December 31, 2002
Clever Greeks And Romans

No Watermelons Allowed mentions (and mocks) the claim that Renaldus Columbus discovered the clitoris in 1559. (The post was dated 12/29 at 10:10 AM if the link doesn't work.) Rediscovered, maybe, but the Greeks had a name for it: kleitorís. The noun is only attested in one ancient lexicographical author, but four authors mention a verb kleitoriázein or kleitorízein, "to touch the clitoris", so the Greeks had not only noticed the organ, they had a pretty good idea what it's good for. The Latin equivalent, landica, is also very rare, though it is found in a couple of obscene graffiti, in the Priapea (a set of obscene poems dedicated to the phallic god Priapus), and, wrapped up in a pun, in one of Cicero's letters. Various metaphors are also found, e.g. barbatus nasus, "bearded nose".

Cicero's letter (Ad Familiares 9.22) is quite amusing, though untranslatable. In it, Cicero jokingly proves that nothing is obscene, since neither the words used to refer to things nor the things themselves are necessarily obscene. It can't be the things, because writers can mention any subject, no matter how foul, as long as they don't use foul words: one example he could have used is Sophocles' Oedipus. And it can't be the words, either, because the very same sounds can be used as long as they refer to innocent things. His examples include pedo (rhymes with "Playdough"), which is half of the perfectly innocent verb intercapedo ("I interrupt") -- not to mention the name of a distinguished Roman family --, but also means "I fart (audibly)", and illam dicam, which sounds exactly like [il] landicam, the object form of "clitoris", but is a perfectly innocent phrase meaning "I will say that".

One more thing: modern doctors borrowed the ancient Greek name, so they must not have been claiming to have discovered the organ.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at December 31, 2002 09:02 PM