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.

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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.

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.

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