The Grammarphobia Blog

Why a horn?

Q: What does “horny” have to do with horns?

A: The term “horny,” meaning made of horn or like a horn, is an old word that dates back to the 14th century. But I don’t think that’s the meaning of “horny” you’re asking about.

The first published reference in which “horny” means sexually excited dates from the late 19th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The citation, in an 1889 slang dictionary, defined it as “lecherous, in a state of sexual desire, in a rut.”

But what, you asked, does “horny” have to do with horns? Here’s the story.

The word “horn” itself is very, very old, dating back to Anglo-Saxon days. The earliest citations refer to the horns of cattle, sheep, goats, and other animals.

In the 15th century, folks began using expressions like “give horns to” and “wear horns” in reference to cuckolds. This usage apparently had something to do with the olden practice of grafting the spurs of castrated cocks onto the roots of their extracted combs to grow horns, according to the OED. Don’t ask why!

By the late 18th century, the word “horn” was also being used to mean an erect penis, according to the OED. Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) defined “horn” as a “temporary priapism.” Need I note the resemblance between an erection and a horn?

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