Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Six Dirty Words

For a while now I've been meaning to read David Bain's 1991 article Six Greek Verbs of Sexual Congress. What follows is merely a summary of the main points that he makes in the 27 page article. While it is amusing to see a scholar from Manchester University write things like "whoever is being addressed can only be enjoined metaphorically to accept the writer's penis with his mouth," or "an inscription cannot 'bugger' a passer-by as the writer of the Thasian graffito claims to have done," I should warn you that I've chosen to use more explicit words in some cases, since these six Greek verbs are not for love-making or copulation, but are all "blunt and non-euphemistic," and belong to "the lower register of the Greek language," as Bain points out in the first paragraph. I hope it will seem more refreshing than offensive, but, quite honestly, I don't really care: it's my βινῶν blog!

βινῶ (or βενῶ)

According to Bain, this was the primary vulgar term for intercourse throughout antiquity, and so would probably correspond to the word fuck. The word is no longer in use in the Greek language, and its origin is uncertain. The most popular etymology is from the word βία, although the alternate form βενῶ confuses the matter.

It is rare in prose, and most common in old comedy. It is found in some magical incantations, notably a standardized love charm in which a man wishes that the woman whom he loves will not have sex with any other man. Hesychius claims that Solon used the word of violent sex in his legal discussion of marriage, and opposed it with the word ὀπυίειν of marital sex, which in the active voice is used of men, to take a wife, and in the passive is used of women, to be married. The appearance in a legal context has surprised some people, but the word βενῶ is found on a bronze plaque from Olympia, which discusses the punishment for someone who has sex in the temple. There is also an occurrence from a law book of Ptolemaic Egypt for a semi-religious "club" which discusses the fine for a member who has sex with another member's wife. The word is usually (although not always, according to Bain) aggressive and with shock value. And against the suggestion that it is not used of marital sex, Bain cites an instance in the Lysistrata where a man says to his teasing wife βινεῖν βούλομαι, I want to fuck.

It sometimes takes on a specialized meaning in context. For instance, Strato uses it to refer to vaginal intercourse, and contrasts it with the word πυγίζειν, in his attempt to show that boys are superior to women as lovers. There is also a lead tablet that describes the three orifices of a woman, where βινῶ is used of vaginal sex, while πυγίζω is used of anal sex, and λαικάζω of oral sex. But in later instances it seems to be used of other sexual acts. In Lucian, βινητιῶν Πολύφημος refers to fellatio, while there is another anonymous usage where the phrase βινεῖν στόματι, to fuck with the mouth, refers to oral sex performed on a woman.


Some people have claimed that this word did not exist, but was written mistakenly for βινῶ; and, indeed, many of the manuscripts offer a choice between the two similar sounding words. For this reason it is difficult to get an accurate word count for each. The primary meaning of κινῶ is as a verb of motion, and Bain thinks that there is no obvious reason for it to take on a sexual connotation; but having spent time around many immature minds, who can make any word sound vulgar, it seems perfectly natural to me. He suggests that the primary motivation was that it sounds similar to βινῶ, and so he thinks that by the time κινῶ took on this meaning, the word βινῶ must have had a long iota.


This is the most common word for anal sex, and is derived from the word for the ass or buttocks, πυγή, which itself doesn't seem to have been inherently obscene. Bain, while allowing that πυγίζω was used in a coarse sense, suggests that it may have been less vulgar than βινῶ. πυγή is occasionally used in a bland anatomical sense in prose, although Homer uses the word γλουτοί instead. Bain mentions a report that the citizens of Pugela changed the name of the city to Phugela out of embarrassment.

There is only one occurrence in old comedy, which is rather surprising, and even then it comes from the mouth of a non-Greek. Given a number of Doric attestations, it has been suggested that the word is of Doric origin, and passed from there into other dialects. Like βινῶ, it appears more often in non-literary contexts. In some cases, it seems to be used as a threat of aggression, perhaps not in a literal sense, but of general humiliation, with the sexual act never far from the mind, much like the phrases "fuck you" or "suck my dick" might be used today. It appears on a bowl as a threat to anyone who should steal it, and also in graffiti which is meant to harass the passer-by.


There is some uncertainty about this word. There were two similar words in ancient Greek: ληκάω and ληκέω. The second word originally meant to shout, and was used for cracking sounds, and eventually was used of bursting. In his list of verbs for intercourse, Pollux mentions ληκεῖν, but not ληκᾶν. But Hesychius makes a distinction between the two, and explains ληκᾶσθαι with the word περαίνεσθαι, which means to finish, to end, or also, to reach, to penetrate.

The origin of ληκάω is uncertain. It has been explained as originally meaning to strike, which could have then taken on a sexual meaning. There is also an attestation of a noun ληκώ meaning penis. It has also been explained as having a more specific meaning, that of the action of performing oral sex on a man, but Bain is skeptical of this because it rests only on an unnecessary interpretation.

οἴφω (or οἰφῶ)

This is generally considered a Doric equivalent of the word βινῶ, although it was certainly adopted by non-Doric speakers. According to Bain it was explicit, although perhaps less offensive than βινῶ. The etymology is unknown, but some lexicographers claimed that there was a word οἰφός meaning penis. It occurs twice in a section of legal code in Crete from the 5th century. It also appears in archaic graffiti in the sanctuary of Apollo Delphinius on Thera. Some people insist that the word in this graffiti is not simply a vulgarity, but has some connection with the initiation ceremonies, and some suggest, therefore, that the word was not so harsh in tone; but Bain sees no reason to believe this. There are several words that were used as insults: φιλοίφας, φίλοιφος, and κόρσοιφος, for example. On Naxos, there is an inscription above a drawing of a plough (which Bain claims is a sexual symbol in this context), and the word οἰφόλης was a vulgarity added by what seems to be a third hand. There are two inscriptions which include the word, and seem to indicate that the writers had sex "here", that is, in the temple. It is also noteworthy that Archilochus mentions a deity Oipholios, and there is an Athenian vase which mentions an ithyphallic satyr named Oiphon.


In late antiquity and the Byzantine era, and by many modern scholars, this word was considered a synonym of βινῶ, but Bain claims that it is restricted in meaning to the act of oral sex on a man. It occurs in love charms, as noted above, where it refers to sex with the mouth and is juxtaposed with words for vaginal and anal sex.

It seems to appear first in the 6th century in Corinth, on clay beside an ithyphallic picture, but this requires restoration. Nearly all of the literary examples come from Attic comedy. It has been suggested that the word appears in an epigram of Nicarchus, but it would be the only example of the word taking an object. The epigram would then be describing an old woman, who is so unattractive that she must give oral sex in order to interest a lover. It is also possible that the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus used the word in discussing the legend of Hera performing oral sex on Zeus. Diogenes Laertius claimed that the philosopher's language was sometimes more suited to "street-walkers" (χαμαιτύποις) than gods. Lucian uses the word λαικαλέος of an effeminate man (Lexiphanes 12).


Blogger Wm said...

A faint memory of Bain's article was recently useful to me in reading Medea. No, really.

Somewhere in his discussion he mentions that κινῶ can also be used to describe rocking motions, in particular rocking a cradle. This came to mind when I read this:

Μη. ἰώ
δύστανος ἐγὼ μέλεα τε πόνων,
ἰώ μοί μοι, πῶς ἂν ὀλοίμαν;
Τρ. τόδ’ ἐκεῖνο, φίλοι παῖδες· μήτηρ
κραδίαν, κινεῖ δὲ χόλον.

The nurse is saying, "well, there it is kids (just as I predicted). She's setting her heart and anger in motion." I suspect we're expected to contrast this "μήτηρ κινεῖ ..." with more conventionally motherly rocking, though I've not taken the time to dig into this particular bit more.

6:17 PM  
Blogger Wm said...

That's at line 96, btw.

6:17 PM  
Blogger Nicholas said...

That's neat Will, thanks for pointing it out. The idea of a rocking motion makes a lot of sense as a sexual innuendo. I didn't catch that in the article. Is the Medea group still going strong? ~N

7:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

λαικάζω = lick ~ tongue =

6:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

δρυόχους τιθέναι δράματος ἀρχάς.
κάμπτει δὲ νέας ἁψῖδας ἐπῶν,
τὰ δὲ τορνεύει, τὰ δὲ κολλομελεῖ,
καὶ γνωμοτυπεῖ κἀντονομάζει
καὶ κηροχυτεῖ καὶ γογγύλλει
καὶ χοανεύει.

καὶ λαικάζει.

From Aristoph. Thes. 52-59, Euripides'In-Law referring to Agathon after his Servant Eulogy.

2:09 AM  

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