing them; they believe that fig-leaves were especially made for the mouth.” (Kleinpaul, Sprache ohne Worte, p. 309). It is a tendency which is linked on to the religious and ritual feeling which we have already found to be a factor of modesty, and which, even when applied to language, appears to have an almost or quite instinctive basis, for it is found among the most primitive savages, who very frequently regard a name as too sacred or dangerous to utter.
Among the tribes of Central Australia, in addition to his ordinary name, each individual has his sacred or secret name, only known to the older and fully initiated members of his own totemic group; among the Warramunga, it is not permitted to women to utter even a man’s ordinary name, though she knows it. (Spencer and Gillen, Northern Tribes of Central Australia, p. 581).
In the mysterious region of sex, this feeling easily takes root. In many parts of the world, men use among themselves, and women use among themselves, words and even languages which they may not use without impropriety in speaking to persons of the opposite sex, and it has been shown that exogamy, or the fact that the wife belongs to a different tribe, will not always account for this phenomenon. (Crawley, The Mystic Rose, p. 46).
A special vocabulary for the generative organs and functions is very widespread. Thus, in northwest Central Queensland, there is both a decent and an indecent vocabulary for the sexual parts; in Mitakoodi language, for instance, me-ne may be used for the vulva in the best aboriginal society, but koon-ja and pukkil, which are names for the same parts, are the most blackguardly words known to the natives. (W. Roth, Ethnological Studies Among the Queensland Aborigines, p. 184).
Among the Malays, puki is also a name for the vulva which it is very indecent to utter, and it is only used in public by people under the influence of an obsessive nervous disorder. (W. Gilman Ellis, “Latah,” Journal of Mental Science, Jan., 1897).
The Swahili women of Africa have a private metaphorical language of their own, referring to sexual matters (Zache, Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, 1899, Heft 2-3, pp. 70 et seq.), and in Samoa, again, young girls have a euphemistic name for the penis, aualuma, which is not that in common use (Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, 1899, Heft 1, p. 31); exactly the same thing is found in Europe, “today” (Havelock Ellis days), and is sometimes more marked among young peasant women than among those of better social class, who often avoid, under all circumstances, the necessity for using any definite name.
Singular as it may seem, the Romans, who in their literature impress us by their vigorous and naked grip of the most private facts of life, showed in familiar intercourse a dread of obscene language—a dread ultimately founded, it is evident, on religious grounds—far exceeding that which prevails among ourselves “today” in civilisation.
“It is remarkable,” Dufour observes, “that the prostitutes of ancient Rome would have blushed to say an indecent word in public. The little tender words used between lovers and their mistresses were not less correct and innocent when the mistress was a courtesan and the lover an erotic poet. He called her his rose, his queen, his goddess, his dove, his light, his star, and she replied by calling him her jewel, her honey, her bird, her ambrosia, the apple of her eye, and never with any licentious interjection, but only ‘I will love!‘ (Amabo), a frequent exclamation, summing up a whole life and vocation.
When intimate relations began, they treated each other as ‘brother’ and ‘sister.’ These appellations were common among the humblest and the proudest courtesans alike.” (Dufour, Histoire de la Prostitution, vol. ii, p. 78). So excessive was the Roman horror of obscenity that even physicians were compelled to use a euphemism for urina, and though the urinal or vas urinarium was openly used at the dining-table (following a custom introduced by the Sybarites, according to Athenæus, Book XII, cap. 17), the decorous guest could not ask for it by name, but only by a snap of the fingers (Dufour, op. cit., vol. ii, p. 174).
In “modern” Europe, as seems fairly evident from the early realistic dramatic literature of various countries, no special horror of speaking plainly regarding the sacro-pubic regions and their functions existed among the general population until the seventeenth century. There is, however, one marked exception. Such a feeling clearly existed as regards menstruation. It is not difficult to see why it should have begun at this function. We have here not only a function confined to one sex and, therefore, easily lending itself to a vocabulary confined to one sex; but, what is even of more importance, the belief which existed among the Romans, as elsewhere throughout the world, concerning the specially dangerous and mysterious properties of menstruation, survived throughout mediæval times. (See e.g., Ploss and Bartels, Das Weib, Bd. I, XIV; also Havelock Ellis, Man and Woman, fourth ed. Ch. XI). The very name, menses (“monthlies“), is a euphemism, and most of the old scientific names for this function are similarly vague. As regards popular feminine terminology previous to the eighteenth century, Schurig gives us fairly ample information (Parthenologia, 1729, pp. 27 et seq.). He remarks that both in Latin and Germanic countries, menstruation was commonly designated by some term equivalent to “flowers,” because, he says, it is a blossoming that indicates the possibility of fruit. German peasant women, he tells us, called it the rose-wreath (Rosenkrantz). Among the other current feminine names for menstruation which he gives, some are purely fanciful; thus, the Italian women dignified the function with the title of “marchese magnifico;” German ladies, again, would use the locution, “I have had a letter,” or would say that their cousin or aunt had arrived. These are closely similar to the euphemisms still used by women.
It should be added that euphemisms for menstruation are not confined to Europe, and are found among savages. According to Hill Tout (Journal of the Anthropological Institute, 1904, p. 320; and 1905, p. 137), one of these euphemisms was “putting on the moccasin,” and in another branch of the same people, “putting the knees together,” “going outside” (in allusion to the customary seclusion at this period in a solitary hut), and so on.
It would, however, be a mistake to suppose that this process is an intensification of modesty. It is, on the contrary, an attenuation of it. The observances of modesty become merely a part of a vast body of rules of social etiquette, though a somewhat stringent part on account of the vague sense still persisting of a deep-lying natural basis. It is a significant coincidence that the eighteenth century, which was marked by this new extension of the social ritual of modesty, also saw the first appearance of a new philosophic impulse not merely to analyse, but to dissolve the conception of modesty. This took place more especially in France.
The manner in which the most distinguished and adventurous minds of the century approached it, can scarcely be better illustrated than by a conversation, reported by Madame d’Epinay, which took place in 1750 at the table of Mlle. Quinault, the eminent actress.
“A fine virtue,” Duclos remarked, “which one fastens on in the morning with pins.” He proceeded to argue that “a moral law must hold good always and everywhere, which modesty does not.” Saint-Lambert, the poet, observed that “it must be acknowledged that one can say nothing good about innocence without being a little corrupted,” and Duclos added “or of modesty without being impudent.” Saint-Lambert finally held forth with much poetic enthusiasm concerning the desirability of consummating marriages in public.
This view of modesty, combined with the introduction of Greek fashions, gained ground to such an extent that towards the end of the century women, to the detriment of their health, were sometimes content to dress in transparent gauze, and even to walk abroad in the Champs Elysées without any clothing; that, however, was too much for the public.
The final outcome of the eighteenth century spirit in this direction was, as we know, by no means the dissolution of modesty. But it led to a clearer realisation of what is permanent in its organic foundations and what is merely temporary in its shifting manifestations. That is a realisation which is no mean task to achieve, and is difficult for many, even yet.
So intelligent a traveler as Mrs. Bishop (Miss Bird), on her first visit to Japan came to the conclusion that Japanese women had no modesty, because they had no objection to being seen naked when bathing. Twenty years later she admitted to Dr. Baelz that she had made a mistake, and that “a woman may be naked and yet behave like a lady.” In civilised countries the observances of modesty differ in different regions, and in different social classes, but, however various the forms may be, the impulse itself remains persistent.
Modesty has thus come to have the force of a tradition, a vague but massive force, bearing with special power on those who cannot reason, and yet having its root in the instincts of all people of all classes. It has become mainly transformed into the allied emotion of decency, which has been described as “modesty fossilised into social customs.” The emotion yields more readily than in its primitive state to any sufficiently-strong motive. Even fashion in the more civilised countries can easily inhibit anatomical modesty, and rapidly exhibit or accentuate, in turn, almost any part of the body, while the savage Indian woman of America, the barbarous woman of some Mohammedan countries, can scarcely sacrifice her modesty in the pangs of childbirth. Even when, among uncivilised races, the focus of modesty may be said to be eccentric and arbitrary, it still remains very rigid. In such savage and barbarous countries modesty possesses the strength of a genuine and irresistible instinct. In civilised countries, however, anyone who places considerations of modesty before the claims of some real human need excites ridicule and contempt…