This word seems to communicate a blush-cheeked bareness, a rubbing of the ribs and a bald exposition. It has several ways it can be said: “ribbled,” “rib-bold,” “rib-alled,” “wry-balled.” They all boost its burlesque sense. It is the opposite of genteel, the opposite of lofty; it is a laugh from the gut that lands in the gutter.
Social class is essential to this word. Although people of great learning and high social stature may enjoy off-colour humour, they do so with a sense of a deliberate breach of the rules of their status, or with the understanding that their stature is such that they can enjoy such things without being counted among the…
…well, among the ribalds. This is what ribald first meant in English: a lowlife, a rascal, a vagabond, a guttersnipe. This can include a pillaging camp-follower in the retinue of an army, a person of loose morals, a louche jester, or just someone who absolutely will not stop telling dirty jokes and making lewd and irreverent remarks. It traces via Old French back to the Proto-Indo-European root *werp-, *werb-, making it a cousin of warped, rub, and wrap. Just gonna leave that there.
Anyway, the adjective followed on the noun and is now pretty much the only way it’s used. It usually modifies joke(s), humour, tales, laughter, remarks… you get the idea. It’s, what do we say, earthy. Like the people who work the earth or are covered with it, is the idea, I guess. Who are nothing like those with their eyes to the heavens, their thoughts in the empyrean.
Thing is, though, I’ve known lots of farmers and ranchers, and honestly, they’re not the people I would turn to first if I wanted to hear ribald humour. Actually they’re more often the people I would turn to if I wanted to avoid ribald humour or see repercussions meted out for it. I would go to them if I wanted to turn my eyes to the sky in reverent prayer. I mean, I’m sure that’s just an effect of the set of farmers and ranchers I know, but I grew up in rural Alberta, and I think they’re pretty representative. No, if I want rude jokes, I’ll do better to head to a university. Linguists aren’t bad for them. Theatre people are pretty good. But I think poets can really push the boundaries.
Poets? Sure. Poetry at its best exposes the raw nerves of life. A poet lives in the dirt and in the stars and finds they are made of the same thing. Ribald – and its French source ribaud, ribauld ‘scoundrel’ – makes me think of Arthur Rimbaud, a French poet who embodied much of the spirit of which I speak. Here is a thing he wrote to his friend Paul Demeny:
Le Poète se fait voyant par un long, immense et raisonné dérèglement de tous les sens. Toutes les formes d’amour, de souffrance, de folie ; il cherche lui-même, il épuise en lui tous les poisons, pour n’en garder que les quintessences.
The poet makes himself a seer through a prolonged, massive, and systematic disorder of all the senses. All the forms of love, of suffering, of madness: he seeks himself, he wrings out in himself all the poisons, to keep of them nothing but the quintessences.
The hour draws on now, but let me turn before bed to Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose name has nothing in common with ribald but who like Rimbaud knew her star was a blazing ball of dirt. You likely know her best for “Figs from Thistles: First Fig”:
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!
She lived a lively, ecstatic, exalted, ribald life, and it took its tolls – see “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why”:
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.
But you may find no truer embrace of the ribald life, finally, than in “The Penitent”:
I had a little Sorrow,
Born of a little Sin,
I found a room all damp with gloom
And shut us all within;
And, “Little Sorrow, weep,” said I,
“And, Little Sin, pray God to die,
And I upon the floor will lie
And think how bad I’ve been!”
Alas for pious planning—
It mattered not a whit!
As far as gloom went in that room,
The lamp might have been lit!
My Little Sorrow would not weep,
My Little Sin would go to sleep—
To save my soul I could not keep
My graceless mind on it!
So up I got in anger,
And took a book I had,
And put a ribbon on my hair
To please a passing lad.
And, “One thing there’s no getting by—
I’ve been a wicked girl,” said I;
“But if I can’t be sorry, why,
I might as well be glad!”