Funny lines to modern readers in old books

We’ve done threads like this before, but I don’t remember one recently. What old books have you read that use language that doesn’t… well, that just doesn’t quite suggest what they probably meant it to anymore?

There’s a flea market this weekend, with a table of some ratty old books. I like old books, but at 25 cents each, these were expensive for the condition they were in. I picked one up, called Bob’s Father, printed in 1882. The opening lines are:

That’s so worth a quarter.

If school kids still read Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow, you can count on some snickering when it says that Ichabod “spent a long time at his toilet.”

I adore Jane Austen and I love to pretend to be a grownup, but I still can’t help snickering over the fact that Fanny, in Mansfield Park, tends to be easily knocked up.

It’s stretching the notion of a book a bit, but this sequence from an old Batman comic is one of the funniest things ever published.

I love that Dickens’s characters frequently ejaculate at each other.

I am certain I recall a line from Thomas Hardy’s “Two on a Tower” that said

" … The heavens are well- hung tonight.

Better than that- this exchange is from Sherlock Holmes (don’t have my copy with me, so this may not be exact, but this was the jist of it):

You could devote a chapter just to “Gay”.
Or any of numerous references to “burning faggots”.

My favorite was the line from Gone with the Wind about newspaper advertisements, one of which was for a cure for lost manhood. I don’t know how men can lose their manhood, but I guess it was a problem during the Civil War…


I’m guessing it was an ad for the 19th century version of Enzyte…

Of course, nobody seems to know the true definition of “intercourse” any more and just assumes the meaning is “sexual intercourse.”

Books up until the early part of the 20th century frequently use "intercourse’ in the proper meaning, probably shocking a lot of young librarians, parents and lets the kids snicker.

Speaking of Gone With the Wind, which Mitchell wrote in the 30s, there’s a line where Scarlett, after seeing Ashley again, wonders how she could have ever stood having “other men make love to her.”

Gave me quite a turn, and I think it meant back then that other men were speaking romantically to her. Otherwise, Scarlett was quite the tart!

Long ago, I had a good chuckle when I encountered a line in a P.G. Wodehouse novel (I think it was one of the Psmith tales) which said something like “He wiped his pecker and began to speak.” I presume that a facial feature was being wiped here, but I’m not sure whether it’s a nose or a mouth. Wodehouse also used the phrase “to keep [one’s] pecker up,” apparently with the meaning “to maintain high spirits.” I first read Wodehouse when I was twelve, and I found references to peckers immensely amusing at that age.

When studying literature in college I found the same reaction to the word “impotent”. This is actually a word I insist on using myself because a lot of the time its first meaning is exactly the word i’m looking for. Usually I get a lot of those “youre a girl why are you saying that about yourself” looks. I’m sticking to my guns though. Maybe I can single handedly bring that word back for uses that dont involve enzyte.

I also remember a mention of an Indian in Tender is the Night named George T Horseprotection. I still think thats funny. I love it.

“Make love” as a synonym for sexual intercourse wasn’t established until the 1960s. Before then, it just meant “make romance.”

I’d say it made the transition a little earlier; I seem to recall that Raymond Chandler uses it in both senses over his 20-yr career from the 30’s to the 50’s. But yes, it’s always fun reading novels of the 18th and 19th century where you’ll find a young woman discussing the merits of various lovers with her mom.


Heck, that’s nothing. From The Silver Chair:

Now, where’s AG Gonzales?

In The Silver Chair (the Narnia book with Jill and Eustace), there’s a passage while they’re in a Gaints’ castle, and it makes a reference to Jill ‘making love’ to the Giants.

… Heh. Simulpost. Darn you!

Wow. Flexible.