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      So what is there in noses and crevices; in button holes, placket-holes, pockets, bridges and Bridgets; in cabbages, whim-whams, hobby-horses, and right and wrong ends of women; in instruments, organs, &c.s, and ****s; in curtins, covered ways, ditches, flanks, battering rams, half-moons, horn-works, petards, and portcullises—what makes these common items such uncommonly fertile ground for the imagination?  In making sense of perception, the mind sorts and organizes the world, tucking any given thing into several diverse categories; thus it manages to lump together battering-rams with penises, crevices with vaginas, and cabbage leaves with labia, as John Locke intimated in his Essay on Human Understanding.
     Locke explained that it would be an insurmountable task to distinguish and label every specific thing in the world, each with its own name; so human communication depends on the mind’s ability to discriminate, compare, and classify objects and ideas (Jenkins 167).  For instance, this particular piece of paper with words on it would need its own name (griffilob), as would the following page (anglotorb) and every other page ever written (etc., etc.), as would the top corner of the page and the bottom half of the page, and so on.  Instead, the human mind classifies things according to their “universal” or “general” qualities (166).  So, using general terms that can apply equally—and economically—to myriad other objects, we can refer to this particular piece of paper as: “this,” “white,” “8 1/2 by 11,” “printed,” “page number four”; and we can refer to its parts in terms of: “top,” “middle,” “bottom,” “left,” “right,” “corner,” and so on.8  Locke further realized that how we identify objects and ideas and people, by what criteria we group things, makes all the difference; it is hardly a simple matter (Jenkins 168-72).  Even the simplest things can be classified according to numerous traits (especially if one denies essential qualities to things, as Locke’s empiricism does).  Again, this page, for instance, can be considered by its weight, its color or shade of color, or its size in each of three dimensions; it can be considered clean or dirty, dry, wet, smooth, crumpled, new, old, or infinite other traits.  We can also consider this page as a representation of the information written on it, or, inevitably, as a representation of its author’s understanding and application of what he learned in a certain university course.  Each context entails different criteria.
     And within this flexible system of classification, a penis and a battering ram can be found to share general features of: hard, long, round, insistent on breaching an entrance through repeated thrusting, and so on.  Once the mind connects the two, it would be difficult to imagine dissolving the link.  Although, considering that polite society tends to disapprove of such double entendre, its source is curious.  To whatever extent society replaces candid talk about sexuality with euphemism, as apparently it did in Sterne’s time, it invites double entendre.  Two sides of the same coin, each is a metaphor that pretends to effect ambiguity.  The two work for dichotomous ends: one, to suppress and disempower sensuality; the other to re-appropriate it.
     When it comes to the “whiskers chapter,” however, neither euphemism or double entendre applies.  In the whiskers chapter, Sterne sets up the appearance of sexual innuendo where there is none and creates a context in which “the word was ruined . . . [it] became indecent, and . . . absolutely unfit for use” (V.i/287).  Borrowing from Locke’s “train of ideas,” Shandy says:
      There are some trains of ideas which leave prints of themselves about our eyes and eyebrows; and there is a consciousness of it, somewhere about the heart, which serves but to make these etchings the stronger——we see, spell, and put them together without a dictionary. (V.i/286-87)
In the context of Tristram Shandy, precede a word—whiskers—with asterisks, and accompany it with “thin gauze . . . desire . . . [a] voice . . . naturally soft and low . . . [and] whiskers, said La Fosseuse, with infinite modesty,” and the world will have “given it a wound” (V.i/285, 287).  Readers and characters alike can make no meaning of the word in this context: “There is not a cavalier . . . that has so gallant a pair—Of what? cried Margaret, smiling——Of whiskers, said La Fosseuse, with infinite modesty” (V.1./285).  Here is true ambiguity; whiskers—especially “a pair” of them—corresponds to nothing.  Yet the word is ruined for its associations.
     In a concept that Locke labeled the “association of ideas,” he discerned that the arrangement of ideas in the mind can take natural and unnatural forms.  Water and wetness, pain and injury, and cotton and cloth, are natural associations, for they conform to universal experience (Jenkins 39).  Unnatural associations, however, can happen by “chance” or by “custom”: a person’s fear of blue clothing resulting from painful experience with police, or linking Armani suits to prestige or intelligence.  Locke realized that faulty connections can substitute for impartial reasoning and lead to ideological error.  Such irrational association of ideas, he said, ‘gives sense to jargon, demonstration to absurdities, and consistency to nonsense’ (qtd. in Jenkins 40-41).  This potential for misinterpretation is Tristram Shandy’s playground.

      8  Despite talk of the English language’s huge and specific vocabulary, it actually operates with remarkable economy, considering what truly specific terminology could demand of it.

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