Naughty, Naughty

Because our language keeps changing, yesterday's writing can read very strangely today. There's a famous line about teenage lust in Jane Austen's mock-Gothic melodrama Northanger Abbey: "At fifteen, appearances were mending; she began to curl her hair and long for balls ..." Likewise, strait-laced Emily Dickinson wrote a poem about a dying tiger that startles modern readers with "His Mighty Balls – in death were thick". To everyone's ill-concealed relief, she meant eyeballs.

Naturally this happens in SF too. Vibrators make several worrying appearances in older stories. The specimen confiscated from a US cop in Algis Budrys's "The Edge of the Sea" proves to be merely part of his radio. More often they're weapons, as in T.H. White's The Master, whose supervillain plans to impose world peace with the threat of his massive vibrator. A Moral Dialogue about spanking ensues: "If you can't make people be good with a hair brush, you can't with a vibrator, can you?" (Don't answer that.) A.E. van Vogt's The Voyage of the Space Beagle features a catlike alien predator which Earthmen naturally call pussy: "I'm going to ask various experts to give their suggestions for fighting pussy." Suitable hand-weapons are duly deployed for an assault on pussy: "Vibrators fumed and fussed."

More seeming kinkiness appears in E.E. Smith's Masters of the Vortex, whose hero thinks about his (late) wife "flagellantly". Experts agree the author meant something slightly different, with no actual flagellation involved.

Only the filthy-minded will cringe at the exhibitionism in David Lindsay's fantasy The Violet Apple: "He exhibited his seed, of which Grace had already spoken to her half-sister. 'What do you want done with it?' inquired Virginia, holding it to the light between her thin thumb and finger." Likewise: "Sternly, he kept his hands away from her. No sense making it harder than it was." (Sheri S. Tepper, After Long Silence.) Then there's the "Queen of the Argzoon" chapter in Edward P. Bradbury's Blades of Mars: "That was another reason why we should not expose ourselves! The Argzoon would enjoy taking revenge on members of the race that had defeated them." Ooh – in a Kenneth Williams voice – painful.

Clues in Private Eye's crossword often trade shamelessly on the fact that "members" has various meanings, some of them not rude. The great SF example is the Lens-wearing hero's wedding in E.E. Smith's Second Stage Lensmen: "Then, as Kinnison kissed his wife, half a million Lensed members were thrust upward in silent salute."

Larry Niven's entirely logical title for a ramdrive starship pilot can still look a mite peculiar, depending on context: "You know what to do with a woman but you are one of those men fortunate enough not to need one. Otherwise you could not be a rammer." (A World Out of Time.)

Some authors go the other way, keeping things excessively clean. Despite impeccable Dirty Old Man credentials later in life, the young Isaac Asimov couldn't bring himself to describe a well-endowed lady as stacked like a brick shithouse, but crafted a cunning future-tech alternative: "Wow! Isn't she built like a force-field latrine, though?" (The End of Eternity.)

You can't be too careful. An Australian newspaper competition setter was recently sacked for a trivia quiz whose final question asked who wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Unfortunately all the answers ("What is the official currency of Vietnam?") were slang terms for, ahem, the male member. And some Australians, despite the tough talk and corks round their hats, are terrible prudes.

David Langford was taking pencil notes at an American convention and asked if he could borrow a rubber.