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

The first OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from an Old English translation of Genesis, written around 1000 by the Benedictine Abbot Ælfric of Eynsham:

“Abraham geseah þær anne ramm betwux þam bremelum be þam hornum gehæft” (“Abraham saw there a ram caught in the brambles by his horns”). Genesis 22:13.

In the 15th century, people 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?

[Note: This post was updated on July 1, 2023.]

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