Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Other “C-Word”

Most of the mainstream news media were atwitter over Jane Fonda’s use of the "c-word "on NBC’s Today Show last week while explaining her involvement in a performance of The Vagina Monologues. More enlightened (and, I must say, much more interesting) commentaries are found here and here. And if you haven’t figured it out yet, the “c-word” is a four-letter derogatory name for vagina.

This whole silly episode reminded me of the other “c-word.” Cock is one of those intriguing words in the English language that, depending on the context in which it’s used, can be considered either acceptable or obscene. A quick check of any dictionary reveals that cock has many definitions.

Cock frequently crops up in the vernacular of birders, ornithologists, and wildlife biologists when referring to a male bird, especially one of the gallinaceous variety. For example, make reference to a cock pheasant in mixed company and no one is likely to raise an eyebrow. Cock also appears in the common English names of a few species (e.g., cocks-of-the-rock, snowcocks, and woodcocks).

There are many other acceptable uses of cock, such as ballcock, cockpit, cocksure, cocktail, cock-and-bull, cock-eyed, poppycock, and shuttlecock, to name but a few, and (most incredibly) as a surname.

Cock is also a slang term for penis, of course, a usage which is considered an obscenity never to be used in polite company. Thus, unlike that other unsavory “c-word,” cock is a word that can be socially acceptable or obscene, depending strictly on usage and context. Strange, eh?


Blogger Bill Pulliam said...

I once looked into the etymology of these two c-words, and I believe they are both considered to be derived from the same indo-european root, having to do with mounds, lumps, and bumps. Complementary or opposite pairs derived from the same root are a curious and common feature of linquistic evolution. "Blank," from French "blanc" (white) versus "Black" (from the same IE root by a different path of derivation) are another example.

Also interesting -- The two "rude" c-words are the anglo-saxon derived terms, the speech of the peasants in Norman England. The "polite" words mean the exact same thing, but are derived from Norman French, the language of the ruling class. Sorry, just interjecting a little bit of class politics and linguistic reconstruction...

February 22, 2008 10:21 AM  
Blogger John L. Trapp said...

Thanks, Bill, for your erudite contribution on the derivation of the two "c-words."

February 22, 2008 5:30 PM  

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