Friday, May 02, 2008

Carnival of Etymologies, NSFW Edition

Obama's not the only one who brushes off the hard question.

Trollop dates from 1615, but in the sense of "slovenly woman," which Webster's still lists as the primary meaning. McCain, if he did use the word of his wife, appears to have meant it in the secondary sense of "sexually promiscuous woman, prostitute," but if it was a reference to her being overly made-up, it hardly suits the case.

The source probably is the verb troll in its sense of "roll about, wallow." But the oldest sense of this word in English (1377) is "to go about, stroll," which has an affinity with the "streetwalker" sense later acquired by trollop. The verb came to Middle English from Old French troller, a hunting term meaning "to wander, to go in quest of game without purpose." Ultimately it comes from a Germanic source that also produced Old High German trollen "to walk with short steps."

Troll in its figurative meaning "to draw on as with a moving bait, entice, allure" is attested from 1565. The meaning "to cruise in search of sexual encounters" is recorded from 1967, originally in homosexual slang.

Cunt, "female intercrural foramen," or, as some 18th century writers refer to it, "the monosyllable," is from Middle English cunte "female genitalia," akin to Old Norse kunta, with a presumed common root in Proto-Germanic *kunton, a word of uncertain origin. The Dutch cognate de kont, however, means "a bottom, an arse."

Some suggest a link with Latin cuneus "wedge," others to Proto-Indo-European base *geu- "hollow place," and still others to Proto-Indo-European *gwen-, the root of queen and Greek gyne "woman."

The form is similar to Latin cunnus "female pudenda" (which was used in the modern formation cunnilingus, a word which only dates to 1887 and which no Roman ever is known to have said -- if she did, she would have used it properly to mean "one who licks a cunnus," not in reference to the action itself, which however is said to have been popular in classical times) which likewise is of disputed origin, perhaps literally "gash, slit," from Proto-Indo-European base *sker- "to cut;" or literally "sheath," from Proto-Indo-European *kut-no-, a suffixed form of the base *(s)keu- "to conceal, hide."

The first known recorded and surviving use of cunt in English is said to be c.1230 in the street name Gropecuntlane (said to have been in either Oxford or London, or perhaps there were two of them), presumably a haunt of prostitutes. The word was avoided in public speech since the 15th century; considered obscene since the 17th century.

The alternate form cunny is attested from c.1720 but is certainly much earlier. It forced a change in the pronunciation of the good old word coney and eventually drove it from popular use. Coney is from Anglo-Norman conis, the plural of conil "long-eared rabbit" (Lepus cunicula) from Latin cuniculus, the word used for the small, Spanish variant of the Italian hare (Latin lepus), and perhaps a word taken from Iberian Celtic (classical writers say it is Spanish).

[Animal names tend to not be imports, even in English, but rabbits not being native to northern Europe, there was no Germanic or northern Celtic word for them.]

Rabbit arose in the 14th century to mean the young of the species, but gradually it pushed out the older word in the 19th century, after British slang picked up coney as a synonym for "cunt" (cf. connyfogle "to deceive in order to win a woman's sexual favors").

The word survived in Brooklyn's Coney Island, so called for the rabbits once found there and known to the Dutch as Konijn Eiland before the English takeover. And it survived, more disturbingly, in the King James Bible [Prov. xxx.26, etc.]. So it couldn't be entirely dropped, and the solution lit upon was to change the pronunciation of the original short vowel (rhyming with honey and money) to rhyme with boney or phony. In the Old Testament, however, the word translates Hebrew shaphan "rock-badger," and is not really a rabbit at all.

Meanwhile, coney was still good for a dirty pun while it lasted as the common word for "rabbit," and the earlier use of cunny than the 18th century is suggested by puns like this one, in a play by Shakespeare's contemporary Philip Massinger:

"A pox upon your Christian cockatrices! They cry, like poulterers' wives, 'No money, no coney.' " [1622]

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