Sunday, April 22, 2012

Fun with words

My blog post, “How gay is too gay” and all the great responses to the question got me thinking. When did the word “gay” come to be a label for homosexuality? It was interesting how everyone responded to the question. It was also interesting how some words like "queer" some thought was a cool term, others it pissed off. So if you know me, then you know my mind then started going off in a hundred different directions. I started thinking about Dick. I remember calling him (he lives in London) years ago and asking him what he was up too, his response was “Stroking my pussy.” I snickered when I realized a Dick was telling me he was stroking his pussy. Richard (dick) was simply petting his cat, yet my mind went straight to the gutter. 
(Don’t judge “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Oscar Wilde)
Anyway, as I said my mind started to roam and I began to wonder when did pussy became a label for a vagina, when did Dick become a derogatory word or a label for a penis? I need to know these useless bits of information and if you want to know too, here ya go.
noun, plural puss·ies.
a cat, especially a kitten.
the game of tipcat.
the tapering piece of wood used in tipcat.
puss1  + -y2

"Pussy" as a slang term for the female pudenda is thought to derive ultimately from Low German puse "vulva" or Old Norse puss "pocket, pouch". It didn't arise in English with a sexual meaning until the 19th century, but prior to that it had been used to refer to women in general (16th century). It has since also come to mean "effeminate, feeble, or homosexual men or boys" (20th century).

noun Slang .
a detective.
Vulgar . penis.

1545–55;  generic use of the proper name

The name Dick (like the name Jack) was used colloquially to mean a man or everyman. The expression "every Tom, Dick, or Harry" attests to the this as a long-established usage; Shakespeare uses "every Tom, Dick, or Francis" in Henry IV Part I.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites a dick as meaning a type of hard cheese in 1847, which lead to the usage of "spotted dick" The term "dick" was also used to mean a riding whip, an apron, the mound around a ditch, and an abbreviation for "dictionary" around 1860.

The term "dick" came to mean policeman around 1908, and then detective.

And we finally get to where you started. The use of "dick" as coarse slang for penis first arises around 1890. Tracking the history of uncouth words is not easy, since such expressions were not generally written down. How "dick" came to be associated with penis is not known, although the riding whip may have pointed the way.  Full explanation


adjective gay·er, gay·est,
of, indicating, or supporting homosexual  interests or issues: a gay organization.
having or showing a merry, lively mood: gay spirits; gay music. Synonyms: cheerful, gleeful, happy, glad, cheery, lighthearted, joyous, joyful, jovial; sunny, lively, vivacious, sparkling; chipper, playful, jaunty, sprightly, blithe. Antonyms: serious, grave, solemn, joyless; staid, sedate; unhappy, morose, grim; sad, depressed, melancholy.
bright or showy: gay colors; gay ornaments. Synonyms: colorful, brilliant, vivid, intense, lustrous; glittering, theatrical, flamboyant. Antonyms: dull, drab, somber, lackluster; conservative.
Slang: Often Disparaging and Offensive . awkward, stupid, or bad; lame: This game is really gay.

The "Dictionary of American Slang" reports that gay (adj.) was used by homosexuals, among themselves, in this sense since at least 1920.

Rawson ["Wicked Words"] notes a male prostitute using gay in reference to male homosexuals (but also to female prostitutes) in London's notorious Cleveland Street Scandal of 1889.

Ayto ["20th Century Words"] calls attention to the ambiguous use of the word in the 1868 song "The Gay Young Clerk in the Dry Goods Store," by U.S. female impersonator Will S. Hays.

The word gay in the 1890s had a tinge of promiscuity; a gay house was a brothel.

The suggestion of immorality in the word can be traced back to 1637.

Gay as a noun meaning "a (usually male) homosexual" is attested from 1971.

1. a long-eared, slow, patient, sure-footed domesticated mammal, Equus asinus,  related to the horse, used chiefly as a beast of burden.
any wild species of the genus Equus,  as the onager.
a stupid, foolish, or stubborn person.
before 1000; Middle English asse, Old English assa,  probably hypocoristic form based on Old Irish asan  < Latin asinus;  akin to Greek √≥nos  ass

The Old English ears "arse" turns up in the name of a bird called the wheatear. Not only does it have no external ears but it has nothing to do with wheat, either. In earlier days, the bird was known as a wheatears (i.e. "white-arse") on account of its conspicuous white rump. Even more surprisingly, the word squirrel comes from the same Indo-European source. The first element in squirrel refers to "shade", a possible allusion to their preference for living in trees but more probably referring to the second element in the word, "tail", with the etymological meaning of "shade tail". 
Why is ass considered derogatory? A moment's reflection on the condition of most human hindquarters before the advent of modern hygiene and the answer becomes readily apparent. In fact, many Old English words for parts of the body that we normally conceal came to be considered vulgar during the prim and proper Victorian Era, and ass became an unspeakable word. This so much so that we even stopped referring to donkeys as asses, too (donkey is a diminutive of Duncan, a common name given to asses).
More importantly, how did we get ass from arse? British English speakers still spell it arse, but as they are non-rhotic (not pronouncing r's between a consonant and a vowel) it comes out as "ahss". That approximate pronunciation was kept in the U.S. but the spelling was changed to match it. 

So from "ears" to "arse" to "ahse" to "ass." What a fun language! The point, of course, is that the donkey had always been an "ass" from the abbreviation of its Latin name: Equus asinus.

So what words to you wonder about?

No comments:

Post a Comment