Wednesday, April 22, 2015

C. S. Lewis calls W. H. Auden "a pansy"

So, the problem with slang is that it changes meaning over time, and it can be hard to pin down what it meant at a particular time and place, when a particular person uses it. Take, for example, the case of C. S. Lewis at one point criticizing the poet W. H. Auden as "rather a pansy" (COLLECTED LETTERS, Vol. III, page 714; letter of Leap Day 1956).

So far as I can tell, this originally mean "effeminate" but later came to mean "homosexual".  The OED is careful to trace the evolution of new meanings of words, but it's no help here, since it doesn't deal with slang (though it's rather nice to have confirmed that 'pansy' is an anglicization of pensee, or 'Thoughts').  I'm not sure if slang dictionaries give the dates at which new meanings are attached to words, and I'm too wrapped up right now to make a library run to find out.

So the question is, shd CSL's comment be glossed as "too much of a sissy" or "too gay"?

--John R.
current reading: TOLKIEN'S BEOWULF


Tom Hillman said...

My Dalzell and Victor dates this meaning of "pansy" -- "a male homosexual, an effeminate man" to the UK in 1929, but supplies no quotation.

Given the larger context of Lewis's remark -- "Auden is a Christian and a Tolkienian, and so far good; but he is rather a pansy." -- I would have to go with "homosexual" as the primary gist, but I don't know that the two can be separated.

David Bratman said...

The use of the word "rather" suggests to me that Lewis didn't know anything about Auden's actual sexual proclivities, but that he behaved like the stereotype of a homosexual, i.e. "an effeminate man."

Tobias Haller said...

Lewis definitely uses the word to mean "homosexual" (though with a clear implication of effeminacy, in The Four Loves page 93, as part of his effort to ward off suggestions of homosexuality from male friendships. He finds it incredible to think that classical male shows of affection between "manly men" should be read as homosexual. While acknowledging the possibility of same-sex relations between a "Brave and his squire" on the war-path, he finds the image of the "hairy old toughs of centurions in Tacitus... begging for last kisses" to be "comic." What, he declares, "... all pansies?"