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!)