James McElvenny writes…

I always thought of Archie as a nice boy, but now I see that he is in fact a very rude young man, possibly due to the strain of being a teenager for the last seventy years or so. But even early on in his perpetual adolescence, back in 1947, he used this sort of language when talking to Betty:

Archie comic 1947
(Source: Weird Universe via BoingBoing)

For those who forgot their specs, in the first panel Betty comments: ‘Being an usher after school must be prime!’

Archie replies nonchalantly: ‘Oh, it gets kind of butthole at times.’

We might ask why Archie thought he could speak like that in an age when public morals were regulated by such instruments as the Hays Code for Hollywood films, censorship guidelines that seem quaintly, and often bizarrely, restrictive by today’s standards.

But maybe he wasn’t really saying ‘butthole’ at all. Maybe he was saying something completely innocuous that just coincidently happens to be mildly offensive today.

This is not as far-fetched as it might first sound. Witness the case of Butt Hole Road in England. This name is not the work of a malicious town planner, but a reference to a local ‘water butt’, or rainwater tank (so the ever dependable Wikipedia says). Sadly this attestation is now lost to us: residents successfully petitioned for a renaming to ‘Archers Way’ in 2009.

The Oxford English Dictionary offers only one definition for ‘butthole’, viz. ‘a blind hole, a cul-de-sac’. And it assures us that the single illustrative quotation is no double entendre: ‘The old dog’s got him [sc. a badger] in a butt hole.’

But is that what Archie means? Is being an usher sometimes a dead-end job?

The Corpus of Historical American English (Archie’s native dialect) is rather unhelpful. ‘Butthole’ doesn’t turn up until the 1980s, and then explodes in the 1990s, mostly with favourable reviews of the alternative rock band Butthole Surfers. The culturomics n-gram viewer, for its part, tells only a few inconclusive stories about the period 1800-1977.

The elusiveness in print of a word with an ambivalent relationship to respectability is to be expected: easy to say, hard to write, largely extrascriptorial and so exiled from our corpora.

The monumental Green’s Dictionary of Slang wants to frustrate my efforts to rescue Archie’s innocence. ‘Butthole’, it tells us, is US slang, meaning ‘the anus’ (attested 1942), or used as ‘a term of contempt’ (attested 1962, but with ‘context 1940s’), or more recently ‘anal intercourse’ (1999).

And Archie is using the word as an adjective, a use that none of our diligent lexicographers has catalogued.

In my speculative version of events, the cartoonist has employed a strategy beloved of my five-year-old nephew: when told not to sing his various improvised songs about poo, he claims they are in fact odes to Winnie the Pooh.

‘No, no,’ insisted the cartoonist with a wry smile, ‘by “butthole” Archie means dead-end. It’s in the OED, my friend.’

Thanks to Piers Kelly and Julia Robinson for the sources on American slang.

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