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.

Britney Spears. Click image to expand.
Britney Spears

Last week, Britney Spears released the video for her recent single "If U Seek Amy." As many have pointed out, the song's title, when spoken aloud, sounds a lot like "F-U-C-K me." Indeed, that's the only way to interpret it, since the lyric itself makes no sense in context: "All of the boys and all of the girls are begging to if you seek Amy." The suggestive video even begins with a TV news anchor speaking the title over a chyron that reads, "Britney Spears Song Lyrics Spell Out Obscenity in Disguise," so there's no possibility that the pop star is trying to sneak something through. Has Britney pioneered a new kind of dirty pun?

Not really, although she does offer a new twist. The trope of spelling out fuck with the words if you see Kay has been frequently explored by musicians. The earliest instance appears to be by blues pianist Memphis Slim, who recorded a wistful "If You See Kay," about his lost girlfriend, in 1963:

If you see Kay
Please tell her I say, "Hurry home."
Lord I ain't had no lovin'
Since my little Kay been gone.
If you see Kay,
Please bring her home to me.

Advertisement

Quite a number of rock songs feature this title as well, and in most cases, the artists appear to have come up with the concept independently. In 1977, lo-fi pioneer R. Stevie Moore released his "If You See Kay," a lopingly heartbroken revenge song that concludes: "If you see Kay you."

In 1982, the Canadian band April Wine released a lousy song called "If You See Kay"; the period details in the video that accompanied it compensate somewhat for lines such as "She had the look of need/ Like 'Give it to me'/ I decided I should take a chance."

In 1990, the pop-punk band Poster Children released a ragged, raucous "If You See Kay," and in 2005 the Norwegian punk band Turbonegro released the slick and poppy "If You See Kaye," performed in English. Britney's songwriters do, however, seem to have found new territory in her substitution of "seek Amy" for "see Kay"; I could find no earlier examples of that locution.

One of the catchiest recent iterations of this trope comes from the Irish band the Script, which released its "If You See Kay" on MySpace several years ago. In a recent interview, the band acknowledged its debt to James Joyce—whom they helpfully identify as "a literary god in Ireland"—noting that he used the "If you see kay" gag in Ulysses. The Irish literary god does in fact appear to be the first person to have used this phrase; in Ulysses, Joyce included a bit of doggerel sung by the Prison Gate Girls:

If you see kay
Tell him he may
See you in tea
Tell him from me.

In the third line, Joyce manages to encode cunt as well. Take that, Britney!

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS

But the next president might. 

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Altered State

The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender

What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?

Surprise! The Women Hired to Fix the NFL Think the NFL Is Just Great.

You Shouldn’t Spank Anyone but Your Consensual Sex Partner

Moneybox
Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Altered State
Sept. 17 2014 11:51 PM The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
  Life
Outward
Sept. 17 2014 6:53 PM LGBTQ Luminaries Honored With MacArthur “Genius” Fellowships
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 6:14 PM Today in Gender Gaps: Biking
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 8:25 PM A New Song and Music Video From Angel Olsen, Indie’s Next Big Thing
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 9:00 PM Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 17 2014 11:48 PM Spanking Is Great for Sex Which is why it’s grotesque for parenting.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 17 2014 3:51 PM NFL Jerk Watch: Roger Goodell How much should you loathe the pro football commissioner?