How 'Dirty' Words Got Dirty
Want to know who the original Dick is? We sure did.
This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
When I was in elementary school, the first thing I did with new dictionaries was find the bad words, circle them, and draw helpful illustrations in the margins for the next kid. This was before smartphones and streaming porn. Over the years, my love of language evolved: I eventually took Latin and Ancient Greek in college and discovered no job prospects (hence, this story) but also a wonderful world of language histories. Meanwhile, my love of filth remained unbreakable and constant.
As I learned, words carry incredible stories packed between their letters and sounds, and we carry those histories with us today. Words are like little crime scenes. They chronicle the rise and fall of empires, the deeds of the earliest people, and humanity's greatest secrets. By breaking down the roots of modern language, we can also find out when people started calling ding dongs "dicks" and snatches "cooches" and important stuff like that.
While there are many great words to chose from, we found names for body parts that tell particularly fascinating stories. Remember, history is a murky subject filled with endless debate, and the same rule applies when it comes to wieners, baby cannons, poopers, and junk. We also rated each word according to VICE's rigid scientific standards to show how acceptable these terms are for public use, in case you want to add them to your vocabulary. The rating system goes from one to five stars, with one being the immediate end of your Tinder date and five being the most likely to impress potential employers at job interviews. Below are the graphic histories of some top-notch body parts.
The word "piss" likely originates from the early French term "pisser," because the French were so fashionable with their French piss. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) database, the earliest physical documentation to mention the English verb "to piss" comes from a quote in a manuscript about biblical saints. That's right, we've been pissing since the Bible years, if you can believe it. God created the heavens and earth and showered us with golden love.
The story, written down around 1300, is about St. James the Great, who chilled with Jesus more than 2,000 years ago. Apparently, one day, James met a pilgrim who was tricked by the devil into cutting off his own penis. The Old English tale says the man would squat "ȝwane he wolde pisse"—or squat "when he would piss," due to his severed unit. James refused to miraculously heal the poor guy because God likes justice, or something.
Eyeball; puke; to elbow
The connection between these three bodily terms is their inventor, Shakespeare. That dude came along in the late 1500s and decided to invent hundreds of words because English was total shit back then. While there's some debate as to the Bard being the first to use them, he certainly made them cool. He popularized new words through plays and poems, which were dirty, action packed, and layered with new lingo. Bonus points for his pun on the word "cunt" in Hamlet:
Hamlet: Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
Ophelia: No, my lord.
Hamlet: I mean, my head upon your lap? [Guys, "head" means penis and "lap" means vagina]
Ophelia: Ay, my lord.
Hamlet: Do you think I meant country matters?
See. Filthy stuff. Speaking of the C-word....
* (North American rating)
***** (British/Australian rating)
The earliest recorded use of the word "cunt," as written in the OED, comes from Middle English and a magical place called Gropecuntlane, documented around 1230. For some reason, they renamed Gropecuntlane in central Oxford, England, to Grove Passage and Magpie Lane. The word might have also described land features, such as "a cleft in a small hill or mound," like in a place called Cuntelowe, Warwickshire, from 1221 that no longer exists. It could have also meant "a wooded valley," as in the once noble, now vanished Cuntewellewang, Lincolnshire, documented in about 1317. So many once great cunts, now ruined.
The most recognizable early usage of "cunt" is written in the Middle English Proverbs of Hendyng from around 1325, which says, "Ȝeue þicunte to cunnig, And crave affetir wedding." The translation is, "Give your cunt wisely and make (your) demands after the wedding." Life hacks.
Early Germanic people apparently first said "puss" to mean cat. Later, we looked at vaginas and agreed they are very cat-like. The OED notes the earliest written use of the word "pussy" comes from the lyrics of a 1699 song, "Puss in a Corner," which features this standout rhyme: "As fleet as my feet could convey me I sped / To Johnny who many times pussy had fed." Ayyyy lmao. The dictionary helpfully accompanies this historical instance of the word with this usage example: "Pussy: to eat pussy." It also gives this historical usage from Philocomus's 1865 verses in "Love Feast": "My poor pussy, rent, and sore, dreaded yet longed for one fuck more." Hallmark, are you paying attention?
Anus; the backdoor
The word "anus" comes directly from the Latin term "ānus," which means "circle" or "ring." Despite popular belief, that's what Beyoncé actually meant when she said, "put a ring on it." While we can't finger an exact date, we know asses and ass play are not recent inventions, and neither are the many low-key ways we talk about them. For instance, a play from 1613 called The Insatiate Countess features this remarkable dialogue between two female characters:
Thais: But you mean they shall come in at the backdoors.
Abigail: Who, our husbands? [They] may, and they [won't come] in at the front doors, [and] there will be no pleasure in it.
That, my friends, is a conversation about anal sex from a time period when people dressed like in the photo above.
*** (standard rating)
***** (Richard Branson rating)
The history of dick is long and hard, but here's just the tip. The book A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature by Gordon WIlliams notes the medieval poet Chaucer wrote about characters getting "dicked." Chaucer was using "dicking" to mean intercourse back in the late 1300s. Dick is, of course, a pet name for Richard, which the OED cites in an example from 1553 in Thomas Wilson's Arte of Rhetorique.
When precisely the shortened form of Richard became a vulgar term for penis is a slippery detail. The name Richard, common in Old English times, came to mean "fellow, lad, [or] man." The Pro-German origin of Richard, "Ricohard," means something like "hard ruler" or "brave leader."
While we may never know who the first Dick was, we certainly know the most famous OG Dick: Richard I the Lionheart of England, leader of the Third Crusade in the 12th century. While Richard was already a popular Norman name, that prick Lionheart may have helped put Dick on the map. Richard I slapped his girthy empire all over Europe, spreading the name like an STI. With all that Dick penetrating the mainstream, the word eventually stood for "a man" in general and by extension, "a penis." The great poets of old went on to firmly plant Dick in the annals of history, and we couldn't get enough of it. (Please don't take away my puns, editors of VICE, it's all I have going for me.)
Follow Devin Pacholik on Twitter.