Wednesday, August 05, 2009

It's not offensive. It's etymology (no, not bugs. That's entomology). Let's have fun learning about words!

One of the things my first girlfriend left me (besides a few words of Chinese and a broken heart) was a book. I've had it nearly ten years now. I love it--it's one of my favorite books ever. However, I have to keep it on a bookshelf in my room. I can't leave it lying around in the living room, or put it on the bookshelf downstairs. When I went into the hospital last time, I brought the book with me, and when one of the therapists met with me in my room she looked at the book on my bedside table and said, "Excuse me, but does that book say cunt?"
It does indeed. The book is "Cunt: a declaration of independence" by Inga Muscio. One of the most engaging, inspiring feminist books I've ever read, taking into account the combined sister-powerhood of Gloria Steinem, Naomi Wolf and Betty Friedan. Go buy it, now...NOT at amazon, damn it. Go to your local, independent bookstore, or failing that, hit up powells.com.

So how did I get into the sort of frame of mind, on this particular evening, that would lead me to write about the origins of the C-word? Well, it goes like this (skip this paragraph if you don't care about my life or any humorous references thereto and want to get down to business, as it were). I was researching a Traffic song online, which had popped into my head this evening and which I had just purchased. Said song is entitled "John Barleycorn Must Die." I heard it for the first time in my dad's old Honda when we were driving together on I-70. I must have been seven or so, and I remember it was the most haunting (ie, beautiful, but also...um...disturbing) song I'd heard in my young life. Seriously, go look up the lyrics and tell me they aren't BEYOND sick. Barley, the crop, is personified, and said anthropomorphic personification is 'cut off at the knees,' stabbed with pitchforks, bound to a cart, pulled skin from bone, ground between stones...to make whiskey, y'see.

According to Wikipedia this folksong is positively ancient...the earliest version roughly 500 years old. There have been suggestions that this song is related to the ancient practice of sacrificing a king (or a 'king,' ie, a commoner conned into wearing a funny hat for the proceedings ["Wow, this robe is nice, and this crown, and this mead you keep pouring me--'s terrific...Why are you looking at me like that, guys? Guys? Let's put down the knives, guys. Oh, fu---" THUD.]) at some suitable solstice to ensure the continued/returning fertility of the land.

And there's a hyperlink to an article on human sacrifice. And from there to Norse practices in that regard more specifically (the Germanic peoples weren't as into it as, say, the Celts or the Aztecs...if the Aztecs told you there was something really great to see at the top of all those temple stairs, you would be well advised to take a rain check). And there, in the middle of a description of hangin' and immolatin' I saw a word I'd never seen before: apparently the word for 'wise woman' in some Nordic tongue, "volva." Pretend there's an umlaut over the o. What's this? I thought. Some etymologic relationship? The trip from volva to vulva is short (though thrilling, I'm sure...after all, it's the quality, not the quantity).

So I look up "vulva" in the online etymology dictionary I use, and it tries to feed me a line of BS about Latin, 'vulva' from older Latin 'volva,' related to turning and returning, an enclosure or pouch, twisting about, related to modern Spanish volver, to return...and I said, fool, what?

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