Obscenity of the month #2: Some musing on what is obscene (with vegetables)

It’s already one month since the last obscenity, so again it’s time to issue the usual caveat that this post comes with a health warning. Our second obscenity of the month – a request, no less, from one of my colleagues – forces us to think a little about what ‘obscenities’ are, or at least what we mean when we bandy this term around.

A verb again (a word denoting an action), this time it’s ῥαφανιδόω (‘ra-fa-ni-doh-ooh’). This is a verb which has a very clear etymology – it is essentially a verb formed from the noun ῥαφανίς (‘ra-fa-nis’), so our obscenity of the month is ‘to do’ whatever this noun means. What sort of terrible item is designated by ῥαφανίς, you are wondering, given the nature of this blog? The answer is Raphanus sativus, that is the humble radish. This is not to be confused with the Greek word ῥάφανος [‘ra-fa-nos’] – this means cabbage, and when you know what is coming, you definitely don’t want to get these two mixed up.

This verb is found only once in all of the ancient Greek texts which have been preserved from antiquity, in the work of a comic playwright from Athens named Aristophanes. The word is found in a line of his play called Clouds, first performed in 423 BC, as part of the banter between two characters called ‘Better Argument’ and ‘Worse Argument’; the whole play is a parody of new educators and the worries about how they train people to ‘make the weak argument stronger’, and was one of the most read of Aristophanes’ plays in antiquity. After Worse Argument claims he could get someone out of trouble after being caught with another man’s wife, Better Argument utters the immortal words at line 1083:

‘But what if, as a result of following your advice, he gets the radish treatment  (ῥαφανιδωθῇ) and is plucked and singed with ashes?’

(trans. Sommerstein 1983, Aris & Philips).

Just what is being threatened with the radish…? You’ve guessed it. If we were in any doubt, Better Argument goes on in the next line with ‘Will he have any argument he can use to save himself from being wide-assed?’ The context makes it pretty clear what the verb means, as do similar jokes which follow. We are also told about this verb in ancient scholia – notes made by ancient scholars in the margins of the texts of plays like Clouds, and often copied with them when new copies of the texts were made. From these scholia we discover that raphanidosis (apparently an English word which weirdly has its own entry in Wikipedia) was a traditional punishment for adulterous men, along with having their pubic hair removed, hence the ‘plucking’ and ‘singeing’. The Roman poet Catullus, writing much later, famously borrowed the idea, adding that red mullets might also feature as part of the treatment (15.18-9). As you ponder all this ritual humiliation and realise how very alien the Greeks can be to us, remember too that we are most likely not talking about our modern small, round, pink radish – think more perhaps mooli or the Japanese daikon (illustrated below). Despite some voices to the contrary, laid to rest by Chris Carey in his ‘The Return of the radish, or Just when you thought it was safe to go back into kitchen’ (Liverpool Classical Monthly 18.4 [April 1993], 53-5), it seems more than probable that ritual humiliation of this type which feminises and thus degrades a man – alluded to elsewhere in ancient texts of this period, but only alluded to – was understood by a contemporary Athenian audience to be an entirely possible punishment for adulterers. The joke simply wouldn’t be as effective otherwise.


So, ῥαφανιδόω certainly isn’t something very nice – but is it ‘obscene’? This very much depends on what you mean by ‘obscene’. To say you will ‘radish’ someone, or ‘give them the radish treatment’ is not to use any words which are restricted in use, or which are avoided in specific spoken or written environments (unlike a word like English ‘f*ck’, for example). The words themselves are not ‘obscene’, although the act may well be. We have to draw here an important distinction between obscene words and obscene things – the two are not the same. Being precise in terminology, and defining that terminology, is very important in working with linguistic material of this type, and is something I am working on pinning down.

To finish, let us move from radishes to turnips (they’re in the same family – the Brassicaceae – so this link isn’t quite so tenuous as it at first seems) and leave the last word to Baldrick from Black Adder III, with the following exchange from the Dr Johnson episode (Episode 2, Ink and Incapability (BBC 1987)), in which Prinny and Edmund has been perusing his new English Dictionary:

 Johnson: Ah, I see you’ve underlined a few [words]: ‘bloomers’, ‘burp’, (turns a page) ‘fart’, ‘fiddle’, ‘fornicate’?

George: Well…

Johnson: Sir! I hope you’re not using the first English dictionary to look up rude words!

Edmund: I wouldn’t be too hopeful; that’s what all the other ones will be used for.

Baldrick: (to Edmund) Sir, can I look up ‘turnip’?

Edmund: ‘Turnip’ isn’t a rude word, Baldrick.

Baldrick: It is if you sit on one.

Happy Christmas!

Image credits: This Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons image is from the user Chris 73 and is freely available at //commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Daikon.Japan.jpg under the creative commons cc-by-sa 3.0 license.


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