“Pneumatic Bliss” – Eliot’s Breasty OED Entry

More from the T. S. Eliot / Oxford English Dictionary files [for background, see “Did TSE use OED, SOED, or COD?” and “Eliotic OED“]. In the latter post, I noted that 0.0135% of OED definitions contain the phrase “[with/in] allusion to” and that two of these are to poems by Eliot.

Here are lines from Eliot’s “Whispers of Immortality” which do give rise to a new sense division in OED, although “allusion” isn’t mentioned in the definition:

Grishkin is nice: her Russian eye
Is underlined for emphasis;
Uncorseted, her friendly bust
Gives promise of pneumatic bliss.

Well that’s clear enough, I guess. There’s something euphemistic, maybe, about “pneumatic bliss“–in any case “uncorseted…bust” makes plain that pneumatic is related to the ample breasts of Grishkin. But how, exactly? For me pneumatic applies easily to jacks or drills, but to bliss, or to a woman’s physical attributes? This is poetic license, surely.

Well, OED2 lexicographers thought Eliot’s extension merited a new subsense. They analyzed his use not as an extension of definition 1.a, the one I know–“acting by means of, wind or air.  Chiefly applied to various mechanical contrivances which operate by … exhaustion of air”–but rather of 1.b: “Applied to things which are inflated, or filled with compressed air, for some purpose”. Hence, in this case, a denotation corresponding to “full-breasted”:

A.1.e humorous (transf. use of b). Of a woman: having a well-rounded figure, esp. a large bosom; of or pertaining to a woman having such attributes.

Eight supporting quotations are given, one for every decade but the 40s, and two for the 60s and 70s. These start, appropriately, with the original:

1919 T. S. Eliot Whispers of Immortality in Poems, Grishkin is nice.‥ Uncorseted, her friendly bust Gives promise of pneumatic bliss.
1926 F. M. Ford A Man could stand Up i. i. 17 She didn’t obviously offer—what was it the fellow called it?—promise of pneumatic bliss to the gentlemen.
1932 A. Huxley Brave New World vi. 108 ‘Every one says I’m awfully pneumatic,’ said Lenina reflectively, patting her own legs.‥ ‘You don’t think I’m too plump, do you?’
1951 J. C. Fennessy Sonnet in Bottle i. v. 25 A pneumatic pink and yellow bathing belle.
1961 A. Wilson Old Men at Zoo ii. 91 He looked at her‥as though searching beneath her pneumatic form for the disguised contours of some familiar, leaner enemy.
1961 P. Ustinov Loser ii. 46 He became aware of the pneumatic warmth of that thigh.
1974 Publishers Weekly 21 Jan. 88/3 Sexologist Dr. Rhona Mitchell, she of the spectacularly pneumatic proportions.
1976 Times Lit. Suppl. 31 Dec. 1643/2 The pneumatic barmaid at their favourite wine-bar.

Note that the first post-Eliot quotation, by Ford Madox Ford, is transparently an allusion–“what was it the fellow called it?–promise of pneumatic bliss to the gentlemen”–again used as a euphemistic reference to sexual favours, perhaps offered by prostitutes.

Subsequent uses are less obviously allusive, and readers might reasonably disagree about how much of Eliot and/or Grishkin is being invoked in each. It’s hard to believe, for instance, that anyone could have used that word in that way in 1932 without hoping for some Eliotic echo. Huxley’s character Lenina may be delivering an ironic line (“everyone says…”). But on the other hand, Huxley uses pneumatic a bunch of times in Brave New World, and it could just as well be that, having learned the word in Eliot, he liked it so much in this particular application that he adopted it into his lexis.

Later uses, we might go on to note, are also in a literary register, so even if not allusive, exactly, still pneumatic is marked out as being used in some extended, connotative, or metaphorical way. That is, you could say that either these uses are invoking Eliot directly [allusion], or they are invoking the same inflatable tire comparison that Eliot originally did [metaphor]. To support the latter conclusion, notice that several of the quotes describe general plumpness, rather than mammary copiousness specifically, as Eliot did. What then to do about the definition, which emphasises the “bosom.”

 The entry for pneumatic was revised for OED3 in September 2006. Very little, in fact, was done about the definition. More on that below. The real action happened in the quotation evidence. Although the lexicographers postdated “busty” pneumatic to 1994, they also removed several quotations from the OED2 trail of evidence. Here’s how the entry changed:

A.1.e humorous(transf. use of b). Of, relating to, or characteristic of a woman: havingwith a well-rounded figure, esp. a large bosom; (of or pertaining to a woman) having such attributes a well-rounded figure, esp. large-bosomed.

1919 T. S. Eliot Whispers of Immortality in Poems, Grishkin is nice.‥ Uncorseted, her friendly bust Gives promise of pneumatic bliss.
1926 F. M. Ford A Man could stand Up i. i. 17 She didn’t obviously offer—what was it the fellow called it?—promise of pneumatic bliss to the gentlemen.    
1932 A. Huxley Brave New World vi. 108 ‘Every one says I’m awfully pneumatic,’ said Lenina reflectively, patting her own legs.‥ ‘You don’t think I’m too plump, do you?’
1951 J. C. Fennessy Sonnet in Bottle i. v. 25 A pneumatic pink and yellow bathing belle.    
1961 A. Wilson Old Men at Zoo ii. 91 He looked at her‥as though searching beneath her pneumatic form for the disguised contours of some familiar, leaner enemy.    
1961 P. Ustinov Loser ii. 46 He became aware of the pneumatic warmth of that thigh.    
1974 Publishers Weekly 21 Jan. 88/3 Sexologist Dr. Rhona Mitchell, she of the spectacularly pneumatic proportions.    
1976 Times Lit. Suppl. 31 Dec. 1643/2 The pneumatic barmaid at their favourite wine-bar.
1994   Sunday Times 6 Mar. (Mag. section) x. 26/1   Making her film debut in 1981 as a pneumatic Texan temp in the office comedy Nine To Five, Dolly Parton was an instant success.

Well, say what you like about OED2’s somewhat obsessive documentation of pneumatic (overcompensation, perhaps, for what might be called a poetic extension rather than an enduring lexical innovation?), the revision loses a lot of information about the life story of this particular sense. The redaction of the Ford quotation, in particular, makes the allusive trace much less obvious.

Now, what about that new definition, which isn’t so new after all. I’m surprised that OED3 kept all that “bosom” terminology. Not that it’s a bad word, exactly, or inexact, but it does strike me as somewhat antiquated, or twee. The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (HTOED) gives plenty of historical synonyms for the female breast, including (in chronological order): mamma, mamelle, dug, ducky, bag, pommel, mam, Milky Way, bubby, udder, fore-buttock, titty, ditty, snow, sweet, bub, Charley, pair, tit, booby, knocker, mammary, boob, bazoom, jug, melon, Bristol, nork, and dingleberry (yes, seriously). [Bristol, by the way, is rhyming slang. It is shortened from Bristol Cities, which rhymes with titties]. The crude term fore-buttocks (which OED labels jocular)–again just by the way–is in the OED (s.v. fore) on the strength of but one citation, in Jonathan Swift’s Miscellanies, although it’s actually taken (by Swift) from Pope’s Sylvia: “Now with a modest Matron’s careful Air | Now her Fore Buttocks to the Navel bare”.

And HTOED also has a few specific synonyms for “having large breasts”, many of them fairly recent: milkful (1589), full-breasted (1612), liberal (1624), busty (1867), bosomful (1870), pneumatic (1919), bosomy (1928), breasty (1944), chesty (1955). A quick look at a few Google n-grams confirms the recent decline of “bosom,” and corresponding ascent of other words for the female breast, and for the attribute of having large breasts. Click on the thumbnails below to see these.

bosombigbosomed bosomy

From these charts it appears that bosom is in steady decline in the Google Books corpus, which the first graph shows fairly clearly.

The second graph shows a few interesting things: first is that full-, which used to be the preferred modifier for both -bosomed and -breasted, has given up a lot of ground to big-, especially with -breasted. Second, that although –bosomed has declined and –breasted has increased, and although all -breasted forms are now more common than all -bosomed forms, historically the biggest change is the ascent of big- and large- vis-a-vis full-. Both full-bosomed and full-breasted were by far the dominant forms, and roughly equal in representation, until about 1980. Apparently the hey-day for all these terms, at least as a proportion of the corpus, ranges from 1920 to 1950.

Perhaps it’s not coincidental that it’s around 1950 that busty takes off. The last chart shows that of a selection from HTOED’s list (you can’t measure chesty because it also means “congested”, a much more current usage), busty is far and away the preferred term nowadays. That word is also roughly 2.5x more frequent than big-breasted in the corpus.

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