Britney Spears' "If U Seek Amy" pun was cribbed from Joyce and Shakespeare.

Language and how we use it.
March 19 2009 6:51 AM

If You Seek Amy's Ancestors

Britney Spears didn't invent the dirty pun in her new song title. She stole it from Joyce and Shakespeare.

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Joyce isn't, however, the only great writer to encode dirty words in his work. Hundreds of years earlier, none other than English literary god William Shakespeare used a similar trick. In Twelfth Night, Olivia's butler Malvolio receives a letter written by Maria but in Olivia's handwriting; analyzing the script, Malvolio says, "By my life this is my lady's hand. These be her very C's, her U's and her T's and thus makes she her great P's." With the and sounding like N, Shakespeare not only spells out cunt, but gets pee in there as well.

And he didn't need a news anchor, or even a town crier, to explain it.

Jesse Sheidlower, formerly the editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary, is the president of the American Dialect Society. He is the author of The F-Word.