Chaucer’s Cunt

Now that I have your attention, I regret to inform you that he didn’t have one. On several occasions recently, sometimes in conversations about censorship, I have heard people say that Chaucer used the word “cunt.” Indeed, Wikipedia says, “The word appears several times in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (c. 1390) in bawdy contexts, but it does not appear to be considered obscene at this point, since it is used openly.” Similarly, RationalWiki proclaims that “Chaucer used the word unblushingly in his Canterbury Tales.”

Oddly, these statements are followed by quotes from The Canterbury Tales that belie them, for the word that Chaucer uses is not “cunt,” but “queynte.” “Queint,” as a noun, literally means “a clever or curious device or ornament” (Middle English Dictionary) or an “elegant, pleasing thing” (Riverside Chaucer). When used to refer to a woman’s genitalia, it is both a euphemism and a pun.

Chaucer uses “queint” several times in his earthier tales. The Miller’s Tale is a fabliau about a carpenter, his much younger wife, a young Oxford clerk who is lodging with them and another clerk, who is somewhat squeamish about farting. Both clerks have naughty feelings toward the young wife, and she reciprocates the lodger’s lust. The tale involves adultery, farting, pissing, a badly misplaced kiss, a burning poker in a very sensitive area and a fake deluge. One day, when the carpenter is away, the lodger, Nicholas, begins “to rage and pleye” with Alison, the young wife, and…

As clerkes ben ful subtile and ful queynte,
And prively he caughte hire by the queynte,
And seyde, “Ywis, but if ich have my wille,
For deerne love of thee, lemman, I spille.” (MT I (A) 3275-3278)

(As clerks are very ingenious and clever, and discreetly he caught her by the pleasing thing and said, “Indeed, unless I have my will, I will spill (die) for secret love of you, my dear.”)

Chaucer also uses “queint” in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue. In lecturing one of her husbands, she says that, as long as he has enough of what he wants, he shouldn’t care what other folks get:

For, certeyn, olde dotard, by youre leve,
Ye shul have quente right ynogh at eve (WBP III (D) 332-333)

(For indeed, old dotard, by your leave, you shall have plenty of the precious thing (or, more generally, sexual gratification) in the evening.)

Later she asks,

What eyleth yow to grucche thus and grone?
Is it for ye wolde have my queynte allone? (WBP III (D) 444-445)

(What ails you to complain and groan so? Is it because you alone would have my precious thing? NB One of the manuscripts, Cambridge, University Library II.3.26, does read “cunte” in this passage)

A few lines later, she refers to her favorite body part as her “bele chose” (Fr. belle chose, lovely thing).

“Cunt,” like many naughty words for body parts and bodily functions, probably has its origins in Old English. It certainly has cognates in other medieval Germanic languages, such as Old Norse kunta and Old Frisian, Middle Low German and Middle Dutch kunte (Oxford English Dictionary). There are no known instances of it in Old English, however. James McDonald, in The Wordsworth Dictionary of Obscenity and Taboo, suggests that it may be related to Old English cynd, which means “origin, generation, birth, kind, offspring” and can also mean “genitalia” (Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary).

According to The Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest use of “cunt” is in the street name “Gropecuntelane” (c. 1230). The earliest instance of “cunt” used to refer to the vagina comes from around 1325 (OED, MED). McDonald also cites several personal names that incorporate “cunt” (a number of these are earlier than “Gropecuntlane”). He lists the women’s names Gunoka Cuntles (1219) and Bele Wydecynthe (1328) and men’s names Godwin Clawecuncte (1066), Simon Sitbithecunte (1167), John Fillecunt (1246) and Robert Clevecunt (1302). Ladies, if you ever meet a man named Godwin Clawcunt or Robert Cleavecunt, run!

According to McDonald, “cunt” was used to refer to the vagina without any suggestion of vulgarity until roughly the end of the fourteenth century. Chaucer, who died in 1400, was therefore writing The Canterbury Tales at a time when cunts were disappearing from polite society; consequently, he hinted at the word without actually using it.

ES

References:

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Riverside Chaucer. 3rd ed. Gen. ed. Larry D. Benson. Boston: Houghton, 1987.

Clark Hall, J. R. A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. Suppl. by Herbert D. Merritt. 4th ed. Medieval Academy Reprints for Teaching 14. U of Toronto P, 1960.

McDonald, James. The Wordsworth Dictionary of Obscenity and Taboo. Ward, Herts.: Wordsworth, 1996.

Middle English Dictionary Online. University of Michigan. http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/med/

Oxford English Dictionary: OED Online. Oxford UP, 2010. Subscription only.

15 Responses to Chaucer’s Cunt

  1. L.Long says:

    I really despise peoples aversion to ‘naughty language’ as if it really exists. It is a fiction invented by groups to feel Superior to other groups.
    Cunt or vagina or the disgusting VeJayJay are not really different except in the mind (assuming they have one) of the listener.
    The worse one if SEX & LOVE. “They are making love…”
    BS-they are having sex and plucking each others brains out. Love has nothing much to do with it.
    The whole thing is basically silly purposeless people trying to to be important.
    The whole Twain rewrite is another example of this stupidity.

    • Eve says:

      Well, native English (or at least Germanic) words that were once perfectly acceptable were increasingly replaced by Latin words and euphemisms after the Norman Conquest. The worst has got to be “pudendum,” which means “that of which one ought to be ashamed.”

  2. Adam says:

    I decide to get in some websurfing before work, and I’m greeted by an analysis on the historical context of the word “cunt.”

    I think it’s gonna be a good day.

  3. Bob says:

    I’m convinced we should have called the site “Gropecuntlane.”

  4. I think (though I stand to be corrected) that the philologically equivalent word in French is “con” – which is now used to mean “idiot”, and is little or no more offensive than the word “idiot”, as anybody who saw the film “Diner des cons” on television the other night can testify.

    • Eve says:

      Yes, French “con” seems to come from Latin “cunnus.” The other Romance languages have similar words, but I don’t know if they have evolved along similar lines. I believe in some countries (Britain, Australia, New Zealand)”cunt” is sometimes used a somewhat analogous way. That is to say it can be addressed to males as well as females and may be intended jovially rather than insultingly.

  5. Shea says:

    Hi Eve, did you come across the term cunt splice? Apparently a nautical term. I first saw it mentioned in the book Master & Commander

    • Eve says:

      No, I can’t say I have. I’m looking it up now. Sounds painful, though.

      ETA: I see that “cunt splice” is frequently bowdlerized to “cut splice” and has been since the Victorian era.

  6. Bob says:

    You know, in WWI-WWII, the army wore “cunt caps”, and if you watch Sergeant York, you’ll see how they got that name.

  7. Mumble says:

    My dutch friends have assured me that in the netherlands, the dutch word for cunt is used regularly as an everyday swearword in the same context in which we brits would say “damn” and with roughly the same level of vulgarity.

  8. […] As I viewed the electronic copy of Fang’s text, I found I agreed with Beidler and Xiao that many of the changes that Fang had made to Chaucer’s text were quite minor. For instance, the Middle English “knedyng trogh” or “kymelyn” (3548) is difficult to translate (it’s a container one uses to brew liquor or salt meat)—so Fang’s functional approximation was 澡盆 [bathtub] (69). Other times, more meaningful wordplay got “lost in translation.” Chaucer’s punning Middle English references to Alisoun’s “queynte” (vagina), most noticeably, became references to 她的腰 [her waist] (54). (For for more on the double entendre involved in Chaucer’s use of “queynte,” see this entry in the Middle English Dictionary and this related blog posting.) […]

  9. […] Siebert at Skeptical Humanities has a great post on this […]

  10. shmiggen says:

    The word, ‘queynte’ was taken later (by Chaucer) to mean vagina. In other words, it did mean ‘a pleasing thing’, and then later it meant vagina (because that was Chaucer’s intent).

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