Reading Norman Mailer’s letters

By Eleanor Maier, Associate Editor

Please note: this article discusses language that some readers may find offensive.

Selected Letters of Norman Mailer (2014, edited by J. Michael Lennon) has recently been read as part of the OED’s reading programme and we have already started adding antedatings found in these letters to OED entries. Looking at the entries which have so far been antedated provides a small insight into Mailer’s language and preoccupations.

As part of the June 2017 update six entries will be republished with added antedatings from Mailer’s letters. They are:

Dogme n.

1995   N. Mailer Let. Dec. in Sel. Lett. (2014) 672 To the degree that I understand Dogma 95, its filmic principles are fulfilled for the most part by this picture.

to fuck up v., sense 1b.

1944   N. Mailer Let. 30 Apr. in Sel. Lett. (2014) 17 If you do something wrong or make a botch of a job it is called ‘fucking-up’.

hi-fi n., sense 2.

1955   N. Mailer Let. 19 Mar. in Sel. Lett. (2014) 191 The hi-fi is on, and I’m listening to it with just a little bit of pleasure.

mother-loving adj., sense 2.

1948   N. Mailer Let. 7 Feb. in Sel. Lett. (2014) 68 Words liked browned-off, fouled-up, mother-loving, f——, spit for shit are the most counterfeit of currencies and represent the public’s conception of Army life.

nasty n.1, sense 3.

1959   N. Mailer Let. 1 Dec. in Sel. Lett. (2014) 256 Now in receipt of two nasties and two nicies from you… I’m still pissed off at you for writing me nasty letters.

shitwork n.

1958   N. Mailer Let. 29 Oct. in Sel. Lett. (2014) 241 The only trouble is that this was shit work, prefaces to my short collected stuff, and to my horror I got sick of myself.

Finding evidence for swear words in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century can often prove difficult. The words might have been used freely by certain groups of people such as soldiers but prevailing laws regarding obscene publications means that they rarely found their way into mainstream published sources. Indeed, it was only after the Chatterley trial of 1960 that the word fuck, first recorded in the sixteenth century, began to appear in dictionaries. Letters, diaries, and privately published, often pornographic, works are often our best sources for evidence during this period.

Often writers resorted to euphemisms to circumvent these restrictions and to give a flavour of the language their characters were actually using. For example, in The Naked and the Dead, Mailer’s 1948 novel following a regiment of soldiers fighting in the Second World War, at the publisher’s insistence every instance of ‘fuck’ was replaced with the word fug. Quotations from the novel are used in the OED’s entry to illustrate this variant spelling and provide the earliest recorded uses of fucking A (in the form ‘fuggin ay’) and the noun fuck-off (in the form ‘fug-off’), among others.

Mailer himself was displeased at having to censor himself and his characters in this way, and a letter of 1948 discussing the issue pleasingly provides an antedating for the euphemism mother-loving:

I think I write fair dialogue, and certainly I employ it as my most natural technique for creating character. The whole business of making characters live is too complex to be abstracted easily, but I can guarantee you that one of the clues is freeing characters of public misconceptions and public connotations. Words liked [sic] browned-off, fouled-up, mother-loving, f——, spit for shit are the most counterfeit of currencies and represent the public’s conception of Army life; is indeed a palliative for people who do not have understanding of those areas of experience, and yet must talk about it. That is fine for the social but it has nothing to do with art. I do not think it is an accident that there have been no good novels until now about the war; the men who employed the patty-cakes like mother-loving were corrupted already by an attitude which was alien to abstracting their war-experience and pitching it into the universal.

Michael Lennon, Selected Letters of Norman Mailer (2014)

The antedatings added as part of the June update, join a number of other Mailer first quotations for items such as third base (in the sexual sense), anally retentive, and factoid, a coinage referring to an item of information accepted as a fact, although not (or not necessarily) true. Subscribers can use the advanced search option to explore these entries and more.