Thomas Smith, "Change Islands Tickle," 1828. Image courtesy of Memorial University of Newfoundland, Centre for Newfoundland Studies

Thomas Smith, “Change Islands Tickle,” 1828. Image courtesy of Memorial University of Newfoundland, Centre for Newfoundland Studies

Thinking hard about sexual initiation today, and in particular, thinking through the idea of tickling. I know,  on the surface, it doesn’t sound like it links up, but those of you who have followed my random musings for a while might recall this post about a young man who experienced a “chatouillement voluptueux” after practicing onanism for a while.

The English word tickle, as it’s used in conversations among children – that is, as something you do to terrorize a friend or younger sibling (in the sense of “Watch out, here comes the tickle monster!” or “if you don’t stop, I’ll tickle you”) –  doesn’t do much justice to the experience described in the letter, so I went off to the Oxford English Dictionary Online to look for more historical understandings.

The first definition (caution: link will only work if you have a subscription to OED Online) took me by complete surprise. It shouldn’t have, but it did:

“A name given on the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador to a narrow difficult strait or passage.”

Given my current home, this should not at all have surprised me. After all, I’ve seen it often and looked it up before. But buried as I am in eighteenth-century letters, I wasn’t really thinking of geography. I’ll amend that. I wasn’t thinking of geography in the sense of bodies of land. But I suppose I was thinking of bodily geographies of a very different sort….

To be affected or excited by a pleasantly tingling or thrilling sensation; to be stirred or moved with a thrill of pleasure: said of the heart, lungs, blood, ‘spirits’, etc., also of the person.

and in earlier usage:

To tingle; to itch; also fig. to have an uneasy or impatient desire (usually to do something); to be eager.

And there it is. Pleasure. Sensuality. Body. Desire. Eagerness. Tingling.

It’s all there.

And in the examples provided, clear reference to tickling as an intimate experience and as something reflexive; that is, a body that tickles itself, a body that can pleasure itself.

Off to see what the French understood…

Eighteenth-century French definitions associate the idea of tickling with flattery. Tickling can be the bodily sensation that one experiences upon being flattered; it can also be the flattery itself. Thus, one can be tickled when one hears positive comments about one’s children. But, significantly, one’s body is also tickled when it is flattered. Consider the examples offered in both the 1762 and 1798 dictionaries produced by the Académie française (again, I suspect the link will only work if you have a subscription to the Dictionnaires d’autrefois project):

On dit, que Le vin chatouille le palais, le gosier; que La musique, l’harmonie chatouille l’oreille, les oreilles, pour dire, que Le vin, que La musique flattent agréablement les sens.

Tickling as pleasure emanates not only from physical touch, but also from what might be understood as “tickled senses.” Touch, taste, hearing – all of these can provoke pleasure.

Back to the Oxford English Dictionary:

1589   ‘Pasquill of England’ Returne Pasquill 16,   I needed no Minstrill to make me merrie, my hart tickled of it selfe.

Like the English dictionary entries, the French focus on tickling as an experience of bodily pleasure.

Considerably different, however, is the French focus on tickling as an act of flattery; in this evocation, tickling emerges out of a social encounter (and it hearkens back, interestingly, to histories of comportment in the form of honnêteté and bienséance….), even as it is experienced within the body.

I’ll have to play – tickle myself? – with this element a bit more…


“tickle, n.1”. OED Online. March 2013. Oxford University Press. 2 May 2013 <http://www.oed.com.qe2a-proxy.mun.ca/view/Entry/201758?rskey=kZOCNR&result=1&isAdvanced=false&gt;.

“tickle, v.1”. OED Online. March 2013. Oxford University Press. 2 May 2013 <http://www.oed.com.qe2a-proxy.mun.ca/view/Entry/201761?rskey=kZOCNR&result=4&gt;.

“chatouiller”. Dictionnaire de l’Académie française. 1762; 1798. Dictionnaires d’autrefois. 2 May 2013. <http://artflx.uchicago.edu.qe2a-proxy.mun.ca/cgi-bin/dicos/pubdico1look.pl?strippedhw=chatouiller&gt;.

“Change Islands Tickle.” Digital Archives Initiative. Centre for Newfoundland Studies. Memorial University of Newfoundland. 2 May 2013. ,http://collections.mun.ca/cdm4/item_viewer.php?CISOROOT=/maps&CISOPTR=348&CISOBOX=1&REC=3&gt;.


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