Saturday, April 22, 2006

Appropriate use of language in 1940s?

Oh, Academic Bloggysphere, I call upon you in my hour of need.

Background: In my current dissertation chapter, I'm writing about Belle Benchley, who for many years served as director of the San Diego Zoo.* I'm looking pretty closely at differences in the rhetoric she used in her autobiography and in letters to another (male) zoo director.

My question: How appropriate would it have been for a woman born in 1882 to use the phrase "buying orgy" in professional (but likely confidential) correspondence? Was "orgy" a term commonly used by American women circa WWII?

I'm not a linguist, so with the exception of the OED, I have no idea where to find such information. Any ideas? I'm happy to follow up on any leads, no matter how far-fetched they may seem to you. :)

Thanks so much!

*Funny (and sad) story: I contacted the zoo to ask about seeing Benchley's papers. Apparently sometime after her death they gave her papers to a bus driver who was a friend of hers. *poof!* So much for quality research. . . Thank goodness the Smithsonian does have quite a few of her letters to the National Zoo director.


susan said...

If I had a little more time, I'd follow up this notion a little more to see if it's practicable or not, but since it's almost swimming lesson time, I'll just toss it out perhaps too quickly: are there any full-text databases encompassing that period that you could search to look at distribution of the term? And there are also some historical slang dictionaries (Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, e.g.) that might offer some insight. Plus some fiction from the period--while not conclusive--might offer some suggestions.

And on another note, hurrah for winning B4B!

Debra said...

Just a guess, but I cannot any woman (except perhaps Dorothy Parker) in the 1940s using the term "buying orgy".

Kaijsa said...

I checked the OED for usage notes on orgy.

I think the phrase you're using is most like definition 3b:
In extended use: an occasion of excessive indulgence in any activity, attitude, condition, etc.; an excessive or extravagant display of something. Freq. with of.

Notes: 1883 F. HARRISON Choice Bks. (1886) 400 That orgy of blood and arrogance{em}the European tyranny of Bonaparte. 1918 B. TARKINGTON Magnificent Ambersons x. 143 In all the wild orgy of wastefulness and luxury with which the nineteenth century reaches its close, the gilded youth has been surley the worst symptom. 1978 Washington Post (Nexis) 26 July (Maryland Weekly section) 9 Our eldest, who had not yet dropped out of this culinary orgy, had fettucine with meat sauce (Bolognese). 1989 N. SHERRY Life Graham Greene I. xl. 662 They liked New York. The weather was lovely and Vivien was having an orgy of shopping.

I don't know if that helps. It seems possible but unlikely to me that a 1940s woman would use the term.