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For context, Mr. Osborne is angry with his son George; in this scene near the beginning of chapter 24, Dobbin has arranged a meeting with Osborne to convince him to reconcile with George.

At last Dobbin summoned courage to begin. "Sir," said he, "I've brought you some very grave news. I have been at the Horse Guards this morning, and there's no doubt that our regiment will be ordered abroad, and on its way to Belgium before the week is over. And you know, sir, that we shan't be home again before a tussle which may be fatal to many of us." Osborne looked grave. "My s—, the regiment will do its duty, sir, I daresay," he said.

William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1868. Retrieved from archive.org, 19 October 2023. Page 184. Emphasis added.

I have a few ideas what "my s—" means here, but I'm not sure about any of them.

  • The dash is a punctuation mark and Mr. Osborne is about to say "my son" (or another word beginning with S) but stops himself. Thackeray often uses dashes as punctuation marks, but not a dash next to a comma as it is here. I'm also not sure why Osborne would be stammering at this point in the conversation. Maybe I'm just overthinking things though.
  • "S—" is a censored oath. This happens a few times in the book, such as later on the same page: "I suppose no Briton's afraid of any d—— Frenchman, hey?" If that's the case, what does it stand for? "My stars"? Is that something Thackeray would have needed to censor?
  • It's an obscured reference to something in the real world (see Why are place names obscured in Charlotte Brontë's The Professor?). This is also common in Vanity Fair, e.g. Dobbin and George's regiment is referred to only as "the —th" and dates such as "April 23, 18—" are obscured as well. But that doesn't really make sense in this context either.

I realize this is a pretty minor point but it's been bugging me.

1 Answer 1

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Your first speculation is the most plausible. Overwhelmed at the news, Mr Osborne is about to say, My son will do his duty, but then gathers himself, regains his stiff upper lip, and substitutes "the regiment" instead. Neither Dobbin nor Mr Osborne has mentioned George yet, so Mr Osborne is keeping up the pretense that Dobbin's visit has nothing to do with George.

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  • 1
    And keeping up his attitude of being angry with George for marrying Amelia. Oct 20, 2023 at 7:42
  • @KateBunting yep, yep. Except he doesn't know yet that George has married Amelia; that's what Dobbin has come to tell him. He's mad at George for his refusal to marry the Caribbean heiress. (I believe she went on to marry one Mr Rochester)
    – verbose
    Oct 20, 2023 at 7:44
  • Fair enough. It's been a while since I last read the book. Oct 20, 2023 at 14:05
  • Very well, I suppose overthinking it I was then!
    – Carmeister
    Oct 22, 2023 at 16:49

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