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To be bonny and buxom in bed and at board

“Buxom” is one of those words I don’t expect to hear much in public discourse these days, unless someone has been putting a microphone in front of a UKIP spokesman again. It appears in the striking phrase above as part of the wedding ceremony according to the Sarum Rite, the liturgical system which generally fell out of use in the sixteenth century: in 1549 the woman’s promise to be “bonny and buxom in bed and at board” became a vow to “love, honour and obey”. It originally meant “pliant” or “obedient”, but the phrase often provokes a smirk these days, because of the meanings which have clustered around “buxom” in the years since. The OED is notably coy on the question, only going so far as to say that it has associations with plumpness and joviality, but Oxford Dictionaries online is more straightforward, defining the modern usage as “(of a woman) plump, with a full figure and large breasts”. These two meanings seem to have absolutely nothing to do with each other, but as so often with the gendered use of language, they reflect the patterns of thought which are most frequently expressed when our culture talks about women.

The shift between “buxom” as obedient and cheerful to plump and sexual seems to have happened by the mid-nineteenth century, with the OED’s charts suggesting a sudden cluster of usage in that period after a lull for a couple of hundred years. I’d speculate that the medieval revival of the nineteenth century provoked a reappearance of archaic terms in novels like Ivanhoe, alongside the political ideas it aroused on both left and right (from William Morris’ Arts and Crafts movement to the neo-feudalism of the Young England Tories) and indeed the renewal of interest in medieval Christian practices such as the Sarum Rite itself. Filtered through the historical novels of the Victorian period, and the fantasy literature and gaming which followed them in the twentieth century, “buxom” has become particularly associated with the noun “wench”, conjuring up images of frothing beer mugs and overflowing corsets (as well the potential proximity of pirates or other professionally adventuring persons.) Perhaps helped by its phonetic similarity to “busty”, we might decide that “buxom” is just an archaic word for a particular physical shape.

Except it hasn’t entirely come apart from its original meanings. We might suggest that nineteenth-century readers (and twentieth-century gamers) misunderstood what attributes “buxom” referred to in the medieval texts and the fictions which drew on them, and simply replaced one meaning with another. But that isn’t quite what happened: as we’ve noted, “buxom” is still associated with the activity of serving via its frequent proximity to “wench”[1]. It’s not so much that common usage has produced a clear slippage of meaning, more that it has combined the two. Pliability has not been replaced by the possession of secondary sexual characteristics, instead obedience has been sexualised. I don’t think modern usage misunderstands the original meaning of “buxom”, I think a lot of modern usage doesn’t see the difference between the two ideas.

Indeed, this elision of the gap between service and sexuality isn’t confined to the etymological quirk of “buxom wenches”. A number of the fantasy figures which our culture considers safely transgressive (as evidenced by Halloween costumes, themed club nights and predictable jokes about women in uniform) involve sexualizing obedience or power differences. Maid outfits, “sexy secretary” costumes and fake nurses uniforms all associate service and obedience with sexuality, to the extent that it has become invisible. Party shops and lads mags won’t ever stop to explain why a schoolgirl costume equates with sexual fantasy, or why a “medieval bar wench” is a “saucy” costume option, because these very particular roles are accepted as self-evidently sexual, in ways which “hot baker”, “saucy engineer” or “slutty flower-arranger” are not.

The symbolic system which includes jokes, club nights and costume shops has encoded gendered obedience and economic dependence as “sexual” so securely that these roles are understood as inherently erotic[2]. As demonstrated by the barrage of jokes and suggestions which I understand nursing students put up with on a regular basis, having to deal with people who regard their occupation less as an academic field or a professional vocation, and more as a subgenre of pornography. Given the labour situation in these sectors, we should surely be aware of the way in which these power differences are racialized as well as gendered. We might also consider the ways the sexualisation of nurses and secretaries (alongside “sexy teacher” outfits) repackages the affective labour which many women who do these jobs perform beyond the demands of their contract, and presents women’s emotional exploitation as another element in the queasy commercialised result. This is not a particularly radical analysis, but it is worth pointing out what exactly is regularly being presented as synonymous with “sexy” via these images: economic insecurity, gendered lack of power and the cheerful performance of obedience.

All of which is not to demand that people’s sexual lives should be submitted to some sort of ideological purity test, or that women who choose to inhabit these fantasy roles are morally culpable or “letting the side down”. People interact with their culture on many levels. That might involve inhabiting a particular role in tension with the rest of one’s life and attitudes, exploring the transgressive potential of a fantasy, or indeed enjoying something in the knowledge that one’s own pleasure has been shaped and guided by the surrounding culture. I am not calling for a boycott, or criticising people’s sexual desires, but simply discussing what our culture assumes everyone finds sexy. And how a lot of it has nothing to do with having sex.


[1] I mean “proximity” here as my perception of the general way these words are used in fiction, advertising, etc, rather than in a corpus linguistic sense. I don’t have the skills to approach this via corpus linguistics, though I’d love to hear about people who’ve done so.

[2] The fact that they can be used as the basis for a joke or a sexual fantasy rather underlines this point, since both are sets of signs which result in immediate and physical responses. If you proverbially can’t make a joke by funny by explaining to someone why they should have laughed, a similar principle holds for arousal.