The Grammarphobia Blog

Jane Austen’s “Fanny”

Q: Where do you stand on the debate in academia over whether Jane Austen winkingly used the name “Fanny Price” for her Mansfield Park heroine?

A: There’s no chance that Jane Austen was slyly winking at her readers when she used that name in Mansfield Park (1814).

The British use of “fanny” to mean the female genitalia (here in the US it means the buttocks) didn’t appear until Austen had been dead for 20 years.

And if she had been familiar with this use of “fanny,” she wouldn’t have used it for such a shy, upright, and conscientious character as Fanny Price.

The feminine name “Fanny,” a diminutive of “Frances,” was very common in England at the time Austen was writing. Before the slang usages came along, “Fanny” was no more suggestive than “Annie.”

“Frances” was the feminine version of the men’s name “Francis,” and it used to be very popular in both Britain and the United States.

Many famous and admired women were officially named “Frances” and known by the pet name “Fanny” from the 16th through the early 20th centuries.

Popular authors included Fanny Burney (1752-1840), and Fanny Trollope (1779-1863), Anthony’s mother. Well-known actresses included Fanny Kemble (1809-93) and Fanny Brice (1891-1951).

All of them had been given the formal name “Frances” except for Brice, who was originally named Fania Borach.

However, “Fannie” was the original name of the American cooking expert and food writer Fannie Farmer (1857-1915). Her name was borrowed with a different spelling in 1919 by the candy company Fanny Farmer.

In his book Names and Naming Patterns in England, 1538-1700, Scott Smith-Bannister writes that “Frances” held a mean ranking of 17.8 in a selected list of women’s names that were popular during that 162-year period.

At its peak during that period, “Frances” was ranked 13, Smith-Bannister says. (In case you’re interested, the names generally ranked ahead of Frances in Smith-Banister’s statistics were Elizabeth, Mary, Anne, Margaret, Jane, Alice, Joan, Agnes, Catherine, Dorothy, Isabel, Elinor, and Ellen.)

In “New Influences on Naming Patterns in Victorian Britain,” a 2016 paper, Amy M. Hasfjord classifies “Frances” and “Fanny” among England’s “classic” names.

Her statistical ranking places “Frances” 13th among names given to girl babies born between 1825 and 1840.

However, Hasfjord says both “Frances” and “Fanny” dropped in popularity during the period from 1885 to 1900.

In the United States, meanwhile, surveys of the popularity of “Fanny” show that the use of the name dwindled from a peak in 1880 to relatively uncommon in 1940.

In both cases—British and American usage—it seems that the name “Fanny” dropped in popularity just as the slang word “fanny” increased in common usage.

In British English, “fanny” was first used in writing to mean “the vulva or vagina” in the late 1830s, according to The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

Jonathan Lighter, author of the slang dictionary, cites a collection entitled Bawdy Songs of the Music Hall (1835-40): “I’ve got a little fanny / That with hairs is overspread.”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example is from an 1879 issue of a pornographic magazine published in London, The Pearl: “You shan’t look at my fanny for nothing.”

And a British slang dictionary published in 1889 defined “fanny” as “the fem. pud.” (the female pudenda).

This genital usage is “always rare” in the US, Random House says. As an exception, both the OED and Random House cite the American writer Erica Jong, who used it in her novel Fanny (1980):

“ ‘Madam Fanny,’ says he, obliging me, but with the same ironick Tone. ‘D’ye know what that means in the Vulgar Tongue? … It means the Fanny-Fair … the Divine Monosyllable, the Precious Pudendum.”

However, Jong’s novel is an inventive retelling of John Cleland’s bawdy English classic Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1748-49), popularly known as Fanny Hill after its main character.

We suspect that Jong’s imaginative take on Fanny Hill as well as speculation, since debunked, by the slang etymologist Eric Partridge may be responsible for the myth in academia that “fanny” meant the vagina in Cleland’s time.

In the original, 1937 edition of his slang dictionary, Partridge wrote that the use of “fanny” for the “female pudenda” was from “ca. 1860,” but was “perhaps ex Fanny, the ‘heroine’ of John Cleland’s Memoirs of Fanny Hill [sic], 1749.”

However, the 2015 edition of Partridge’s dictionary notes that Fanny Hill’s “publication in 1749 is about a hundred years before ‘fanny’ came to be used in this sense.” (From The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, edited by Tom Dalzell and Terry Victor.)

Two other slang dictionaries—those by Lighter and Jonathon Green—call the reader’s attention to Fanny Hill but date the slang usage from the mid-1830s or later.

So why mention Fanny Hill in connection with the usage? The only apparent reason is that the novel’s leading character is promiscuous and is named “Fanny.” Cleland might just as well have called his protagonist “Eliza Hill.”

Nevertheless a handful of academic writers have strained to establish an 18th-century history for the usage, based on guesswork or intuition from hindsight. Their claims have been often repeated, despite the lack of any direct evidence.

A pair of literary scholars demolished their case piece by piece in 2011.

“In fact the evidence is to the contrary,” Patrick Spedding and James Lambert write in their paper “Fanny Hill, Lord Fanny, and the Myth of Metonymy,” published in the journal Studies in Philology.

They write, for example, that the terms “Fanny Fair” and “Fanny the fair” were used in 18th-century songs, “but never in an obscene context or as a synonym for vagina.”

We won’t detail their arguments, but they painstakingly document actual historical uses of the term and conclude that “fanny” was not used as a sexual term until 1837, citing the same book of music-hall songs mentioned above.

“Consequently,” they write, “it is highly unlikely that any of the fictional Fannys were named with the intention of suggesting the female sexual organs, however specified or identified (vagina, genitalia, pudenda, vulva, mons veneris, or mons pubis), or the male or female buttocks.”

“Current usage rather than eighteenth-century usage is the basis of the interpretation of fanny as a sexual term,” they write.

The milder, American sense of “fanny,” meaning the derrière, apparently dates from World War I, according to Random House. Here is the slang dictionary’s earliest example:

“They made us all get in a circle and stoop over while a guy ran around and hit us on the—never mind where—with a strap—I believe they call the game ‘Bat the Fanny’ and they sure did bat me.” (From a diary entry in a regimental history, 12th U.S. Infantry, 1798-1918, published in 1919.)

The OED’s earliest example is from the hit Broadway play The Front Page (1928), by Ben Hecht and Charles Macarthur. Here’s the OED citation, which we’ve expanded for context:

“KRUGER. (To MOLLIE, who is in the swivel chair in front of the desk) What’s the idea, Mollie? Can’t you flop somewhere else?

“MURPHY. Yah, parking her fanny in here like it was her house.”

This milder usage soon caught on in Britain. The term was used in the same way by the British playwright Noël Coward in Private Lives (1930): “You’d fallen on your fanny a few moments before.”

Subsequently, the OED has examples of the “buttocks” sense of the word by both British and American writers.

Here’s the American poet Ezra Pound in The Pisan Cantos (1948): “And three small boys on three bicycles / smacked her young fanny in passing.”

And here’s the British novelist Nevil Shute in Trustee From the Toolroom (1960): “I’d never be able to think of John and Jo again if we just sat tight on our fannies and did nothing.”

In short, although there are exceptions, the OED still characterizes the “fanny” that means genitals as “chiefly British English” and the one that means the butt as “chiefly US.”

In case you’re wondering, the OED also labels the noun “fanny pack” (first recorded in 1971) as a North American usage, the equivalent of the British “bumbag” (1951).

Oxford’s definition, found under “bumbag,” is “a small bag or pouch incorporated in a belt worn round the waist or across the shoulder (orig. designed for skiers and worn at the back).”

A similar term, “fanny belt” was in American use almost a decade before “fanny pack” and today means the same.

Oxford’s earliest citation is from the journal American Speech in 1963, when the term had a more limited definition: “Fanny belt … slang for the belt on which ski patrol men carry their first aid kit. A term used by ski patrols.”

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