Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words

Strange Bedfellows

Strange Bedfellows

The Private Lives of Words

by Howard Richler


  • Spring 2010
  • 6″ x 9″ Trade Paperback, 164 pages
  • Language

The English language has never been overly concerned with purity. For centuries it has slept around and been seduced by many foreign influences, indulging in promiscuous relations that have contributed to many alluring word histories. Combining his etymological talents with those of the muck-raking journalist, Howard Richler exposes the often louche baggage that many words have accumulated throughout the centuries.

Discover how “exuberant” used to mean “luxuriantly fertile” and derives originally from “overflowing udders.” Learn how words such as “avocado” and “porcelain” have past associations with some of the nether regions of the body that have been conveniently forgotten by the lovers of fruit and fine china.

With over two hundred select words to uncover, readers will be surprised and delighted by the unexpected liaisons in Strange Bedfellows.

Click here to read a sample chapter of Strange Bedfellows

You Never Knew Came from
Unmentionable Body Parts

People tend to name objects after things that are familiar to them, and
what could be more familiar than our own bodies? The human imagination
can be quite salacious, and some ingenious folks have given certain
objects names that reminded them of certain body parts that, let us
say, should not be mentioned when enjoying high tea in Kensington

The eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope wrote: “True wit is
nature to advantage dressed, / what oft was thought but ne’er so well
expressed.” While it may be the mission of metaphor and imagination
to adorn words with new meanings, it is the deconstructing duty of etymology
to disrobe them.


The ultimate “avocado” ancestor is ahucatl, “testicle,” from the Aztecan
language Nahuatl. The Aztecs felt that not only was the fruit shaped
like a testicle, but that it possessed aphrodisiac properties. To the Spanish
conquistadors, ahucatl proved to be a mouthful and they originally rendered
it as aguacate and eventually moved it to avocado, the Spanish
word at that time for “lawyer.” This may explain why so many lawyers
are ballsy. In any case, after the discovery of the New World, the avocado
was exported to Europe where it became popular both for its taste
and its supposed enhancement of the male libido. English adopted the
word in 1697 and in the eighteenth century many people started calling
this fruit an “alligator pear,” a name still used often in the southern
United States. While Nahuatl has not bequeathed many words to
English, many of them are rather tasty morsels, such as “chocolate”
(which has an entry all to itself in the final section), “guacamole,” “chili,”
“tomato,” “tamale,” “cacao” and “chipotle.”


In recent years, “vanilla” has acquired an adjectival sense and is used to
describe something bland and perhaps uninspiring, e.g., “vanilla sex.”
For example, Wikipedia has an entry for “vanilla sex” and it asserts that
“‘vanilla sex’ is used to describe what a culture regards as standard or
conventional sexual behavior.”

All I can say is, “Vanilla, we hardly knew ya.” Particularly, if you are
like me and vanilla represents your favourite ice cream, you may be discombobulated
to discover that vanilla, etymologically, is a little vagina.
Some randy Elizabethans believed that vanilla had aphrodisiac properties
because of the supposed resemblance of the pod of the plant to the
vagina. “Vanilla” is an extract from the Spanish vainilla, which means
flower or pod. Vainilla, in turn, comes from the Spanish word vaina,
which means sheath. Vaina derives from the Latin vagina, which means
sheath for a sword. It was used lewdly as a term for the female reproductive

While on the subject of words starting with the letter “V,” I would be
remiss if I didn’t provide the vivid and alliterative description of “vulva,”
the external genital organ, from the American Heritage Dictionary — as
the “vestibule of the vagina.” Va-va-voom.


Alas, the bizarre history of this word leads us back to a pig’s vagina. It
was applied in Italian to fine china with the word porcellana, “cowrie
shell.” Porcellana was a derivative of porcella, “little sow,” a form of
porca, “sow” (to which English “pork,” “porpoise” and “porcupine” are
related), and was applied to cowrie shells because to some observers they
resembled the wrinkled external genitalia of female pigs. In case you are
wondering, “cowrie” has no connection to the word “cow” as “cowrie”
derives from the Hindi and Urdu kauri.


This word was borrowed from the Latin testis, “testicles.” According to
lore, in ancient times, a man would testify by placing his hand not on
his heart, but further south on his cherished and trusted testicles. ’Twas
said that should he lie, he would become impotent. I have not, however,
seen compelling empirical evidence supporting this hypothesis. Because
the word “testimony” is also linked to “testicle,” Ms. Magazine received
this suggestion some years ago by an outraged feminist: “I protest the
use of the word ‘testimony’ when referring to a woman’s statements,
because its root is ‘testes,’ which has nothing to do with being a female.
Why not use ‘ovarimony’?” According to Francine Wattman Frank and
Paula A. Treichler in Language, Gender and Professional Writing, this
neologism is a protest against “the Islamic practice of regarding women’s
statements under oath as less valuable than men’s.”

Take that, you Taliban supporters.


This medical miracle is a derivative of the Latin word for “tail” or “paintbrush,”
penicillus, and is an allusion to the bushy nature of its spores. In
Latin, penis originally meant “tail” or “brush,” and only by extension
(pun intended) did it came to mean “male sex organ.” Hence, etymologically
speaking, a pencil is a little penis —you might think twice before
putting that dirty chewed-on one behind your ear. The word “penis” is
a latent bloomer in the English language, making its first entry in the
OED in 1578 in anatomist John Banister’s The Historie of Man: “They
haue left a voyde, and empty corner, for the subsistyng of Penis, and the
Testicles.” The earliest word for the male organ I could find is “pintle,”
for which there is a citation in the OED going back to Old English.


The first definition of “exuberant” in the OED is “luxuriantly fertile or
prolific; abundantly productive.” The word blends the Latin ex-, “out,”
and uber, “udders,” and produces exuberans, “overflowing udders.” Notwithstanding
this etymology, males are as likely as females to be characterized
as exuberant, and I suspect few sows, mares or ewes are truly
exuberant. In any case, knowing this etymology might make you pause
before characterizing your great-aunt as an “exuberant woman.”


The Greek word for “womb” was hystera, and hysterikos meant “suffering
in the womb.” Our ancient forbears believed that many abnormal
states of health and behaviour came about as a result of general irregularities
in the body, and in particular to a nervous disorder, known as
“the vapours,” whose symptoms included fainting and convulsions.
These ancestors (bless their patriarchal, chauvinistic hearts) felt women
were more prone to this malaise as a result of a malfunction in their
wombs. Even as late as 1861, we find this entry for “hysterics” in Isabella
Beeton’s Book of Household Management: “These fits take place . . .
in young, nervous, unmarried women. Young women, who are subject
to these fits, are apt to think that they are suffering from ‘all the ills that
flesh is heir to’; and the false symptoms of disease which they show are
so like the true ones, that it is exceedingly difficult to detect the difference.”
Hence, etymologically, although not in fact, male hysteria is oxymoronic.


The name of this lovely flower grew out of the Greek word for “testicles,”
orchis, because of the supposed resemblance of its double root to
two hairy testicles. Because of this likeness, orchids were once called
“ballock stones,” “ballock” (or “bollock”) being a term for “testicle.” An
orchiectomy is not performed by a florist but rather by a urologist, and
is a rather euphemistic term for castration. This might give you pause
the next time you prune your orchids.


Since the beginning of the twentieth century this term has referred to
something that is considered old-fashioned, out-of-date or unoriginal.
Its original meaning, however, referred to a woman’s vulva and to sexual
intercourse, or to the said woman who served as the conduit of sexual
gratification. The first OED citation in 1697 is from Thomas Durfey’s
Intrigues at Versailles: “Why, how now, ye piece of old Hat, what are ye
musty? the Jade’s as musty as a stale pot of Marmalade of her own making.”
In Francis Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue published
in 1796, he waggishly writes that “old hat” refers to “a woman’s
privities: because frequently felt.” Its first usage as “old-fashioned” or
“out of date” is found in Cornish writer Arthur Quiller Couch’s book
Brother Copas, written in 1911: “Men have . . . put it, with like doctrines,
silently aside in disgust. So it has happened with Satan and his fork:
they have become ‘old hat.’”


Although “burk” is now the most common spelling, the original form
was “berk.” It is a shortening of “Berkeley” and derives from the
Berkeley fox hunt in Gloucestershire. The word “burk” is a British
slang term for “fool,” and it derives from Cockney rhyming slang. In
this arcane argot, “Berkeley hunt” becomes a code for a certain age-old
four-lettered word for the female pudendum, and “burk” becomes the
shorthand designation in the same manner that “raspberry” designates
“fart” as it represents “raspberry tart.” After Rowan Williams, the Archbishop
of Canterbury, in a speech in 2008 endorsed aspects of sharia law
in Britain, the tabloid the Sun ran as its headline: “What a Burka!”

Click here to close the book excerpt.

Also by Howard Richler:


“An etymological delight.”
Concordia University Magazine

“One of the more delightful books to hit my desk this season. . . . It’s a fascinating, informative, and engrossing book on a great number of words, their origin, original meaning, and for some of them, where the English language has stolen them from. It’s also often amusing, and I find myself still—weeks after getting the book—dipping into it.”
— Joseph Planta, The Commentary

“Word nerds rejoice! Howard Richler delivers another riotously funny and informative text. . . .Grade-A cocktail party conversation material.”

“Richler does a good job making his entries accessible and entertaining.”
The Rover