What's the meaning of "You verminate the sheet of your birth"?

Does it have a figurative meaning?

What is "the sheet of your birth" referring to? Any guess?

I really hate the way everyone thinks it is a Pinter's play so the words are meaningless! The words, phrases, and sentences might be odd and uncommon, but I'm sure they're not utterly meaningless!

The immediate context:

GOLDBERG: No society would touch you. Not even a building society.
MCCANN: You're a traitor to the cloth.
GOLDBERG: What do you use for pyjamas?
STANLEY: Nothing.
GOLDBERG: You verminate the sheet of your birth.
MCCANN: What about the Albigensenist Heresy?
GOLDBERG: Who watered the wicket in Melbourne?
MCCANN: What about the blessed Oliver Plunkett?
GOLDBERG: Speak up Webber. Why did the chicken cross the road?

From Harold Pinter's play The Birthday Party; more complete context available via Google Books.

  • 1
    The Birthday Party By Harold Pinter. It may mean something like 'you tarnish your own name', 'tarnishing your own reputation' etc.
    – Red fx
    Nov 7 '17 at 16:46
  • 5
    The whole page that the sentence appears on (in The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter) is close to nonsense. That context is helpful. Nov 7 '17 at 17:27
  • 8
    Context is always a major part of any meaning. And if that context "doesn't help much" because you keep trying to see meaning in individual lines in absurdist plays, then maybe that same context should be a hint as to why that specific definite meaning escapes you...
    – oerkelens
    Nov 7 '17 at 17:27
  • 2
    What @oerkelens said. In the specific context, I'd say the fact that it's from an archetypal example of ‘theatre of the absurd’ is in fact the primary context. It seems unlikely anyone else would have used the expression before Pinter, and I suspect he didn't care much about it having any precise meaning (is it a more literal reference to defiling one's biological mother's honour, or a more metaphorical reference to the land of one's birth? A "eupemistic" reference to urinating? Who cares?). Nov 7 '17 at 18:04
  • 3
    It's Pinter. It's nonsense.
    – Hot Licks
    Nov 8 '17 at 20:49

The literal meaning of the phrase seems reasonably straightforward. Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language, volume 2 (1756) offers this brief entry for verminate:

To VERMINATE. v. n. {from vermin} To breed vermine.

And "sheet of your birth" seems most likely to refer to the sheet on the bed where the birth of the person being addressed took place. A somewhat similar expression appears in Snow v. Snow (March 16, 1842), in Notes of Cases in the Ecclesiastical & Maritime Courts, volume 2 (1844):

[Article] 11 [of "a suit for separation, by reason of cruelty"]. That, in the end of June, 1835, a third child was born, Mr. S. being absent, and upon his return, three or four days after, when he entered his wife's bed-room, she was sitting up in bed, supported by pillows, engaged in writing a note, and "Mr. S., seeing a spot of ink on the sheet of her bed, flew into a passion and struck her in the head," and that such his conduct threw her into a state of fever.

Putting the two notions together, we get this approximate the meaning:

You breed vermin in [or infest with vermin] the bedsheets where you were born.

  • I don't see how the second passage has anything to do with the topic.
    – Hot Licks
    Nov 10 '17 at 1:26
  • @HotLicks: It shows use of "the sheet of [one's] bed" to refer to bedclothes, which is rather unusual, I think. Further, this was the bed in which Mrs. Snow had three or four days earlier had given birth. That's the best I can do for a close match to "the sheet of [one's] birth," Perhaps it isn't good enough?
    – Sven Yargs
    Nov 10 '17 at 1:35

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