Q: In Colleen McCullough’s historical novel Fortune’s Favorites, one of the characters mentions the Latin term cunnus, which I found means vagina. So Latin is apparently the source of the dirtiest word in the English language, right?
A: No, the word “cunt” is not derived from Latin—it came into English from ancient Germanic sources.
It’s possible that the Latin and Germanic words came from the same Indo-European root, but the Oxford English Dictionary is doubtful because of the presence of the letter “t” in the Germanic words, but not in Latin.
The OED says the “t” in Old Frisian kunte, Old Icelandic kunta, Middle Low German kunte, and other Germanic sources “would not be easy to explain.”
On the Internet, you’ll find lots of nonsense about the origins of “cunt,” including suggestions that it’s an ancient word for “goddess.”
We discussed “cunt” in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions. Here’s what we had to say:
“The usual story, which is quoted from one end of the blogosphere to the other, goes something like this: ‘cunt’ is a sacred ancient word derived from the terms cunti or kunda, titles of the Hindu goddess Kali.
“The truth is more down-to-earth. There’s no evidence that ‘cunt’ comes from the title of a goddess, Hindu or otherwise. It’s a very old English word going back to the Middle Ages, when it meant, as it does today, ‘the female external genital organs,’ according to the OED. The earliest surviving reference (spelled ‘cunte’) appeared around 1325 in the Proverbs of Hendyng, a collection of religious and moral advice from the 1200s and perhaps earlier. In one of the precepts (I’m roughly translating the Middle English), women are advised to ‘Give thy cunte wisely and ask for marriage.’
“Language researchers have discovered even older references within English surnames and street names. The last name Sitbithecunte (sounds like a spoof, doesn’t it?) appeared in 1156 in the Norfolk public records. And Gropecuntelane was a red-light district in London around 1230. It was later called Grub Street (Samuel Johnson lived there), then Milton Street, near what is now the Barbican Centre for performing arts.
[A March 2014 update in the third edition of the OED has even earlier sightings of the use of “cunt” in personal names and place names. The earliest (cuntan heale) is in a land charter recorded in 960.]
“The source of all these words, according to the OED, is believed to be a prehistoric Germanic root that linguists have reconstructed as kunton. That’s about all we can say for sure about the origin of ‘cunt.’ Everything else is speculation, some of it more plausible than the rest. The most unlikely theory is that ‘cunt’ comes from a similar-sounding word like cunti or kunda in Sanskrit, the language of the Hindu holy books.”
We go on to say in Origins of the Specious that English has borrowed lots of words from the languages of India (including “candy,” “guru,” “mantra,” “nirvana,” “yoga,” “bandanna,” “cot,” “dungaree,” “juggernaut,” “jungle,” “loot,” “pundit,” and thug”). But no reputable linguist or etymologist has ever suggested that “cunt” is one of them. Here’s why:
“Most of the words that we’ve adopted from India entered the language during the English colonization of the subcontinent, from the early 1600s until the mid-1900s, well after ‘cunt’ was established in England. And the majority of the Indian words either didn’t have English equivalents or were trendy alternatives. It’s unlikely that we would have adopted an Indian word for such a basic body part.
“Granted, cunti and kunda sound like ‘cunt.’ But could a sound-alike in Sanskrit have given birth to that ancient Germanic root kunton, which presumably gave us the c-word? No way, according to linguists who have studied the ancient languages of Europe and Asia.”
As we say in the book, things here get a bit complicated. Read on:
“Way back when, both Sanskrit and ancient Germanic evolved from Indo-European, a prehistoric language that developed in different ways in different parts of the world. An Indo-European word something like peter, for instance, evolved into pitar in Sanskrit and fadar in ancient Germanic, giving us the modern words vater in German and ‘father’ in English. In ancient times, a ‘k’ sound in a Sanskrit word (like kunda) would have been an ‘h’ sound in Germanic. And a ‘k’ sound in an ancient Germanic root (like kunton) would have been a ‘g’ sound in Sanskrit. Linguists call this sound shift Grimm’s Law. In plain English, we couldn’t have gotten ‘cunt’ from cunti or kunda or any Hindu holy word starting with a ‘k’ sound.”
We go on to say that while the root of “cunt” isn’t divine, it’s not smutty either.
“The ‘cu’ sound in Old English (spelled cwe), like the ‘gu’ sound in ancient Sanskrit, stood for the essence of femininity. The Old English cwithe (‘womb’) was certainly nothing to be ashamed of, and neither was cwene (‘queen’). Sharing this ancestry is our ‘cow’ and the sacred go (pronounced ‘gow’) in Sanskrit.”
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