Medieval Dutch conte is linguistically related to the English word cunt. But the origin of both the Dutch word and the English word is unknown. In this article, the etymological intricacies of the Middle Dutch word are explored
Etymologically speaking, vaginas are mighty interesting. On the one hand, a vagina is a basic body part that belongs to what linguists would call the core vocabulary of any language. We therefore expect it to retain lexical material of considerable age, reaching far back into linguistic prehistory. In English for example, words for ‘foot’, ‘heart’, ‘eye’ and ‘ear’ are all inherited words going back to the Proto-Indo-European ancestral language that was spoken six thousand years ago. When we take a look in the dictionaries of Greek, Latin and Old Indic we will find words for these body parts that look remarkably similar and derive from the same prehistoric roots. It is therefore clear that body parts can be an extremely conservative part of the lexicon. On the other hand, vaginas also belong to the semantic category of taboo words which makes them prone to originate in expressive metaphors and borrowing. This is why in many languages a relatively young term for vagina is used, one that is often sound-expressively marked (e.g. Netherlandic Dutch flamoes, Belgian Dutch foef, German Muschi, English pussy).
The Middle Dutch C-word
This article is not about these younger formations, however interesting they may be. In this article I want to talk about the Medieval Dutch word conte (Modern Dutch kont ‘arse’, Modern English cunt ‘vagina’) and its etymological relation to Modern Dutch kut ‘vagina’. It has often been assumed that the Dutch words kont and kut are etymologically related, but thus far this alleged connection has not been explained in a satisfactory way. In modern Dutch, the word kont solely means ‘arse’, but in Middle Dutch the word conte (MNW lemma conte) meant both ‘arse’ and ‘vagina’. The two meanings therefore existed alongside another, showing that back then these categories were remarkably fluid. The meaning ‘vagina’ for conte is present in the fourteenth-century name for the prostitute alley of the city of Ghent, a street that was famously known as the Contentast, that is, ‘the place where vaginas are touched’ (cf. Du. tasten ‘to touch’). We should therefore assume a wider meaning for Middle Dutch conte, probably something more general like ‘netherparts’ or ‘unspeakables’ that could be semantically narrowed according to the context.
An interesting fact about the Dutch word kont is that it is arguably one of the first words to be recorded in the Dutch language. We find it in our oldest source for Dutch lexical material, the sixth-century Salic Law (c. 30 §1). In this medieval Frankish law text it is stated that it is forbidden to call a freeborn man a kwinthund, a word that is etymologically equivalent to English cunt hound. Because it is a derogatory term used to call a man’s virility into question, it seems plausible that the term referred to passive homosexual activities (see ONW lemma kwintok). On an etymological level, the Old Frankish word quinthunt is clearly related to Middle English queint ‘vagina’ (which has nothing to do with English quaint) and possibly Bavarian quinze ‘vagina’. The original Germanic form of the word was therefore *kwent- and already must have had the meaning ‘netherparts’.
Quint in the Salic Law
“Theoderic cunt” and “Marjory cuntless”
In twelfth-century Utrecht, the Dutch word kont turns up as the nickname quint for a certain Theodricus in a witnesses list from a medieval charter from 1169 CE (Theodricus Quint, see Gysseling 1966). It is reasonable to assume that this is the same word as we find in the Salic Law in the compound quinthunt. Gysseling however argued that the nickname is simply the French word quint meaning ‘the fifth’, but this is hardly likely for a commoner from twelfth century Utrecht (contra Gysseling 1966; Debrabandere 2009). That we find a word for ‘vagina’ recorded as a nickname need not surprise us; also the English word cunt is first found as a nickname, i.e. Godwin Clawecunt from the eleventh century Doomsday book.
In Medieval Flanders, the Early Middle Dutch form quint was replaced by the more modern looking form Middle Dutch conte ‘vagina, arse’. The sound development that connects the two would be the same as the one in Dutch tussen from older *twiskan and Dutch komen from older *kwiman. In our medieval Flemish sources, Middle Dutch conte is also used as a nickname (cf. Haeseryn 1962), e.g. ‘Walterus dictus conte’ (1318, Walter named ‘cunt’) and a ‘Rugger den Cont’ (1454, Roger the cunt). Also for Flemish women the nickname is used, e.g. ‘Margareta vander Moere, alias sonder conte’ (i.e. Marjory cuntless). It is unclear how exactly the use of these nicknames functioned in medieval society (did Marjory also call herself ‘cuntless’?) but extrapolating from modern analogues we might hypothesize that this was a way of reaffirming the local community identity. The community did not only refer to Marjory by her name, but also, through her nickname, by her reputation.
So where does the word conte from earlier Germanic *kwent- originally come from? Here our linguistic detective work becomes more difficult because besides the English word cunt/queint and a Low German word kunte (which may be a loanword from Dutch), no other cognates can be found. As I stated above, an often considered connection would be to the Dutch word kut, an expletive colloquial term for vagina. The Dutch word kut is found in sources from the sixteenth century onwards as kutte (Kiliaen 1599, kutte ‘cunnus’) and can be compared to Middle High German Kotze ‘vagina’, Old High German quiti and Old English cwiþa ‘uterus, womb, vagina’ (see Kroonen 2011; 2013: 319). If the Norman French dialect word couitte ‘prostitute, piece of cloth’ (FEW XXI: 505) is a borrowing from Dutch (which I deem plausible), we may also project an Old Dutch form *kwiþi < Germanic *kweþ- back into the Early Middle Ages. Next to the Germanic form *kweþ- (OE cwiþa and Old Dutch *kwiþi) would have stood a root variant *kutt-, thereby explaining the original /u/ vowel in Middle High German Kotze and Modern Dutch kutte > kut (cf. Kroonen 2011).
A 12th-century sheela-na-gig
Language contact and the Anglo-Norman connection
So where does that leave our connection between Dutch kut and kont? On an etymological level the two words are almost identical, only separated from each other by the presence or absence of an /n/ in the root. This /n/ is still bothersome because it cannot be accounted for in terms of regular sound change. The Etymological Dictionary of Dutch (EWN, Philippa e.a. 2003-2009) suggests that the origin of the words might be prehistoric and the presence or absence of /n/ could be attributed to different moments of borrowing. This solution basically comes down to saying that the origin of the word is beyond recovery. I do not think that is true and want to propose a different solution. I would contend that we can explain the /n/ by assuming that we are dealing with contamination from Medieval French, more precisely of the Old French word con ‘vagina’ (from Latin cunnus).
Here we call to mind that especially loanwords are prime candidates for use in taboo terminology. My scenario would be that a Germanic word *kweþ-/*kutt- and Early Old French *kon influenced each other in the contact zone between Germanic and Romance, which yielded the etymological hybrid *kwent-. Note that the Germanic and the Romance word have exactly the same meaning and share phonological structure. This etymological blending may have happened in the Early Medieval low countries, i.e. present-day Flanders, where the form *kwent- might have originated. The word could then have been brought to Norman England by Flemish vassals of William the Conqueror, where it was adopted as an expressive loanword in both the older variant quint, i.e. Middle English queint, and the younger variant konte, i.e. Middle English cunte. If we accept this scenario, the English word cunt, just like the word booze, loitering and fucking, would have its origins in eleventh-century Flemish slang, that was current in Anglo-Norman society. But the origin of the word fucking is a story for another time.
Debrabandere, Frans. 2009. Woordenboek van de familienamen in Zeeland. url: http://www.naamkunde.net/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/WZF-Debrabandere.pdf
EWN = Etymologisch Woordenboek van het Nederlands. 2003-2009. Four volumes. Amsterdam University Press.
Gysseling, M. 1966. Overzicht over de Noordnederlandse persoonsnamen tot 1225. Voordrachten geouden voor de Gelderse leergangen te Arnhem 17. Wolters; Groningen.
Haeseryn, R. 1962. De namen van de personen uit Dietse gebieden die in het "liber inventarius' (a° 1281) van de Gentse Sint-Pietersabdij voorkomen; een naamkundige studie. Dissertatie. Gent.
Kiliaan 1599 = C. Kilianus, Etymologicum teutonice linguae siue dictionarium Teutonico-Latinum, praecipuas teutonicae linguae dictiones et phrases latinè interpretatas, et cum alii nonnullis linguis obiter collatas complectens. Editio tertia. Antwerp.
Kroonen, Guus. 2013. Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic. Leiden Indo-European Dictionary Series. Brill: Leiden.
MNW = E. Verwijs, J. Verdam et al.: Middelnederlandsch Woordenboek. The Hague, 1885-1952. URL: http://inl.gtb.nl
ONW = Oudnederlands Woordenboek. URL: http://gtb.inl.nl/.
Woordenboek van de Nederlandse Taal. URL: http://gtb.inl.nl/.