Wednesday 12 May 2010

Harlots, Wenches, Strumpets, Whores And Fun Days Out In Merton

David Blunkett called Nick Clegg a harlot yesterday, and he should know one when he feels one. So a post on lovable women.

Harlots are of uncertain origin (see this article). The word appears to have originally meant vagrant and Chaucer used the word to describe jugglers. There's a story that when Jean Harlow mispronounced Margot Asquith's name, Margot corrected her saying 'The T is silent, as in Harlow', but that may not be true.

Prostitutes are not, as I once fondly imagined, women who stand in for (pro stituo) wives, they are women who stand in front of brothels.

Strumpet rhymes with trumpet and crumpet, that is the main reason for the word [limericks in the comments please, and if you don't like it you can lump it]. Nobody's quite sure where the word comes from, but it may have influenced guitars:

TO STRUM: to have carnal knowledge of a woman, also to play badly on the harpsichord or any other stringed instrument. [Capt. Francis Grose, "A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue," 1796]

Whore is a cutting indictment of the sexism of our language, or rather amusing, depending on you point of view. Once upon a time (approximately 6,000 years ago) people buried each other in pits and loved one another, an action they called *qar. They invaded India and wrote the Kama Sutra. They invaded Italy, became Roman and called each other carus or dear, then they caressed and cherished their dear ones, cherie, and were charitable towards them. Some of the pit-burying lovers invaded Germany and started pronouncing C as H (car to har) so they fucked whores*.

There isn't much good prose in Anglo-Saxon. There are a few wonderful poems. The Wanderer, Seafarer, Ruin, Wife's Lament and  Beowulf are beautiful. Prose-wise Anglo-Saxon's a bunch of crap. Alfric's colloquies are insanely inane. His Preface to Genesis is worse; and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle exalts upon plateaus of tedium never dreamt of by wet paint. Therefore, to fill out the prose section of any Anglo-Saxon course people insist upon teaching you Cynewulf and Cyneheard, the only almost interesting part of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Basically a chap killed another chap while he was visiting a prostitute. Unfortunately for posterity and teachers of Anglo-Saxon this murder was so bloody exciting that for most of the story the chronicler forgets to mention which one is which. It's all "They said 'Come out" and they said 'No you come out.' Then they came out and they saw them and they killed the them that was they." [I had to do a damned exam on this]

However, to be fair to the chronicler he did say that he [Cynewulf] was : "wīfcȳþþe on Merantūne"

Wif [wife] meant woman and cȳþþe [pronounced coother] meant intimacy.We were instructed to translate wīfcȳþþe on Merantūne as "wenching in Merton". I'm glad that we were. I am glad to have written the word wenching at least once.

Things have changed in Merton. It's just a part of South London. There's no stockade there anymore and I've just discovered that, according to Merton Borough Council's website, the main reason for visiting the place is now the community toilet scheme.

*Before I get beaten to death by an enraged mob of philologists, I should point out that my fixing on the Kurgan pit-burial culture and my use of the word invade are both decisions based on caprice and whimsy.

P.S. I know I mentioned prostitutes last week. I shall try and keep off the sex trade for a while. It's all David Blunkett's fault.
P.P.S. For those of you who like etymology this video is really very funny and fascinating. (Hat-tip to Bradshaw of the Future)


  1. I have an eight page handwritten letter of complaint (I collect them) in which a very cross woman complains about the state of her gutters after they had allegedly been cleaned by a man with one arm who had trouble hanging on to his ladder. (This all happened in Yorkshire - where else?)

    When the one-armed man allegedly told the complaining woman to 'Fuck Off' she digresses into a tangent about how the verb fuck derives from the Anglo Saxon meaning 'to pound as in a mortar in a pestle'.

    Is this correct?

  2. No. People disagree wildly about what the first reference to fuck is. The only Anglo-Saxon reference is to a place called Fuccerham, which some scholars tenuously suggest was full of fuckers. This is unlikely.

    A fifteenth century poem called Flen Flyys is the first actual example, and in it the word fuck means exactly what it does now. (Unless you can think of another sin monks might commit with the wives of Ely).

    There are cognates in Scandinavian languages so the word was probably around in Anglo-Saxon but never written and I've never heard of any connection to pestles and mortars.

    I would love to have seen the one armed man up that ladder. A friend once told me, I think correctly, that comedy was a one-legged man at an arse-kicking contest.

  3. O dear.

    I've told a Young Scholar, who wanted to be assured that he wouldn't encounter any bad language over the course of his degree, that fuck was actually a culinary term ...

  4. As requested:

    There once was a girl named Miss Lumpet
    Who was quite the well-skilled young strumpet.
    Her johns all have sworn
    That she blew such good horn
    That they wailed like a Marsalis trumpet.

  5. I wonder if this cyþþe is distantly related to cunt, which cannot be a native word because of the Ingvaeonic Nasal Spirant Law, and must be borrowed from some Germanic language that was unaffected.

  6. Dogberry - you may have assumed my mortar and pestle had been transposed inadvertently.

    Not so!

    (Given the diagram the outraged correspondent supplied.)

  7. Pestle and Mortar always sounds to me like a comedy duo or perhaps a shop on Bond Street.
    @John Cowan. I see what you mean. You're suggesting an original word cynth that dropped the N when it was imported from Germany and ended up meaning familiarity. The word would then have dropped the h in German before being imported again with the modern meaning (in the same way that chef got imported from French twice as chief and chef with a different meaning each time).
    It might well be true. The one sticking point would be that the only known cognate appears to be O.N. kunta with the plosive t rather than the fricative th. But that doesn't detract from the possibility, merely makes it harder to prove.