Sunday, 7 August 2011

Dibbles, Strunts and Dick Emery

I recently chanced across this rather peculiar sketch (I believe from the 1970s), which formed part of the Dick Emery Show. The joke here is that a prudish vicar tries to avoid using words that might have double meanings by inventing meaningless words. His daughter’s boyfriend, however, happens to be an expert on 17th and 18th century slang and he realises that the vicar’s ‘meaningless’ words are, in fact, much ruder than the words they replace.

For experts in historical slang, this sketch must have seemed peculiarly subversive since it gave Emery the opportunity of using a string of obscene words on a mainstream television show aimed at a family audience.

The four crucial words used are: dibble, placket, pizzle and strunt. Of these I immediately recognised two. Pizzle is a word meaning penis, usually an animal’s penis. Since a pig’s pizzle features prominently in Thomas Hardy’s Jude The Obscure, I think it’s reasonable to assume that quite a few viewers of The Dick Emery Show would have recognised the word.

Placket is slightly more obscure, I suppose. However, anyone who’s seen or read many Elizabethan and Jacobean plays will probably have a fair idea of its meaning. It was, at the time, a fairly common slang word for ‘vagina’ (apparently it originally referred to a slit in a petticoat). A typical example comes from Webster’s ‘Duchess of Malfi’:
MAD ASTROLOGER: What's he, a rope-maker?
MAD LAWYER: No, no, no, a snuffling knave, that while he shows the tombs, will have his hand in a wench's placket.

Which just leaves ‘dibble’ and ‘strunt’. In my innocence, the only Dibble I’d ever come upon previously was Officer Dibble in the cartoon, Top Cat. I had to refer to Green’s Dictionary Of Slang for more help. This says that dibble can mean ‘moustache’ (which isn’t rude enough for the Dick Emery sketch) or ‘penis’ (aha! that’s it!). The Dictionary entry is not over-burdened with examples though. The primary one being from 1796 when Robert Burns wrote: “Hey for the gardener lad, To gully away wi his dibble”. Since gardeners still use implements called ‘dibbers’ to make holes in the soil when planting, this example doesn’t strike me as conclusive. It could be a bawdy double entendre. Then again, it might be entirely innocent. I’ve read the original poem (‘Brose and Butter’) and I conceded that the vulgar meaning is quite probably (but not certainly) unintended:
And hey for the gardener's lad,
To gully away wi' his dibble.
My dad sent me to the hill,
To pull my lassie some heather;
And drive it in your fill,
Ye're welcome to the leather.

Even so, I find it odd that there is not a greater range of examples. Was ‘dibble’ really a slang word for penis or did Burns ‘invent’ a double entendre (if such it be) solely for this poem?

Strunt is similarly obscure. Green says it means the “the flashy part of an animal’s tail” and by association, the penis. He quotes Middleton (1608): “consenting she, his art’rizde strunt he drew...” (Incidentally, I had to look up art’rizde too. Apparently, it means “equipped to convey vital spirits”). But the use of ‘strunt’ in this sense seems to be unusual and I haven’t been able to find other examples.

I’d be interested to know who wrote this Dick Emery sketch. Whoever it was certainly knew their way around the highways of byways of historical slang!


  1. I dropped by from Language Hat.

    As far as I know, placket has always and only meant a slit in clothing. See the Wikipedia article. I think the "snuffling rogue" simply had his hand through a slit in the woman's skirt or dress (probably put there to provide easy access to an unattached pocket); of course, once through the outer fabric, anything could happen!

  2. Another language hatter.

    I ran across that video long ago. Pizzle I knew; I guessed at "dibble" and "strunt", evidently using the same reference as Our Author, and came to more or less the same conclusions.

    The one that always bewildered me was "placket," as I had no idea of the spelling from the British pronumciation (I tried plettit, platit, and various others, and came up empty.) Thank you Good Sir, for solving this womanly secret for me!

  3. "Placket" also refers to the folded strip of material that runs down the front of a buttoned shirt.

  4. Good grief! According to this definition, I may have had my hand in my own placket from time to time. If I'd know, I might have enjoyed the experience more.

  5. I have just been watching this sketch, and it simply reconfirms to me how very, very funny and inventive he and his scriptwriters were.
    Yes, yes, I know, this comedy may well appear rather dated to today's sharper, more cynical audiences, but the hour+ long "Comedy Greats - Dick Emery" on You-Tube is well worth the viewing; with some really hysterical sketches, rich in humour, often unexpected denouments, and, well.........just funny!
    Richard Joslin.