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Moechus

Scortum and moechus: not so neuter words

 


SH 191: I can’t say I consider harlots as human beings. Scortum and moechus are both neuter words, you know.


In one of his more callous statements in Stephen Hero, Stephen Daedalus mentions (in a conversation with Lynch that begins with his statement that they "must have women") that he cannot think of prostitutes as human beings, "scortum and moechus are both neuter words, you know" (SH 191). These not-very-common Latin words the young scholar may have found in a contemporary issue (1903) of the Trinity College publication Hermathena.

   In No. 29 of Volume 12 of Hermathena, we find a short and anonymous review of a Paris doctoral dissertation De Sermone Amatorio apud Latinos Elegiarum Scriptores, which deals with the language of love in the work of poets such as Catullus, Propertius and Ovid. Both of the words appear in this review in a description of the language of Catullus, which is described as much more explicit than that of most of his colleagues:

And so his vocabulary smacks more of the common talk: he uses savia, which occurs but once in Propertius, and never in Tibullus or Ovid; nor does he stop before prurire or scortum or moechus; while on the other side he loves diminutives, "quibus inest nescio quid delicate", such as femella, labella, languidulus, saviolum, zonula, etc.

Hermathena, vol. 12, p. 521

   It is probable that the young Joyce may then have looked up the words in one of the dictionaries available at the National Library, but not very thoroughly. Moechus is masculine and does not mean "harlot", but "fornicator" or "adulterer" in the sense of a married man who makes use of prostitutes. In a letter about venereal disease dated 10 March 1904, in which he asks Joyce how his novel is progressing, Oliver Gogarty also tells him: "Write 'de moechis'". In the context, it seems evident that Gogarty means prostitutes, not those (like Joyce and himself) who made use of their services. But that mistake does not make the word neuter.

Geert Lernout


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