Thursday, March 02, 2006

Carnival of the Etymologies

[A regular Thursday feature of "Done With Mirrors"]

Today's specialty: Words you didn't know were rude. No, not the seven words you can't say on television, or some variation. But words you have used in milk-white innocence, perhaps even this very day, without realizing that to someone, somewhere they were the height of obscenity.

Often that someone will be dead and "somewhere" will be the electroplasmic aether of the netherworld. Because over the years, the number of upstanding words that have been shanghaied into the service of sexual slang is enormous. Many have survived the ordeal and lived to recover their dignity and resume their places in the dictionary of the decent.

The verb to season, for instance, in the 16th century meant "to copulate with." Likewise, to occupy was a euphemism for "to have sexual intercourse with" (usually used of a man, with reference to a woman). This euphemistic use was so widespread in the 16th and 17th centuries that the word fell from polite usage entirely, a condition alluded to by Shakespeare's less-than-wholesome Doll Tearsheet in 2 Henry IV:

"A captaine? Gods light these villaines wil make the word as odious as the word occupy, which was an excellent good worde before it was il sorted."

Among the words that have in times past been used as slang or euphemistic substitutions for "penis" are arbor vitae (late 18c. rogue's slang; it literally means "tree of life") and loom (c.1400-1600, from the original general sense of the word, "implement or tool of any kind," as preserved in heirloom).

Male proper names commonly serve as slang words for "penis." Dick and Peter are two current examples. From c.1650-c.1870, however, a common name for it was Roger.

One of the oddest "penis" synonyms was verge, which was used in Chaucer's day. To get this, you have to know the history of the word. The word's literal meaning in Middle French was "rod or wand of office," and it comes from Latin virga, meaning "shoot, rod stick." The extension to "penis" is not too difficult to fathom if you know this.

From the sense of "rod of office," it came to be used figuratively for "royal authority." And since the Lord High Steward's authority (as symbolized by the rod of office), originally extended in a 12-mile radius round the king's court, the word verge thence came to mean "area or territory dominated" by something. The sense then shifted in the 16th century to "the outermost edge of an expanse or area."

Among the English words that have had the honor to mean, in slang, both "penis" and "vagina" are meat and machine (late 19th century).

But in some cases, a word in the full possession of its proper and unoffensive English sense may yet hide a scarlet past.

Vanilla, for instance; a word that is the very figure of bland, conventional inoffensiveness. It entered English in 1662, from Spanish (the plant came to the attention of Europeans in 1521 when Hernando Cortes' soldiers made a reconnaissance in southeastern Mexico), where it literally meant "little pod," and was extended to the plant because of the shape of the pods. This word, however, is a diminutive form of the Spanish descendant of Latin vagina.

Sycophant is another powerfully obscene term. It comes from Greek sykophantes, which originally and literally means "one who shows the fig" (from sykon "fig" and phanein "to show"). To "show the fig" was an ancient vulgar gesture made by sticking the thumb between two fingers, a display which vaguely resembles a fig, itself symbolic of a cunt (sykon also meant "vulva"). The story goes that prominent politicians in ancient Greece held aloof from such inflammatory gestures, but privately urged their followers to taunt their opponents with them.

The resemblance seems to be in the way a ripe fig looks when it is split open; in Italian the word for "fig" also was used for "cunt," and the Shakespearean dismissive phrase a fig for ... probably reflects this. "Giving the fig" (French faire la figue, Spanish dar la higa) was an isult through many centuries. A variant in which the thumb was placed in the mouth may underlie the opening scene of "Romeo and Juliet."

The adjective feisty has a long and curious history. It generally is a complimentary word when used today, but its origin is anything but that. It comes from the 19th century American English word feist meaning "small dog," which is short for fysting curre "stinking cur," a term attested from 1529.

The first term in it is the Middle English verb fysten, fisten "to break wind" (1440), which is related to Old English fisting "stink."

An 1811 slang dictionary defines fice as "a small windy escape backwards, more obvious to the nose than ears; frequently by old ladies charged on their lap-dogs." A related word probably is the second element of obsolete askefise, literally "fire-blower, ash-blower," which was used in Middle English for a kind of bellows but which originally was, according to Oxford English Dictionary, "a term of reproach among northern nations for an unwarlike fellow who stayed at home in the chimney corner."

Felon is a word of uncertain origin, but one theory (advanced by Professor R. Atkinson of Dublin) traces it to Latin fellare "to suck," which had an obscene secondary meaning in classical Latin (well-known to readers of Martial and Catullus), which would make a felon etymologically a "cock-sucker."

The Latin penis, in addition to "male member," also meant "tail." The sexual sense seems to have been the original one. Which gives an interesting twist to pencil, which is literally a diminutive of penis. The sense here seems to be the "tail" one, however, as a pencil originally (14th century) was "an artist's fine brush of camel hair." Small brushes were used for writing before modern lead or chalk pencils evolved; the word shifted its sense in the late 16th century.