Cock

An Encyclopedia of Swearing: The Social History of Oaths, Profanity, Foul Language, and Ethnic Slurs in the English-Speaking World. Editor: Geoffrey Hughes. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2006.

The early history of cock essentially derives from a series of symbols of maleness or virility, often with overtones of dominance. The subsequent interweaving of the senses of “rooster” and “penis” is interestingly complex, making it difficult to pinpoint the first clear use of the phallic sense. The term has developed a remarkable diversity of meanings in a long and vigorous history in British English, during much of which it was not taboo. In the entry for cock in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1893, Sir James Murray admitted a double standard in the sense of “penis”: “The current name among the people, but pudoris causa [for reasons of modesty], not permissible in polite speech or literature; in scientific language the Latin is used.” In American English cock was largely driven underground by the taboo against the sense of “penis” until comparatively recently. Still more interesting is that the term has thrived in a broad range of genital and copulatory senses in African-American slang.

The root sense, the “male farmyard fowl,” goes back to Anglo-Saxon; the “plumbing” sense of a “tap or spout” can be traced back to the late fifteenth century; and the sense of the hammer or firing pin of a gun to the mid-sixteenth century. However, the origin of the sense of “penis” is more difficult to trace, precisely because it is a metaphorical extension of these other meanings. In the comment quoted above, Murray noted that the sense was “in origin perhaps intimately connected with sense 12,” that is, “a short tap for the emission of fluid.” Two Shakespearean contexts are definitely suggestive. In this exchange from The Taming of the Shrew (1594) there is clearly a wordplay between the senses of “fowl” and “penis”:

Katharina: What is your crest? A coxcomb?

Petruchio: A combless cock, so Kate will be my hen.

(II ii 224-25)

The other occurs in the melodramatic warning of Pistol, the braggadocio pseudo-warrior in Henry V (1599), who exclaims: “Pistol’s cock is up, and flashing fire will follow” (II i 56). Pistol having been provoked, “cock” is usually taken to be a pistol, his namesake, cocked and ready to fire. However, the stage context (in which both Pistol and Nym have drawn swords) invites another metaphor, that of a sword. This link is found elsewhere in Shakespeare, in the exchange between Hamlet and Ophelia in the Play Scene, which contains a great deal of sexual innuendo: when Ophelia comments, “You are keen, my lord, you are keen,” Hamlet’s rejoinder is, “It would cost you a groaning to take off my edge” (III ii 262-63). There is clearly a wordplay here between “edge” in the sense of “sword” and “sexual appetite,” implying “penis.”

The connection between weapon and “penis” is itself ancient, being established in Anglo-Saxon, where wæpen is glossed in Bosworth and Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (1898) in Victorian terms as “membrum virile,” and a boy was termed a wæpened cild, “a weaponed child.” The aggressive metaphor was clearly still thriving in Burlesque Homer (1772) by a Mr. Bridges: “If you meet the whoring goddess, / Drive your stiff weapon through her bodice” (l. 178). It has continued to the present, with related metaphors like tool, chopper, and less well known variants such as beef bayonet, dagger, and ramrod, all recorded in Jonathon Green, The Slang Thesaurus (1986). Vagina in Latin means “a sheath,” although the original usage by the Roman comedian Plautus in his play Pseudolis (1181) seems to have been facetious.

While weapon has had a continuous currency for over a thousand years, other ancient terms for the penis have become obsolete. They are tarse (from Anglo-Saxon teors), rhymed with arse by the Earl of Rochester, before dying out in the eighteenth century; pintle, which became obsolete about 1600; and limb and yard (from Middle English yerde), basically meaning “a stick.” Thus Priapism was defined as “the vnwilful stondynge of the yerde” (“the involuntary erection of the penis”) in the English translation of The Cyrurgie of Guy de Chauliac (ca. 1425). Shakespeare puns on the sense in Love’s Labour’s Lost (1595):

Boyet: He loves her by the foot.

Dumaine: He may not by the yard.

(V ii 675-76)

Eric Partridge commented that “In the approximate period 1590-1780, yard was perhaps the most generally used literary term for ‘penis,’ and obsolete by ca. 1850” (1947, 225). A later metaphorical relative is prick, used with wicked humor by Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet (1595): “the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon” (II iv 121).Cock was used similarly for a number of suggestively erect or pointed objects, such as the pointer on a balance and the gnomon or marker of a sundial (from 1613). We shall return to the copious range of metaphors later.

These Elizabethan instances are, however, antedated by an anonymous saucy lyric of the early fifteenth century: “I have a gentle [noble] cock.” The cock in question is described for four verses in brilliant terms like crystal, coral, and azure, so that the singular fowl resembles the psychedelic Chauntecleer in Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale, but in the final pair of lines there is a sudden switch in metaphor to an undoubtedly phallic denouement:

And every night he percheth him

In mine lady’s chaumber.

The sophisticated humor of the lyric certainly suggests that the term then carried both senses of “fowl” and “penis” without strain.

The relationship between the “fowl” and the “penis” senses is also found in German hahn. An unexpected source linking the two with the “tap” sense is found in a woodcut made by Albrecht Dürer around 1497 called Männerbad, depicting a group of naked men in a public bath. As the illustration shows, one man is placed strategically so that his genitals are obscured by a water tap with a stopcock in the shape of a small ornamental barnyard cock. Lorrayne Y. Baird referred to this conjunction in Maledicta (1981) as “a triple visual pun”—that is, an image linking tap, rooster, and penis, obscured but implied. This compositional arrangement, whereby hahn is visible as water tap and rooster but hidden as penis, seems clearly to acknowledge symbolically the use of the various meanings. Dozens of idiomatic phrases abounding in earlier centuries attest to the use of cock in a sexual sense in British English, either directly or by association. In his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785), Francis Grose includes cock ale for “a provocative drink” and cock alley or cock lane for “the private parts of a woman.” The sense of “sexually forward” is found in a cockish wench for “a forward coming girl,” while cock bawd refers to a man keeping a brothel, a variant of cock pimp, “the supposed husband to a bawd” in the Canting Dictionary of the unidentified “B.E.” (1690). Most of these instances are, of course, vulgar rather than obscene. Many others denote confidence or dominance, such as cock of the walk and cock-sure, cock house, cock of the school, although some are neutral, like cock a hoop. Weathercock and cockade are also still in common use, although some now prefer the euphemized weathervaneand rosette.

All of these idiomatic uses have maintained a vigorous currency in British English, but their number and frequency are greatly diminished in American English. The underlying reason is that a taboo against cock has been generally prevalent in America for centuries, no doubt a reflection of its Puritan origins. Thus the term rooster (recorded from only ca. 1772) has continued to be generally preferred, since “to roost” suggests sleep rather than rampant sexual activity. Likewisefaucet is preferred for cock in the sense of “tap,” and instead of the full form cockroach, the emasculated abbreviationroach is standard. In the first record of the term in 1624 in his Description of Virginia (V 171), Captain John Smith referred to an “Indian Bug called by the Spaniards cacarootch” (now cucaracha). The first element (caca-) in fact derives from the creature’s annoying habit of defecation, indicating that the development to the form cockroach must have occurred when there was no taboo against cock. (A parallel case is poppycock, which derives from Dutch pappa kak, “soft shit.”) A brief comparison between any standard British and American dictionary demonstrates the far greater tolerance for cock- forms in British over American English.

However, in recent decades this “deficit” has been dramatically reduced in the lower registers, a point taken up in the entry for innovation. Seemingly the most powerful word in terms of its obscenity and insult-impact is cocksucker. Although first recorded simply as “a feliatrix” in Farmer and Henley’s Slang and Its Analogues (1890-1904), the term has developed almost entirely in the United States. In the African-American provenance where the term developed from the 1950s and continues to be more general, it is, as Clarence Major points out, an “abusive, all-purpose, male-to-male term with no special reference to sexual activity” (A Dictionary of African-American Slang). This is a classic instance of a term having very different degrees of insult or provocation depending on the speech community, since outsiders tend to take such terms more literally than insiders. E.E. Cummings, in an early adjectival use, wrote of “members of the cocksucking leisure classes” (Letter, July 28, 1923). It is not clear what he had in mind. A still earlier term is cockteaser, a variant of cockchafer, also recorded in Slang and Its Analogues (1890-1904) and defined as “a girl in the habit of permitting all familiarities but the last.” It has become current only in recent decades, predominantly in the United States.

Perhaps the least expected sense is that of the female genitals. The Dictionary of African-American Slang (1994) gives “vagina; female genitalia” as the primary sense, pointing out that the main term for “penis” in the speech community is dick. It also lists cock-opener for “penis,” as well as cockhound and cocksman for sexually predatory males. Random House (1994) categorizes the sense as “Southern and Black English,” giving supporting quotations back to 1867. It speculates plausibly that this sense perhaps derives from the obsolete English dialect use of cock to mean “cockle or shell fish,” quoting an observation in Northall’s English Folk-Rhymes (1892): “It is significant that the labia minora are still termed “cockles” in vulgar parlance.”

As has been seen, great numbers of metaphors abound in the genital area. Farmer and Henley (1890-1904) list approximately six hundred synonyms, ranging from nursery terms such as dicky, classical references such as Priapus, physical metaphors such as beard-splitter, and topical allusions like Old Rowley, a famous stallion, for Charles II, who was famously well-endowed. The Earl of Rochester paid Charles the chauvinist compliment that “His Sceptre and Prick are of a length” in his “Satire on Charles II” (1680, l. 11). A more familiar slang term, tool, has a surprisingly long history, being first recorded in Thomas Becon in 1553 in a reference to “All his toles that appertayne to the Court of Venus” (Reliques of Rome, 18). Shakespeare has a comic stereotypical reference in Henry VIII (1612): “Have we some strange Indian with the great tool, come to court, [since] the women so besiege us?” (V iii 131-32). It has a continuous history up the present.

Earlier in the discussion it was shown that prick was used as a bawdy allusion to the penis as far back as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1595). Touchstone the Clown in As You Like It (1599-1600) was certainly playing on the penile sense, also used by various contemporary dramatists, in this couplet:

He that sweetest rose will find

Must find love’s prick and Rosalinde.

(III ii 117-18)

Henrietta Maria Bowdler showed that she understood the allusion by cutting the offending lines from The Family Shakespeare (1807). The excision stood through subsequent editions, while The Household Edition of the Dramatic Works of Shakespeare (1861), edited by William Chambers and Robert Carruthers, pointedly replaced prick with “thorn.”

The semantic association between terms for the penis and stupidity is notably strong. Prick started to take on the sense of “fool” or “contemptible person,” usually preceded by silly from the nineteenth century, and has maintained the sense to the present. A notable instance was the comment attributed to John F. Kennedy: “I didn’t write S.O.B. [on a confidential memorandum in 1961]…. I didn’t think Diefenbaker [the Canadian prime minister] was a son of a bitch. I thought he was a prick” (quoted in Hook and Kahn, 1980).

A comparative newcomer to the field, dick is given an early citation in Slang and Its Analogues (1890-1904), where it is simply categorized as “military,” a view corroborated by Barrère and Leland’s Dictionary of 1889. The term is usually regarded as having an American provenance, and it should be remembered that J.S. Farmer was an American. In American usage dick can also be used as a verb meaning “to copulate,” but in the phrasal verb dick with or dick around, means “to potter or meddle.” The association with stupidity is clear in dickhead (from ca. 1962) and dick-brain (from ca. 1971).

A similar tripartite semantic history, albeit exclusively British, is pillock, previously pillcock or pillicock, first a vulgar term for the penis recorded from medieval times. A character in Sir David Lindsay’s Play, The Satire of the Three Estates(1539) notes: “Methink my pillock wil nocht ly doun” (l. 4419). As a term of endearment for a boy it is charmingly defined by John Florio (1598) as “a darlin, a beloved lad.” (Curiously prick is also recorded in this affectionate sense from about 1540.) The extension to pillicock hill for the female genitalia is graphically alluded to by the Fool in King Lear (1605): “Pillicock sat on pillicock hill” (III iv 75). The old sexual senses faded away during the eighteenth century, but pillock has revived in modern British slang (from the 1960s) to mean “a fool.”

Cock has other, quite diverse critical senses, such as that of “rubbish” or “nonsense,” as in “cock and bull story” or as in “the salesman spoke a lot of cock” and a cock-up, a common British term for a foul-up. In other global varieties, the term is used with the kind of freedom still apparent in British English. Australian English has two vulgar additions: cockragfor a loincloth worn by Aborigines, and cock it up, used of a woman offering herself sexually. The South African variety has no special semantic extensions. Overall, cock has never been used as a term of direct personal insult as is the case with cunt.