May 23, 2013

Dirty words and the "bunny" problem

You can now tell your friends that you know a dirty word in ancient Greek.  Apparently, in sophisticated writing the Greeks would never use βινέω (bin-AY-o).  In use (as opposed to the dictionary entry) it was βινῶ, (bin-OH), "I fuck."

As you might imagine, the dictionaries of ancient Greek have really lightened up about βινέω in the last century or so.  The 19th-century Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek lexicon defines it with Latin plus a gentle explanation: "inire, coïre, [go in, unite] of illicit intercourse," and the Chantraine Dictionnaire Étymologique de la Langue Grecque (1984-90) adds the more literal Latin futuere.  (For Latin dirty words, see J. N. Adams, The Latin Sexual Vocabulary.)  Today, the new ancient-Greek dictionary the Diccionario Griego-Espanol is wonderfully straightforward, defining the word with the infinitive joder, which is also what a Spaniard will say when he stubs his toe.  The DGE contains several excellent quotes such as ὅστις γε πίνειν οἶδε καὶ βινεῖν μόνον, "he only knows how to drink and fuck,"1 and ἥδιστον εστιν ἀποθανεῖν βινοῦνθ᾽ ἅμα, "it is pleasantest to die fucking at the same time."2  The DGE translates the (imperfect-tense) passive form of βινέω as mariconeaba, which I gather means "he was being fucked in the ass."  

The ancient Athenians themselves sometimes softened βινέω for public consumption to κινέω (kin-AY-oh), which usually means "to move."  The LSJ uses "sens. obsc." (sense obscure) for this euphemism, while the etymological dictionary notes the sens erotique.  Moving from β to κ to soften the impact on sensitive ears may have a parallel in the move from "coney" to "bunny" in English to refer to a rabbit.  It's an interesting coincidence.  The Oxford English Dictionary and etymological dictionaries of English all say that "bunny" is a familiarization of "bun" to refer to the animal, based on the little "bun" tail it has.  Hardly anyone now uses "coney" for rabbits.  Yet there is an internet rumor, which has occasionally made it into print, that "bunny" became popular when the earlier word "coney" came (with a vowel shift) to sound very much like "cunny"--the female pudenda.  I have not been able to find evidence for this happening; the printed evidence for it is speculative.  One day I'll look more closely at how the senses developed.

1. HOS-tis geh PINein OY-deh kai bin-EIN MON-on; Aristophanes, Frogs, line 740.
2. HEY-distohn estin apothanEIN binOONT HAMa; fragment 6 of the work of the comic poet Philetaeros

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