Friday, August 10, 2007

Navel Gazing with Charles Hodgson

by Alison Tyler

I think my all-time favorite discussion of "naughty bits" was by our own Kristina Lloyd. (And, yes, I know, I should just marry her and get it over with.) But in her excellent post "Cunt or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the C-word" she said, "When I was a little girl, I didn’t have genitalia. I had a nebulous zone referred to as ‘between your legs’. I can’t blame my parents. They were simply part of a certain generation. But really. Between your legs? It’s like describing your face as ‘above your shoulders’."

If only her parents had access to this lovely new book by Charles Hodgson—CARNAL KNOWLEDGE: A NAVEL GAZER’S DICTIONARY OF ANATOMY, ETYMOLOGY, AND TRIVIA. Carnal Knowledge is a book about the words we use for all of our body parts. Although not specifically erotica, we did say “all of our body parts” and the imagination begins to click into gear. (At least, mine does!) Charles is here as our guest blogger so let’s see what little secrets the English language holds for us today.


Hi there. In addition to writing my book CARNAL KNOWLEDGE, I host a blog and podcast called podictionary where every day I talk about the surprising history of a word you thought you already knew. I bill it as “the podcast for word lovers” and I sometimes wonder if that key-word “lovers” attracts an audience that perhaps I hadn’t intended.

The book has an intentionally provocative title and although you can’t judge a book by its cover, I think it looks pretty good, too. It’s a pretty attractive looking couple wouldn’t you say, especially when you consider that she’s 100 years old, and he’s 400. She is the Awakening of Psyche by Seignac, he’s Bacchus by Caravaggio.

Although the subtitle is supposed to tell you that this really isn’t about sex—do the words “dictionary” and “etymology” turn you on?—because I talk about every area of the body in the book, I necessarily cover the naughty bits. Or should that say “uncover”? Here are a few examples.

There are said to be as many as 650 euphemisms for a woman’s genitalia. While I don’t go that far, I do have quite a few examples. I point out that the word “cunt” has been in English since pretty well as long as there’s been English. These days you likely wouldn’t use the word in polite company but there was a time when the word was acceptable enough to fit naturally into the names of streets and people. One imagines that part of London called Gropecuntelane might have been the red light district of its day. At the time of Geoffrey Chaucer the word “cunt” was being used by physicians in medical descriptions. By about 200 years ago the word had descended into the realm of the taboo and people were being arrested for using it.

Another word most people don’t shout out in the library is “twat” but it turns out that Robert Browning, husband of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, writer of those famous lines “how do I love thee? let me count the ways” would have had no such qualms. He was under the mistaken impression that a twat was something that nuns wore on their heads. It kind of makes me rethink the counting of those ways.

A penis hasn’t always been the male flaccid or engorged counterpart to twats and cunts. The famous ancient Roman orator Cicero complained that the word he had always used to mean “tail” has suddenly become rude. So what was a euphemism back in classical Latin has become an anatomically correct term in our lexicon. “Penis” isn’t the only word this has happened to. There’s more to say on that score under the entry for “vagina.”

The reason we call a man’s cock a “cock” is a little unclear from the etymological record. Evidently, there is no written record of this use of the word in the years before the death of Shakespeare, although it was used to describe male birds from the time of King Alfred the Great more than 1100 years ago. Suspiciously, to “cock” something, meaning to make it “stick up” is documented as having taken on that meaning less than twenty years before cock the “penis” is documented. Still, that great authority the Oxford English Dictionary suggests a human cock is called a cock due to its role in dispensing fluids, since an old name for a faucet is a stop-cock.

The book CARNAL KNOWLEDGE also introduces you to words you might not know. Hundreds of years ago early archeologists were digging up ancient Greek statues. One of the more famous of these is the Venus de Milo whose bare breasts identify her as the goddess of love, despite her lack of arms. Her lesser known incarnation Aphrodite kallipygos was dug up around the same time. You know that Venus was the Roman counterpart to the Greek Aphrodite so that the goddesses are one and the same. Aphrodite kallipygos however does not have her breasts bared, but instead displays a tush so exquisite that the archeologists who named her used the Greek words for “beautiful” and “buttocks”; hence when you call someone “callipygian” you’re saying they have a great butt.


Learn more about names for all parts of the body in CARNAL KNOWLEDGE, and ask Charles a question or two if you'd like. He'll be giving away a signed copy of his brand-new book to one of our commenters.

Alison "callipygian" Tyler (first t-shirt slogan of the day!)


Olivia Knight said...

do the words “dictionary” and “etymology” turn you on?


I heard cunt orginally meant "wedge-shaped" - is that true? During our terrifying Write Sex Week (a.k.a. "the week we nearly killed each other") I was arguing that pedants who say "chairman" isn't sexist, because of its etymology, should be equally happy to use the word "cunt".

Then again, I own The Dictionary of Difficult Words, all three volumes of The Superior Person's Book of Words, worship The Elements of Style, and get on my high-horse about people who over-extend the rule not to use a comma before a conjuctive "and". So even without that last sentence, I'm probably in line for a pedantry award myself...

Charles Hodgson: you can gaze at my navel any time...

Portia Da Costa said...

Sounds like an interesting and useful book, Charles!

kristina lloyd said...

Great article. Thanks Charles. I love this stuff. Ha, poor Robert Browning. Do you think he wrote dirty love poetry about Elizabeth BB's wimple?

Olivia, I think you get wedgy cunt (!) when you try to trace cunt’s etymology back to Latin – and I think it’s generally believed that its origins are more likely to be Anglo Saxon. I may be wrong though. But personally, with that one I just think ‘Um, where’s the wedge?’

Jeremy Edwards said...

Browning . . . was under the mistaken impression that a twat was something that nuns wore on their heads.

I think I saw this concept once, at an X-rated Halloween party.

Thanks, Charles (and Alison), for sharing some great material from your "body" of work!

Jeremy Edwards said...

I think "wedge" is short for wedgeina.

I'm goofing around, of course . . . but, hmm . . . the Latin vagina really was (they think) pronounced with a "w" sound. On the other hand, the "g" was (they think) hard--as of course you'd expect from something that's positioned in the middle of a vagina.

Deanna Ashford said...

I find the original etymology of words fascinating. I sometimes watch that programme on TV - can't remember the name of it - but it focuses on the first recorded mention of a word.

Often the word has been in use much longer. But unless it is written down, or recorded on TV or radio, the date of its initial origin cannot be properly verified. The presenter then does all she can to track down and earlier record of the word in question.

Don't think they would go as far as checking out what the general public now regard as crude slang. However I think it would be interesting for an entire programmed to be based around these words.

Gwen Masters said...

I find the origins of words utterly fascinating. I was the kid who almost got in trouble in class because instead of paying attention, I was reading my pocket dictionary. (I say almost because teachers knew how odd it would sound to say, "Well, she got in trouble for reading the dictionary...")

I wonder what taboo words in today's language will translate into acceptable words in the next few decades?

Olivia Knight said...

Kristina - where's the wedge?
\        / 
 \      /
  \    /
   \  /
The classic "dark triangle" as immortalised so frequently, and so persistently, by Wilbur Smith (whose women all have bums like ostrich eggs, too.) But yes, I think my etymology is suspect, though my entymology is flourishing with all this standing water.

My Oxford college's major claim to fame is the first recorded use of the word "fuck" - in the context of "fuk the abbot" [sic]. I always felt that summed up our air of distinguished learning and sobriety. (Not to mention the first Oxford drinking society...)

Madeline Moore said...


kristina lloyd said...

Is Wilbur's dark triangle a bit like Freud's 'dark continent'?

Thanks for the picture, Olivia. Excellent stuff. Can you do a cock?

Olivia Knight said...

Basically, yes - what a gyanaecologist I went to referred to as "down there" (I assume that's the medical term?)

Umm, cock - let me see.

      ( `)
     /  /
    /  /
   /  /
  /  /
 /  /
/  /
 )  )
 ) )

Step aside, Tracey Emin...

Olivia Knight said...

Err - sorry, Charles. I feel like the kid at the back of the class passing rude pictures around during the lesson...

Right, yes. Sorry, sir. Etymology... Erhemm. Umm... What was the question?

Alison Tyler said...

Olivia, if these are the sorts of notes you passed in class, then, damn, I wish I had sat next to you!

Alison (first cup of coffee) Tyler

triste said...

Etymology doesn't make go all tingly, but I do get a happy feeling when learning the histroy of words...

Lifelong Learner

Charles Hodgson said...

Hi all

I didn't think that checking in before 10 in the morning would make me late to the party. Who knew?

Thanks for all this chatter, let's see if I can add anything useful. As to the etymology of "cunt" I did a piece on Wednesday on the word "cannon" which has an etymology going back to a Semitic word root meaning a hollow tube and is related to "cane" and even "canyon." One of my listeners/readers mused if this same word root might apply to "cunt." I was able to tell her that the Oxford English Dictionary only traces the etymology of "cunt" back to Middle English and some Germanic roots. Similarly the American Heritage Dictionary. Etymonline however lists a longer series of candidate theories for the word's etymology, but none are proven.

Olivia Knight said...

Come sit at the desk next to me, Alison. We can giggle behind our hands and flirt with Mr Hodgson.

 )  (
(  v )

Charles Hodgson said...

I should have said also that one of those theories is the Latin cuneus meaning "wedge" which is certainly the root of our word coin since a wedge shaped tool was used to mint coins.

Ally said...

That was a great post and I can't wait to hear your answers to all these great questions Charles.

Another word most people don’t shout out in the library is “twat”

Oh, but wouldn't that be such fun! I can see it now... some little girl walking up and down the rows of Dr. Seus books singing, twat, twat, twat.

I must have had strange parents.

Back when we were discussing said word "cunt", I wrote:
I recall long ago asking my mother what it was called and she actually said to me 'It's your "cunt", but it's a secret between just girls so don't ever say it, people hate that word, just call it your vagina.'

I also recall that when ever I did something outrageously stupid, or clumsy, my father would laugh and call me a "silly twat". But then these days I'm more likely to call him an "asshole." Just Kidding!

His favorate nickname for me was "squirt". When I had asked him why he always called me that, he just said, 'Because that's whats you were at one time.' I never "got" that little joke of his until I was in my teens. That's when I began calling him a "prick". Not kidding!

I love my dictionary too. It's always within reach and has been since I left highschool at 15. They didn't seem to appreciate my "uneuphemistic" vocabulary.

This has been fun.

Erastes said...

do the words “dictionary” and “etymology” turn you on?

Completely. I'm a word whore. My I-Google is covered in Etymology and dictionary sources. This sort of post is word heaven - thanks Charles!

Charles Hodgson said...

As far as words migrating between being rude or acceptable the word vagina appeared because it was needed as a polite word since cunt was becoming rude in the early 17th century. Cunt had earlier been standard English, appearing in street names and family names. Vagina was brought in as a sophisticated term from Latin where it had originally meant "scabbard" - as in the place to put one's sword.

Anonymous said...

This seems like one of those books every writer should have on her or his shelf, right along side the dictionary and thesaurus. I do have a question, though. Do these pants make my callipygian look big?

Smut Girl said...

*Cunt had earlier been standard English, appearing in street names and family names.*

Fascinating as I prefer cunt to vagina any day...erm...the word.

The first time I saw the word callipygian was in a short story by P.S. Haven. You should have seen me scrambling for my dictionary. And my cheap ass dictionary did not have the word inside. So I had to do an internet search.

Is this not the most fascinating comment of the day? ;) I'm sorry, I'm so distracted by Olivia's artistic skills my brain went blank...


Madeline Moore said...

I love words, and I live with a man who loves words, too. We're both writers of erotica. (Screenplays,too, but screenplays aren't nearly as much fun, word-wise, as fiction.) When one of us uses an unusual word the other preens, (I'm with 'smarty') and we can actually make each other hot with words, and I don't mean dirty talk, know...wonderful words. It's great to live with someone who shares this passion. Felix Baron is his name, as most of you LBs know. He is a walking dictionary, which is absolutely wonderful for me. He actually read dictionaries when he was a wee lad in Canningtown. (sp?)
I know that one thing I will always have is a marvelously improved vocabulary, thanks to my time with him.

and of course, thanks to my membership in Lust Bites, and exposure to people like Charles Hodgson and Murray know who I mean...forget how to spell his last name but love his work. ANd of course, reading my fellow LBs fiction, and their blogs, helps too. Learning new words excites me. I know I can say that in this crowd. I might get teased but deep down, you ALL know what I mean. So don't be pusillanimous about my comments, okay? (Pusillanimous - One of my fave rave words.)

kiki said...

trying again from my lucky darlings iPhone...

Olivia, you are my hero!!! I love love LOVE your grand artistry!!!

and cocks, teats, & cunts??? what a glorious way to start off a sexy weekend of camping and fun!!

*beam* (whew! almost couldn't find the asterisks!)

Alison Tyler said...

cocks, teats, & cunts, oh my!

Enjoy your camping trip, Kiki. We will miss your *beam*


Charles Hodgson said...

Beam is in there too. I'm sure Kiki meant it as in "her face was beaming with a smile" but in the book it refers to the breadth of one's behind. This is from the width of a ship, the deck of which was supported on wooden beams.

Kate Pearce said...

hence 'she's a bit broad in the beam', right?

I've heard that mentioned in my hearing a couple of times :)

I love words and because I occasionally write historicals I love to find good period words to bedazzle my readers with in between the hot sex scenes.

Recently had a long discussion with my crit partners about the word crenellations which they decided sounded like the crinkly bits on top of a muffin or Victorian petticoats rather than bits of a castle-where did that word come from, I wonder?

Anonymous said...

Yes Murray Suid wrote about cunt
but I don't remember the wedge
shaped reference. It does sound
Anglo Saxon. How about coney
and Coney Island? And bunnies.

Charles: What do you think about that?
And what do you know about prick?
Thanks for sharing your love
of words.


Murray Suid said...


As it happens, the word dictionary DOES turn me on--when it's the kind of dictionary that you've written. I can imagine lots of friends enjoying your CARNAL KNOWLEDGE, which sounds like a wonderful gift book.

You mention "tush." Is that word included in your book?

P.S. Alison, thanks for hosting Charles.

kiki said...

fuck! TWAT!!! Nnnnnnnnot teat! dumb ol' teeny weenie keypad.

and yup, i *do* have a broad beam - both the smiling kind and the assular kind. heh heh

Alison Tyler said...

Ah, much better, Kiki,

cocks, and twats, and cunts, oh my!

We love all of your *beams* - broad, assular, and otherwise.


Dayle A. Dermatis said...

do the words “dictionary” and “etymology” turn you on?

Are you kidding?! My OED (two volumes, with a little drawer for the magnifying glass) is the ultimate porn for me!

Charles Hodgson said...

Crenellations do refer to the notchy-blocky bits on top of medieval castles, but this (unbelievably) does relate to the body. Perhaps you are put in mind of petticoats thinking of crinoline.

Crenellations come from Latin crena that means "a notch" and is a word sometimes used to mean the crack between one's buttocks.

Tush from Hebrew seems to come from a word tahath meaning "under" or "below."

Prick has been in English as long as English had been. But the first citation for it being used to mean "penis" was in the mid 1500s.

Kate Pearce said...

"Crenellations come from Latin crena that means "a notch" and is a word sometimes used to mean the crack between one's buttocks."

Well-knock me down with a feather!
Can't wait to share that tidbit with my writing group!
Thank you!

danetteb said...

Hi Charles,
Nice post,I think I got my daily learning today. I didn't know that cock means stick up.
Hugs, Danette

Olivia Knight said...

Madeline: flocculent. Sussuration. Gibbous. Obfuscate. Concupiscent. Bifurcate. Jejune. Contiguous. Now come lick me, you dirty logophile, you...

Oh, and - err, Kiki? You can come too. I've got one or two - um - pictures to show you.

Amanda said...

cool to see a fellow Ottawan up here. and for those who would like to visit Ottawa, Canada, we have a fried treat called a "beaver tail" perhaps Charles has something to say about that ;)