01/25/2012 04:29 pm ET

The Infamous C-Word

By Anatoly Liberman for the OUP Blog, Oxford Etymologist

Like all word columnists, I keep receiving the same questions again and again. Approximately once a month someone asks me about the origin of the F-word, the C-word, and gay.

Well, the C-word has been investigated in great detail, and a few conjectures are not so bad. By way of introduction, I should note that, judging by the examples in the OED, the English C-word was not offensive or at least not always offensive in Middle English. No combination of sounds appeals to our prurient instincts because of their intrinsic qualities.

To shock or make us blush, they need a certain attitude on our part. Hoochie-coochie may be funny or indecent, but by itself it is neither “good” nor “bad.” In such matters, everything is a matter of agreement. “I am a woman of an unspotted reputation,” protests Clelia, featured in Spectator No. 276, “and know nothing I have ever done which should encourage such insolence; but here was one, the other day,—and he was dressed like a gentleman, too—who took the liberty to name the words lusty fellow in my presence” (quoted by Fitzedward Hall in his book Recent Exemplifications of False Philology. New York, 1872). The protagonist in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando fainted at seeing a woman’s ankle. Keep reading and don’t faint.

Words for the genitals and sexual activities have always been tabooed, but not necessarily out of prudery. Throughout history people have believed that pronouncing the name of a thing aloud can have practical consequences; hence universal belief in curses and charms. Therefore, for example, the Germanic word for “bear” (= “a brown one”) is the product of taboo. If you disguise the animal’s real name, the brute, which, of course, knows what it is called (the name was taken for an integral, natural part of everybody and everything that exists), may not come.

All kinds of prohibitions connected with sex are of the same nature: being too open with words may have deleterious effects on health, sexual power, and childbearing. People would intentionally garble words (transpose sounds in them, coin a rhyming synonym, and so forth; compare gosh, golly, and other euphemisms for god). Perhaps also thanks to taboo, the same word may designate the buttocks and the vagina (there is less fear to offend the backside than the genitals), though other reasons are not unthinkable: both the anus and the vagina are hollows; compare the much-discussed history of fanny. In addition, contiguous organs and body parts are sometimes called the same. For instance, Latin vulva meant both “vagina” and “womb.” To complicate matters even more, words in question are often borrowed from other languages. For instance, the origin of poontang is debatable, but it is almost certainly a “loan” from abroad. All this makes an etymologist’s task hard, sometimes even hopeless.

Finally, there are innumerable descriptive and playful names for the genitals. Is our C**t one of them? I have looked at Classical Greek, Elizabethan, Modern German, and American students’ names for “vagina, vulva” and compared them with a list collected from the Samoyeds, a Ural-Altaic people inhabiting the tundra lands of the north, and another list from Italian dialects, that is, words used by people having minimal contact with book culture. The repertory is rich but similar the world over. The vagina can be “a hole” (with positive or depreciating epithets), any type of orifice, “a slit,” “a crack,” “a sack,”, “a hill” (alluding to the mons Veneris), “a house,” “a vessel” (numerous varieties, including “cup”), “a stove” (a veritable Freudian feast), “a berry,” “a hair house” (hence hairy Mary, bush, and beaver hunting), and “a penis” (with or without reference to the clitoris). However, having the same metaphor or even the same word for both “penis” and “vagina” is not typical. I have excluded from my survey such descriptive terms as rosebud and love box and silly formations like fuzzy-muzzy. Whether all of them have been invented by men is a moot question. It has been observed that the words for “vagina” hardly ever refer to what comes out of it, but only to what enters it; the thought process is directed toward coitus, not procreation.

The most common words for “vagina” in the Germanic languages sound approximately like put, fut, and kut ~ kunt (u frequently alternates with o in them). An unsolved question is whether they are in any way connected, that is, whether we are dealing with some sort of rhyming slang, taboo, or even variants of fuzzy-muzzy. As a rule, they are looked upon as three independent words, each of which needs an etymology.

A related question is whether n in kunt belongs to the original root. Numerous words in Germanic have so-called nasalized variants, that is, n is secondary in them. Dutch kont (which, incidentally, means both “buttocks” and, in dialects, “vagina”) has a synonym kut. Engl. cut, now obsolete or dialectal (mainly northern), was defined in the OED as an opprobrious term for women (its synonym is cutty). This cut ended up as one of the senses of the noun cut “something cut (off),” but it is almost certainly a different word. The path from cut ~ kut to kunt ~ kont is easier to imagine than from kunt ~ kont to cut ~ kut. If n is secondary, comparison with Latin cunnus “vulva” (known to English speakers from cunnilingus) becomes impossible.

Also, double n in cunnus needs an explanation. It has been suggested, on the strength of Greek and Lithuanian cognates, that cunnus goes back to kus-nus. Regardless of the origin of -nn-, Latin k- should have corresponded to English h-. However, this may not be an insurmountable obstacle in dealing with kunt, because if the protoform began with sk-, the k ~ k correspondence is possible, on condition that both Latin and Germanic or one of them lost s- along the way. Initial s- is unstable in Indo-European, and there is even a special term for it, namely s mobile (movable s). With so many undocumented steps, an ancient tie between the Germanic and the Latin noun begins to look rather improbable.

The Old English for kin was cynn, with y from u by umlaut (some related words are kind “variety,” kind “generous, warmhearted,” kindred, and German Kind “child”). Kunt can be related to cynn, only if its -t is a suffix, and Lithuanian gimtis “sex” gives some support to this reconstruction, but there are hardly any examples of a word for “sex” or “birth” yielding the name for “vagina.”

Besides this, it seems preferable not to separate the kut ~ kot group from kunt, thus taking -t for part of the root. Most likely, the initial form of the word we are exploring was kut- or kot-. Dutch kut ~ Engl. cut, as noted, mean the same or practically the same as the C-word.

Therefore, I gravitate toward the conclusion that Germanic kunt is indeed a nasalized variant of kut (because of taboo or for expressive purposes). Given this etymology, kin, along with Latin cunnus, fades out of the picture. The origin of cut ~ kut may not be too obscure. It is probably related to Engl. cot (cottage is the same word with a French suffix added). Dutch kot means “sheep pen; dog kennel; pigsty,” and the English dovecote (which should not be fluttered) belongs with them. Obviously, we have here the name of an animal house, an enclosure or some elevation above the ground. If so, our word may once have meant “hole” or “little house,” both being among the most common designations for “vagina” in various languages. The distant origin of the root need not bother us here. Dutch kuit “fish roe, spawn,” presumably from “soft mass,” should also stay outside our picture. The history of Germanic fut ~ fot and put ~ pot is a special story.