Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Thomas Jefferson's Mysterious Shag


Here is a mystery that I can't solve, and it's driving me mad.

Shag is an English verb for the world's most popular pastime.

That it is English and not American was a central joke of Austin Powers, and a central flaw in the British marketing of the 1989 American romantic comedy Shag.

So I was astonished to read the first citation in the OED. It's not English, but American. We've lost! Not just any old American, either: the first recorded shag is by Thomas Jefferson.

He had shagged his mother and begotten himself on her body.

That, I think you'll agree, is a pretty weird sentence. But the OED, of course, don't give context. They just have the line and the name of the book. So I ran down to the British Library to get hold of a copy and see what Jefferson was talking about.

I don't know whether it's that Thomas Jefferson isn't important enough, but the British Library have never bothered to buy a copy. It's recent too. Though Jefferson wrote it in 1770, it wasn't published until Princeton University press put it out in 1997.

But it's not there, dammit. It's not on Google Books either. So I'm left with this one enigmatic sentence:

He had shagged his mother and begotten himself on her body.

What the hell does it mean? I've been thinking long and hard about this. Who shagged his mother? It's not Oedipus because he didn't beget himself. I looked up Sin and Death in Paradise Lost, but they don't fit.

Then I came up with an odd idea. Maybe he's talking about Jesus. If you consider Jesus and God the Father to be one, then Jefferson's Shag might make sense. It's more than a trifle blasphemous, but I can't see what else he could have been writing about.

Does anybody have a better suggestion?

Does anybody have access to the original book? Any Princetonians? Anybody with another copyright library round the corner?

If you do then it's:

Thomas Jefferson
Jefferson's Memorandum Books volume II (ed. James Bear and Lucia Stanton)
1997
Princeton University Press
ISBN 0-691-04719-7


And it's the entry for Dec. 27 1770 on page 200.

And it's urgent.


The Inky Fool wonders if he can get his money back.

UPDATE

Thanks to Mark (see comments) I now have a photo of the page in question. The context is that it's all brief notes of court cases in which Jefferson was acting:


Now, I'd like to say that that cleared it up, but really it's caskets within caskets. I still can't work out what the phrase means. It's hard enough to see who's suing who for what and why. The open vestry is mysterious. I assume the pl. is the plaintiff, but I can't be sure.

Ah well.

Thank you to everyone for suggestions.

15 comments:

  1. I don't know if it's any help, but this page: LEA Book Distributors lists the book at a mere $240 or £160. It's from 1999, though.

    ReplyDelete
  2. The Inky Fool's budget has mainly been spent on harmonicas and kir royals, the rest I squandered.

    As the fellow once said, 'If I could have back all the money I spent on booze, I'd spend it on booze.'

    The annoying thing is that this is exactly the problem that a BL reader's pass is meant to solve, and beyond that one sentence I don't have any burning yen to read the thing.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Jerry van Kooten15 February 2011 13:22

    Tha fact that 'shag' in Dutch is the tobacco you roll your own fags with (derived from the Arabic word for 'tiny strips', as the tobacco is cut that way) probably doesn't help here...

    ReplyDelete
  4. Someone in Cambridge claims to have a copy.

    Next time you're there, go an knock on the door - it's an extraordinary-looking house.

    ReplyDelete
  5. An old theory of reproduction is that the male sperm is a miniature version of a human (homunculus), arms and legs and bits and all, and the woman's role is merely to incubate it. I can't recall when this theory was replaced by a more enlightened version, but 1770 is a while ago so I wonder... The consequence of such a theory is surely that "shagging" and "begatting oneself" is one and the same thing.

    Shag is also the name of a bird, which resembles a cormorant in some ways - now where did that name come from?

    ReplyDelete
  6. The homunculus theory was popular with certain alchemists, well into the 1800s, and Thomas Jefferson is reputed to have had a great interest in Alchemy and Rosicrucianism.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Surely a cue for one of my favourite poems:

    The Common Cormorant -- Christopher Isherwood


    The common cormorant (or shag)
    Lays eggs inside a paper bag,
    You follow the idea, no doubt?
    It's to keep the lightning out.

    But what these unobservant birds
    Have never thought of, is that herds
    Of wandering bears might come with buns
    And steal the bags to hold the crumbs.

    ReplyDelete
  8. My wife is a librarian here in NJ and I have requested she find us a copy. The Governor tried to shut down inter-library loan but was thwarted so I will eventually get a copy. As to relying on Princetonians, I have never found the agricultural school types to be very reliable.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Do you think this could be a reference regarding the son of a suspected relationship between Jefferson and one of his slaves, Sally Hemmings?

    ReplyDelete
  10. I think your idea that this has something to do with Jesus is probably close. Jefferson did write his own version of the Bible after all...

    ReplyDelete
  11. The library in Morristown had a copy (it is volume I not II) that has page 200. I had them fax over pages 199 and 200. The page is titled Legal Notations and lists court actions but also seems to list cash account information. On December 27th one of the listings is:


    Id. v. Claudius Buster (Alb.). Bring action of slander for declaring of pl. in the open vestry that the pl. had said ‘he had shagged his mother and begotten himself on her body.’ Also that ‘the pl. wanted Sharp Spenser overseer of T. Nelson to steal corn for him.’


    The next listing is:

    Id. v. Adam Deane (Alb.). Bring action for these words ‘pl. said he fucked his mother and begot himself on her body.’
    Do nothing till I hear further.


    Seems to have been a common insult.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Damn. Caught a train to the University of Utah library (which had this book) just to be beaten by a few minutes. :)

    ReplyDelete
  13. So is this an early use of Mofo mixed with an interesting hint of bastardy?

    ReplyDelete
  14. Dmitriy,
    Thank you, I hope that it wasn't too far.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Not at all. In light of all the delight this blog has conferred upon me, it would have been the least I could have done had I been able to do it.

    ReplyDelete