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The Etymology of Slang Sexual Terms

The word horny "sexually excited, lecherous" derives from an interesting yet not surprising source.  As early as the mid-18th century, an erection was known as a horn or the horn, simply because it looked a bit like one. James Joyce even used the term in his Ulysses.  From there, any man having the horn was called horny, and this is first recorded in 1889.  It was surely in use long before then, as the horn probably was.  It often takes some time for lewd slang to make it into the written record.


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).

A reader has asked about the word cunt, wondering if it had something to do with "cunning" as in "a cunning woman was a negative thing".  It has nothing to do with cunning (which is related to the verbs ken and can) and everything to do with what it means today: "female genitalia".  It first shows up in a list of London street names of about 1230.  That street name was, interestingly, Gropecuntelane, one of a warren of streets and alleyways all given over to the lowest forms of prostitution and bawdry.  It lay between Aldermanbury and Coleman Street (where the Swiss Bank stands today) and it belonged to one "William de Edmonton".  Curiously, medieval Paris had a street name with an identical meaning - Rue GratteconOxford and York apparently also had similar versions of that street name.

Cunt is believed to derive from a Germanic root *kunton "female genitalia", which also gave rise to Old Norse kunta (ancestor of Norwegian and Swedish dialectical kunta and Danish dialectical kunte), Old Frisian, Middle Low German and Middle Dutch kunte, and the English doublet quaint.  And, by the way, the word wasn't always considered derogatory, even though it is today.  Be careful about assuming that a word's modern connotations must have governed its formation.  By the way, no connection has been made between the Germanic words and Latin cunnus.  The proto-Germanic root of cunt is ku- "hollow place", while the Indo-European root of Latin cunnus is (s)keu- "to cover, to conceal", the etymological meaning of cunnus being "sheath".

Poontang is an interesting word.  It is so far removed linguistically from what it means in English that Melanie's grandmother taught Melanie and her siblings and cousins a rhyme when they were young that goes like this:

What's my name?  Pudding Tang.*
Ask me again and I'll tell you the same.

Grandma was (and is!) a God-fearing, proper woman, and she would never teach her grandchildren something lewd or bawdy.  She probably learned the verse as a senseless rhyme when she was a child.  This smacks strongly of a folk etymology formed by people who did not understand the term poontang.  If that's what it is, the couplet indicates that the term poontang has been around for some time -- Grandma was born in 1909!  Interestingly, the first example of the word in writing is from 1929.  That's not surprising, as a writer would have had to be mighty brave to record that word before it had become common and lost some of its edge.

SINCE PUBLISHING THE ABOVE, we were made aware of a discussion by linguist Doug Wilson regarding the relationship between puddin' tain and poontang.  He concludes that the two are not related, and he gives some good evidence.

What exactly does poontang mean?  It has several meanings: a woman as a sex object, sexual intercourse, and probably the ultimate meaning, female pudenda.  So where did such a bizarre-sounding word come from?  There are several theories.  Probably the most popular is that it derives from Louisiana (and standard) French putain "whore".  This is possible as most people we know who are familiar with the word are from Louisiana or some state nearby, or they first heard the word from a citizen of that area.  However, the connection to putain is based mostly on conjecture, because of the similarity of the French word to the English one.  Some etymologists specializing in slang think that the word more likely derives from a Chinese language, as there are variant forms like poon tai and poon kai.  One school has it coming from some Filipino language, while Eric Partridge guesses it is of American Indian origin.

Oh, we found it amusing to learn that the following statement is widely attributed to John F. Kennedy immediately after he was elected president in 1960: "I guess this means my poon days are over."

*Some variations are Puddin' Tame and, Puddin' Tain.  We thought Grandma was saying "Puddin' Tang" and believe that was influenced by the popularity of the powdered orange drink "Tang" at the time (late 60s/early 70s).

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Last Updated 01/23/10 07:34 PM