Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Words (some dirty, some not)

I love words and their origins.  When I was in school, I was lucky to have several teachers who shared this love and taught us the etymology of words along with the subject matter they were supposed to be teaching.  Here are a few (a very few) of my favorites:

A testis, the male sex organ located in the scrotum, is a direct use of a Latin noun.  In Latin, “testis” means “one who gives evidence, a witness.”  How did we come to use that word for a man’s balls?  My take is that the testicle (“little witness”) is evidence that the body containing the testicle is male.  Proof of virility, in other words.  Fascinating!  When I was studying German, we read a lot about the Arthurian legends because Arthur was very much a part of the Siegfried story in German myth.  In the old telling of these myths, a character who wanted to swear that what he was saying was true would grab his balls while he was speaking.  Earthy, and another connection to the root Latin noun.

Penis comes directly from the Latin word “penis,” which means “tail.”  Obviously, males chose this word for its suggestion of length!!!

Vagina comes directly from the Latin word “vagina” meaning “sheath” or “scabbard,” the object into which a knight or soldier puts his sword.  Picturesque, and also a word clearly developed by males from the male point of view.

Carnival has several meanings in English.  It can mean a traveling road show with rides for kids, games, and tents housing bearded ladies and sword eaters.  It’s original meaning, though, is the one that applies to the pre-Lenten festivities in Catholic countries like Brazil and Spain.  It comes from two Latin words: “caro (carnis)” meaning flesh, and “vale,” meaning farewell.  So “carnival” means farewell to flesh.  It talks about the practice in the days before effective long–term storage for meat, of eating up all the meat before the start of Lent, during which meat wasn’t eaten.  Carnival, then, is a festival of meat–eating in preparation for Lent.

Orion is the great hunter in Greek mythology after whom the constellation is named.  His name comes from the Greek word “urion,” meaning “urine.”  One of the several myths of Orion’s creation (and the reason for his name) is that he was born after Zeus pissed into a ox hide which Poseidon buried in the ground.  Orion was created from the pairing of the god’s piss and ox hide.  Nasty!

Masturbation is a cool word.  It comes from two Latin words: “manus,” meaning “hand,” and “stupere,” meaning “to stun.”  So masturbation means stunning with the hand.  Does that make the hand a “stun gun” in this usage?  By the way, “stupere” also is the Latin root for the English word “stupid.”  Is there a connection?  I sure hope not!

Also interesting is the use of the word “Onanism” to mean masturbation.  Onan was the guy in Genesis who, while having sex with his sister–in–law, pulled out and “spilled his seed on the ground.”  Onan was punished for this.  For years, little boys have been terrorized with warnings that masturbation will bring upon them the punishment of Onan.  Onan wasn’t masturbating.  Onan wasn’t punished for wasting his seed.  Onan was punished for coitus interruptus, or using that form of birth control with his sister–in–law.  His sister–in–law was the widow of Onan’s brother, and ancient Hebrew law required the surviving brother to take the widow of his dead brother as his own wife and give her children.  Onan’s failure to inseminate his brother’s widow was a violation of that law and it was for that violation he was condemned in the Scripture.

If ever you have been to a Seder, chances are you’ve had Mogen David wine.  The wine used at Seder is a very sweet red wine.  Mogen David is Hebrew for “Star of David,” the emblem you’ll find prominent on the wine’s label.  I don’t know why, but this fascinates me.

I love the word “putz.”  It’s a Yiddish word that’s used to mean someone who is a fool.  The Yiddish word is a vulgar term for penis.  So when someone calls me a “putz” they’re calling me a dick or a prick.  There’s a cool Yiddish saying: “Wenn der Putz steht, liegt die Sinne in d’Erde.”  “When you have a hard–on, your mind is out of commission” [that’s an idiomatic translation!]

“Babushka” is a scarf that women sometimes wear around their heads.  I love this word!  It just rolls off the tongue.  It comes directly from the Russian.  “Babushka” in Russian means “grandmother.”  Kinda makes sense when you think about it.  Most young women probably wouldn’t want to be caught dead in a babushka!

Finally, the word “grip” comes up a lot in credits for movies.  Grip?  What the hell is a grip?  Turns out to be people who help with lightening on the set and with camera placement and movement.  The boss of the grips is the “key grip.”  In the old days, when cameras had to be cranked by hand, some guys grabbed hold of the legs of the tripod on which the camera was placed so that, as the camera was cranked, the cranking wouldn’t jar the camera and so ruin the shot.

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