Martello tower, photo by Erik Simpson

The Ulysses Lexicon



but, butt

Related Terms

Peer and Pier


Although the most frequent incarnation of this word (in Ulysses as elsewhere) conveys contrast or disjuncture, considering its broader array of functions can reveal just the opposite—a grammatical union in which but(t) is a robust intersection, an axis joining the spectrum of English word-categories under one pronunciation. While words often present both a nominal sense and a verbal sense, it is much less common for a noun-ish verb-ish word to also have prepositional, adverbial, conjunctive, adjectival, and pronominal uses. Note that beyond their homophony, historical records indicate that the functional and lexical but(t)s have both been variously spelled "but" and "butt" before the standardization of modern English orthography.

In addition to the paradox of but(t)'s disjoining/joined functions, the word is also an auto-antonym on at least two semantic levels. As a conjunction, "but X" can mean either 'excepting X, not X', or it can mean 'exactly X, neither more nor less than X.' See definition I below for an example of this opposition within the text, i.e. (U 12.724-29) versus (U 11.1005-06). In its verbal and nominal forms, the word can indicate either separation and boundary-marking, or sturdy joining of component pieces, as in welding and architecture. While this set of opposing definitions does not seem to apply directly to any individual butt in the novel, it may be useful in thinking about the construction, purpose, and significance of Butt bridge (see below). See also discussion in "Peer and Pier" regarding "disappointed bridges."

We see three varieties of big but(t)s in the novel. First, we get numerous capital Buts to introduce exclamations (for example, U 11.41) or contrary thoughts (for example, U 13.706); in some cases but occurs in an italicized format, another example of orthographic emphasis. Second, we get proper noun Butt, which is used to indicate the location Butt bridge throughout the novel (U 7.642, 12.1102, 16.9, 17.326, 17.2057), to allude to the pre-Parnell Irish nationalist Isaac Butt in "Aeolus" (U 7.707) and "Circe" (U 15.4684), and to name a collegiate dean named Father Butt in "Ithaca" (U 17.145). Third, we get Leopold's attention toward and appreciation of anatomical butts, including the butts of the classical statues early in the book, the stuffed "false bottom" (U 18.56) of the Blooms' ex-housekeeper, Mary, and Molly's butt, which he kisses upon getting into bed at the end of the night (U 17.2241). However, none of these are called "butt" by the text—instead we see terms like "arse," "rump," "bottom," etc. While modern (especially American) readers may perceive this gap to be thematically suggestive, it may be more the result of dialectal vocabulary difference than of symbolic intention. (Note: We do get the suggestion of anatomical butt from the word "butt" in the homosexual implications of the stabbing joke in "Eumaeus" (U 17), however, the primary definition at work is not anatomical. See II below.)

The return to his bed and marriage, marked by his kisses on Molly's butt, in some ways mark the natural end or goal of Leopold's day, and perhaps of the novel proper (see II b. below). Given the sardine-imagery used to characterize Leopold Bloom in "Sirens" (U 11.1220-21), Molly's butt, an object that captures Bloom's sexual attention (and has held it, more or less, for over 10 years, even in the absence of usual consummative intercourse), may also operate with a pun-y definition of butt, n. as a 'basket-net for catching fish' (OED n.12).

Definitions and Examples

  1. I. But, prep and conj. (OED 1, 3) Excepting, not, without, outside of; Just, only, exactly, neither more nor less than.

    "We are not speaking so much of those delightful love songs [...] but rather [...] of the harsher and more personal note" (U 12.724-29).

    • This is an example of the contrastive meaning, in which but separates or establishes opposition.

    "But wait. But hear. Chords dark. Lugugugubrious. Low. In a cave of the dark middle earth. Embedded ore. Lumpmusic" (U 11.1005-06).

    • This is an example of the second meaning, in which but specifies or indicates.

    "The laquey, aware of comment, shook the lolling clapper of his bell but feebly. Bang!" (U 10.689-90).

    • In this example, there is some irony and ambiguity about which of the senses should apply. On the one hand, in this type of sentence-final adverbial construction, "but X-ly" typically employs the specifying, indicative definition and should mean 'only feebly.' However, since we know that the bell is making a loud and obnoxious noise (from the onomatopoeia as well as from Mr. Dedalus's reaction), it may be more appropriate to interpret but with the contrastive definition, meaning 'not feebly.'

  2. II. Butt, n. (OED 1, 2, 7) The base, the widest or thickest part of something.

    "Gob, he near burnt his fingers with the butt of his old cigar" (U 12.1469).

    • a. n. A (shoemaker's) knife. (OED n.14) "It" refers to the knife, which not only has a component part called a "butt," but may itself be considered a butt. This is one of many instances in which Joyce presents us with a mixed-up taxonomy, where subsets do not remain properly contained and categorized.
    • b. n. A terminal point, the goal or end of something; an object or target, esp. in archery or jokes/abuse. (OED n.1, 2, 4, 5) Here the man being stabbed is the butt of Joyce's joke; he undergoes the abuse of being stabbed "up to the butt" in order to effect the double-entendre of homosexuality. He is also quite literally the target of the Italian smuggler who wields the knife, and the butt of the knife in his back marks the terminal point of his life. Note: This subdefinition of butt as target may also be operative in the sailor Murphy's account of Simon Dedalus's egg-shooting marksmanship (U 16.370-407), where the actual word butt does not appear, but we do get "boot" and "bottles," which may be related to butt through Joyce's medial vowel alternation wordplay.

    "Clean to see: the gloss of her sleek hide, the white button under the butt of her tail, the green flashing eyes" (U 4.21-23).

    • c. n. The thick, often hind part of skin/hide. (OED n.11)

  3. III. Butt, v. (OED v.1.a, 1.d, 2) A push or thrust, especially by a horned animal; To jut out toward something, or to intrude into a conversation.

    "Doubled up inside her trying to butt its way out blindly, groping for the way out" (U 8.375-76).

    • Although this sentence describes the physical process of birth for women generally—and is actually contrasted with Molly's relatively easier birthing experiences—for the Blooms, unwanted images of Rudy (and related images of pregnancy/babies/fetuses) often butt into their thoughts and conversations.

Related topics

Creation and Making
Ingestion and Excretion
Irish History Transformed
Language and Linguistics
Touch and Feeling
Union and Division
The Unspoken
Yes and No

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