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The Curious Origins of Our Sexual Dirty Words

They're "dirty" not because of sex, but because of political conquest.

Fu*k. Cu*t. Tw*t. Co*k. Pus*y. Until fairly recently, authorities on English considered the first three too sexually vulgar to include in standard English dictionaries, while the genital connotations of the other two were equally unmentionable. But in many other languages, equivalent terms that describe the genitals and intercourse are not considered vulgar. How did these English words become so tainted? The answer has nothing to do with sex—and everything to do with political conquest a thousand years ago.

The story of our dirty words begins with the Angles and Saxons, and later the VIkings, Germanic and Scandinavian tribes that invaded the British Isles in successive waves from A.D. 450 to 1050, and drove the indigenous Celts west into Wales and Ireland. Thanks to the Angles, Great Britain became known as Angle-land and eventually England.

The Angles and Saxons spoke Old German, precursors of modern German. They used the forerunners of our dirty words matter-of-factly in everyday speech and from surviving records, it’s clear that the terms were not considered vulgar.

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That changed after 1066, when the Norman French conquered Anglo-Saxon England. After a bloodbath, the Normans set themselves up as the new nobility and turned the vanquished descendants of the Angles and Saxons into their serfs. The Normans also made Old French the language of the royal court and the cultured elite. The Normans loved their language with its vowel-laced vocabulary and mellifluous, sing-song cadence. Meanwhile, to French ears, the guttural proto-English spoken by the people they’d conquered sounded harsh and vulgar.

The Normans scorned Germanic proto-English for 300 years. Norman-descended English kings did not speak English (actually Middle English), until the 14th century. The Normans also attempted to impose their melodic French on the peasantry in their new land. But few of the Anglo-Saxons learned it. They continued to speak proto-English with its short, hard, consonant-filled words, including those that became our vulgarities. This preference for gutteral speech appalled the Norman elite, who despised the “dirty” peasantry and their “dirty” words.

The French eventually lost the language war. English contains many words derived from French, but it’s more a Germanic language. But on their way to linguistic defeat, the French succeeded in driving sexual Anglo-Saxonisms underground, banishing them from standard dictionaries and everyday speech until the mid-20th century.

In reality, there was nothing inherently unsavory about Anglo-Saxon sexual terms. They simply had the bad luck to be the vocabulary of the conquered. But like a band of hardy guerrilla fighters that the conqueror’s army can never quite crush, Anglo-Saxon-derived genital and sexual terms inspired enduring grass roots loyalty, which is why they’re still with us today.

Here’s what we know about the origins of our sexual "dirty" words:

PUS*Y. This Anglo-Saxon term is intriguing because it has a double derivation from two Old Norse-Old German words: “puss” meaning cat, and “pusa,” meaning pouch. As far back as etymologists can go, “puss” meant cats, and women were poetically equated with them. Even today, Kat and Kitty are common nicknames for Katharine, and a woman who makes malicious remarks is “catty.” So it’s not difficult to imagine how “puss” evolved from a term for soft, furry little pets into a word for the soft, furry place between women’s legs.

At the same time, “pusa” evolved from a term for pouch into one that connoted pouch-like anatomical structures, initially, the vaginas of cows and mares, and after a while, the human vulva-vagina. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the first printed reference to “pus*y” in a sexual context was a bar-room toast from 1664: “Here’s good health to thee, good company, and good pus*y.”

CO*K. Just as women were compared to cats, men were linked to roosters, or “co*ks.” It's possible that this term derives from the Old Norse “kok” or the Old German “kukko,” both of which refer to roosters. It’s also possible that it’s derived from the Latin “coco,” a term for a rooster’s call, which evolved into “coccus,” for rooster, then “coq” in French, and the Old English, “cok.” In any event, it didn't take long for the word to evolve from the feisty bird whose call signals the time to get out of bed to the frisky organ that gets all excited in bed. Given how ancient “co*k” appears to be, it’s odd that, according to the OED, its first appearance in print in a sexual context occurred relatively recently, in a poem from 1618 that asked: “Oh, man, what art thou when thy co*k is up?”

TW*T. A clear example of Viking influence, it comes from the Old Norse “thviet,” meaning a cut or slit. In Old English, it became “thwat,” and finally around 1500, “tw*t.” Its first use in print dates from 1660, when an unnamed poet cursed an acquaintance by saying that all he deserved in life was “an old nun’s tw*t.” A century later, certain doctors were contemptuously dismissed as “tw*t-scowerers.” From then through the mid-20th century, the word was printed only rarely, but modern writers, notably novelist Norman Mailer and feminist Germaine Greer, helped repopularize it. Today it’s more widely used than it has been in 500 years.

CU*T. The OED traces this word to the Old Norse “kunta,” meaning women’s genitals. “Cu*t” is the dirty word with the longest history in print. It first appeared around 1230 (some 300 years before “fu*k” was first published), when a street in what must have been London’s red-light district was called “Grope-cu*te Lane.” Oddly, the term seems to have been accepted for a while by at least some of the medieval elite. A medical text from 1400 declared: "In wymmen pe neck of pe bladder is schort, & is maad fast to the cu*te." (In women, the neck of the bladder is short, and attached to the cu*t.) But soon after, the word was driven underground.

In recent decades, “fu*k,” has become so widely used in print and in R-rated movies that it has lost some its power to shock. “Cu*t” is less widely used, making it comparatively more taboo and quite possibly today’s dirtiest word.

FU*K. Despite its recent emergence into semi-acceptability in the mass media in R-rated movies and on cable TV, “fu*k” is the grand-daddy of dirty words. Its actual origins have been obscured by a persistent tale that’s clearly incorrect.

The erroneous explanation traces it to the Pilgrims. As the story goes, early Massachusetts settlers who fornicated out of wedlock were punished by confinement in special stocks bearing the legend: For Use of Carnal Knowledge. The first letters of these words form the acronym “fu*k.”

A nifty story, but it doesn't explain how, according to the OED, the word first appeared in print in 1503, more than a century before the Pilgrims landed, in a poem by Dunbar, who referred to copulation as “fukkit.” Then in 1535, some 85 years before the Pilgrims, another writer, Lyndesay, had this to say about top English clergy: “Bishops may fu*k their fill and be unmarried.” The Pilgrims may have given us Nathaniel Hawthorne's scarlet “A” for adultery, but “fu*k” was well established long before they sailed for the New World.

Etymologists trace “fu*k” to the Old Norse-Old German word “fokken,” meaning to thrust, strike, or penetrate, and by extension, to copulate.

What's so interesting about our sexual vulgarities is that their "dirtiness" has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with ethnic divisions in England almost a thousand years ago.

San Francisco journalist Michael Castleman, M.A., has written about sexuality for 36 years. more...

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