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Impearls: In praise of the C-word II - Dictionary Cuntroversies

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Earthdate 2004-03-10

In praise of the C-word II – Dictionary Cuntroversies

This is about the C-word!  You have been warned.

With regard to Impearls' earlier article on the subject of the C-word, Lynn Sislo at Reflections in d minor posted a link to it.  Dean Esmay at Dean's World also linked back to the piece (forming a perfect ring, or perhaps properly it would be a spiral through Blogosphere space-time!).  Some of the comments to Esmay's piece are hilarious.  I have to disagree gently, however, with one of Rosemary's admonitions.  As was mentioned in Impearls' earlier article, there is, I believe, a place for men as well as women to judiciously use the C-word — in my view, however, primarily as lovers speaking erotically to their mates (or as a writer writing about same), not as a term of opprobrium labeling people as individuals, by gender or class.

Dean Esmay goes on to dispute the C-word's etymology that Impearls' earlier piece alluded to, saying:  “I'm pretty sure its ultimate roots are from the Latin word cunnus, although etymologists are doubtful about that from what I understand.”

Dean's suggestion of the Latin word cunnus (meaning a woman's sexual genitalia, as well as prostitute1) as the origin for the English word cunt is a fascinating one.  After looking into the issue, however, I must reluctantly conclude it appears not to be backed up by linguistic scholarship.  Dean doesn't explain why he feels so strongly that this is the case, but lacking academic support, the idea, interesting though it seems, ends up in pretty much the same locale as those other urban legends (such as the one whereby the popular “F-word” is supposed to be an acronym) — i.e., wrong!  I should note, however, in this context that, according to Webster's Third New International Dictionary2, the word cunnus (plural cunni), meaning female external genitalia, is also an English word — which certainly complicates the situation with regard to the similar C-word and its associated variants.

Here's how several different English-language dictionaries describe the C-word's etymology:

  1. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language3:  “Middle English cunte, perhaps of Low German origin, akin to Middle Low German, kunte.  See ku- in the Appendix.”  (A list of some of the Modern English words derived from this old Germanic root, as shown in the indicated Indo-European Roots appendix to the volume, was given in Impearls' earlier piece.)
  2. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary4:  “ME cunte; akin to MLG kunte female pudenda.”
  3. Webster's Third New International Dictionary5:  “ME cunte: akin to OFris & MLG kunte female pudenda, MD conte, Norw & Sw dial. kunta, MLG kutte female pudenda, MHG kotze prostitute, and perh. to OE cot cottage — more at COT.”
  4. As one might expect, The Oxford English Dictionary provides the most elaborate entry for the C-word.   The OED indicates the following etymology6:  “ME. cunte, count(e), corresponding to ON. kunta (Norw., Sw. dial. kunta, Da. dial. kunte), OFris., MLG., MDu. kunte:— Gmc. *kunton wk. fem.; ulterior relations uncertain.”

All which is fully consistent with a Germanic, not Romance, origin for the C-word in English.

While here, let's consider usages over time as shown in the OED, which are fascinating.

1.  The female external genital organs.  Cf. Quaint sb.

Its currency is restricted in the manner of other taboo-words: see the small-type note s.v. *Fuck v.

[c 1230 in Ekwall Street-Names of City of London (1954) 165  Gropecuntelane.]  a 1325 Prov. Hendyng (Camb. Gg. I, 1) st. 42  Yeue þi cunte to cunnig and craue affetir wedding.  c 1400 Lanfranc's Cirurg. 172/12  In wymmen þe necke of þe bladdre is schort, & is maad fast to the cunte.  c 1425 Castle of Perseverance (1904) 1193  Mankynde, my leue lemman, I my cunte þou shalt crepe.  1552 Lyndeslay Satyre Procl. 144  First lat me lok thy cunt, Syne lat me keip the key.  a 1585 Polwart Flyting with Montgomerie (1910) 817  Kis þe cunt of ane kow.  c 1650 in Hales and Furnivall Percy's Folio MS. (1867) 99  Vp start the Crabfish, & catcht her by the Cunt.  1743 Walpole Little Peggy in Corr. (1961) XXX. 309  Distended cunts with alum shall be braced.  c 1800 Burns Merry Muses (1911) 66  For Ilka hair upon her c--t, Was worth a royal ransom.  c 1888-94 My Secret Life VII. 161,  I sicken with desire, pine for unseen, unknown cunts.  1934 H. Miller Tropic of Cancer (1935) 15  O Tania, where now is that warm cunt of yours?  1956 S. Beckett Malone Dies 24  His young wife had abandoned all hope of bringing him to heel, by means of her cunt, that trump card of young wives.

transf. and fig.  a 1680 Ld. Rochester Poems on Several Occasions (1950) 28  Her Hand, her Foot, her very look's a Cunt.  1922 Joyce Ulysses 61  The grey sunken cunt of the world.  1928 D. H. Lawrence Lady Chatterley xvi. 296  If your sister there comes ter me for a bit o' cunt an' tenderness, she knows what she's after.

2.  Applied to a person, esp. a woman, as a term of vulgar abuse.

1929 F. Manning Middle Parts of Fortune I. viii. 159  What's the cunt want to come down 'ere buggering us about for, 'aven't we done enough bloody work in th' week?  1932 ‘G. Orwell’ Coll. Essays (1968) I. 88  Tell him he's a cunt from me.  1934 H. Miller Tropic of Cancer (1935) 28  Two cunts sail in — Americans.  1956 S. Beckett Malone Dies 99  They think they can confuse me… Proper cunts whoever they are.  1965 V. Henriques Face I Had 69  ‘What d'you think you're doing, you silly cunt?’ the driver shouts at her.

3.  Comb.

1680 Anon. in Rochester's Poems on Several Occasions (1950) 36  Fam'd through the World, for the C--nt-mending Trade.  1868 Index Expurgatorius of Martial 32  A satire on Baeticus, who was a priest of Cybele, and a cunt-sucker.  1891 Farmer Slang II. 230/2  Cunt-struck, enamored of women.  1923 Manchon Le Slang 97  Cunt-hat…chapeau de feutre.  1965 F. Sargeson Memoirs of a Peon ii. 28  We were all helplessly and hopelessly c…struck, a vulgar but forcibly accurate expression.

One ought also consider that close variant on the C-word, “Quaint”: 7

Quaint,  sb. Obs. rare. Also 4 queynt(e. [? f. the adj.]  (See quot. 1598.)

c 1320 Sir Tristr. 2254  Hir queynt abouen hir kne Naked þe kni3tes knewe.  c 1386 Chaucer Miller's T. 90  Pryvely he caught hir by the queynte.  1598 Florio, Becchina,  A womans quaint or priuities.

Then there's the diminutive variant of the C-word, “Cunny.”  As the OED puts it: 8

cunny  {…}  slang.  [Prob. dim. of *cunt; but cf. Cony sb. 5 b.] = *cunt 1.

1720 D'Urfey Pills VI. 197  All my Delight is a Cunny in the Night, When she turns up her silver Hair.  1865 E. Sellon New Epicurean (1875) 11,  I frigged and kissed their fragrant cunnies.  1879-80 Pearl (1970) 216  Your private parts, or cunny, Should not be let for money.  1891 Farmer & Henley Slang II. 230  Cunny-haunted…lecherous.  1922 F. Harris My Life & Loves I. x. 208  She had limbs like a Greek statue and her triangle of brown hair lay in little silky curls on her belly and then — the sweetest littly cunny in the world. 

I'm afraid it gets even more complicated than that.  As the above quote notes, one must also see the (Modern) English word Cony, meaning rabbit — memorably heard most recently in the phrase “a brace of conies” in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films.  In earlier times, “cony” was often spelt “conny,” sometimes even “cunny,” and pronounced identically with the above word “cunny” — which is to say, so as to rhyme with honey and money.  Given this, associations between “connies” and “cunnies” were inevitable, just as (with less linguistic cause) the term “pussy” is sometimes applied today for the female genitalia.  As a result, according to the OED, certain meanings of cony have aligned with those of the C-word: 9

5.  A term of endearment for a woman.  Obs.

a 1528 Skelton El. Rummyng 225  He calleth me his whytyng, His nobbes and his conny.  a 1553 Udall Royster D. Arb. 27  Ah sweete lambe and coney.  1562 J. Heywood Prov. & Epigr. (1867) 181  Iane thou sellest sweete conies in this pultry shoppe : But none so sweete as thy selfe, sweete conye moppe.  1611 Beaum. & Fl. Knt. Burn. Pestle Induct.,  Wife … Husband, husband.  Cit. What sayst thou Conie?

b.  Also indecently.

1591 Troub. Raigne K. John (1611) 52  Now for your ransome my cloyster-bred conney.  1622 Massinger Virg. Mart. II. i,  A pox on your Christian cockatrices!  They cry, like poulterers' wives, ‘No money, no coney.’  {…}

Conies (rabbits) are mentioned in the Bible, so one can imagine the tittering in church centuries ago when those scriptural passages were recited — the result being that cony began to be pronounced (at first only in church) using the long-o vowel sound.  Thus, the pronunciation seen today.


1 Cassell's Latin Dictionary (Latin-English and English-Latin), revised by J. R. V. Marchant (Scholar of Wadham College, Oxford) and Joseph F. Charles (Assistant Master at the City of London School), Funk & Wagnalls Company, New York and London; p. 146.

2 Webster's Third new International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged, 1971, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago; p. 554.  (See also

3 The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, edited by William Morris, 1969, American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc., and Houghton Mifflin Company, New York; pp. 322, 1524.  See also the online American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

4 Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 1994, Merriam-Webster, Inc., Britannica CD 1997, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.  See also

5 Webster's Third new International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged, 1971, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago; p. 554.  (See also

6 The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Volume III: Supplement, 1987, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, New York (Library of Congress catalog no. PE1625.C58 1987 423 87-1592, ISBN 0-19-861211-7 (v.3)); pp. 176-177.  See also OED Online (subscription only).

7 The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Volume II: P-Z, 1971, Oxford University Press, New York (Library of Congress Catalogue Card No. 76-188038); p. 2382.  See also OED Online (subscription only).

8 The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Volume III: Supplement, 1987, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, New York (Library of Congress catalog no. PE1625.C58 1987 423 87-1592, ISBN 0-19-861211-7 (v.3)); p. 176.  See also OED Online (subscription only).

9 The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Volume I: A-O, 1971, Oxford University Press, New York (Library of Congress Catalogue Card No. 76-188038); p. 549.  See also OED Online (subscription only).

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