Excerpted from the book Words as Smoking Guns: What Vocabulary Tells Us That The Establishment Doesn't Want Us to Know
One of the great delight of little boys (and often little girls), particularly if they are at all bookish, is to plumb the depths of dictionaries and other reference books for dirty words and anything else of a sexual or excretory nature. (And while we might agree that they are interested in the risque, and while we might also share the sentiment of the wit who said, "Nothing risque, nothing gained", it is only fair to realize that risque originates in a word meaning "risky".) In the present section I shall allow the reader to return to childhood in this respect, altho our explorations will reveal a lot more information than the merely dirty kind. To begin, let us first consider the term corn, a word whose sexual overtones are very muted, but which is of great interest in other ways, and thus the examination of which will serve to give the reader a good idea of what sort of things we will be talking about in the remainder of the essay. In the sense of an edible plant product, the original meaning of the word corn was grain, which we see in the fact that the British still use this term to mean grain in general, tho in America it has come to be used only for one particular type of grain, which the British call maize. (The reason for this difference in usage is undoubtedly because at a formative time in America's history, maize was the only grain available to English settlers, and hence when people asked for "corn" (grain) they received "corn" (maize), thus linking the general term to the specific kind.) We also see the corn-grain equivalence reflected in the term corned beef, where the "corn" in question is not the grain of seeds, but the more primitive notion of tiny particles, in this case particles of salt which are used in curing and preserving the beef. And of course the same equivalence is seen in peppercorns, an item of food which for that matter might well have been used as part of the corning process. But if corn is grain, then what about those corns you get on your feet from shoes that rub you the wrong way, so to speak? W3 takes this usage of corn to have a different origin from that of the corn-particle word, but I have my doubts about this, particularly because corns/feet often have "centers" which can be removed, and which look a lot like grains of corn- maize. But true or not, corn/foot links corn to horn, the latter of which are hardened spots on the skin which sometimes grow to a point, as the horns of cattle. In fact, the corn-horn relationship is also shown in the fact that a horn is known in Latin as a cornu, and which has come into English via such words as coronet as well as horn itself, since the latter seems obviously to be taken from cornu with the initial "k" sound dropped, somewhat after the fashion among the lower English classes (the upper classes have already passed their English exams) of dropping the "h" sound. And speaking of corn/horn, the nails on the ends of our fingers and toes are technically horns, and this is linguistically acknowledged by the fact that the material which composes them, keratin, derives from the Gk keras, meaning horn, a word which may indeed be the origin of L cornu. But if this seems pedestrian, then consider the so-called horn of plenty, or cornucopia, ie, a horn with a "bountiful harvest" emerging from it: Cornucopias are interesting because bountiful harvests usually include grain, ie corn, and cornucopias usually have grain pouring out the front. But could this have any bearing on my suggestion above that horns/blow and corn-grains might related? My theory is that one fine bountiful harvest day somebody said, "Hey, dude, we've got corn-aplenty" (ie "corn, copius") which some artist interpreted as "cornu filled aplenty" ("cornu, copius"), which caused him to make a little drawing of a horn with grain coming out, and that's the rest of the story. Or rather the theory. Now all this is very well, except that I promised you something sexy about horns, and I don't mean Roxanne Pulitzer in bed with a tuba. But while we're on the subject, we should at least ask whether cornu is related to corona, crown and curve, themselves all related (Barnhart: basic meaning: curve), not just because Roxanne is well-curved (How else would she have won the "Pull it, sir" prize from Mr Pulitzer, her prize catch?), but because horns are just as much characterized by curvaceousness as crowns, and they're also "worn" on the head just like crowns. We might even note that cornu is related to cerebrum, which produces yet another head link. But getting back to the sexiness of corn, there are three relevant observations to be made: First, that the idea of "being horny" comes from the fact that a horny man has a cornu between his legs -- a fact that seems to mean that females cannot be horny. (In fact, this latter notion is reinforced by the fact that clitoris -- the female organ of sexual pleasure -- originates in a word (L klinen) which means "to lie flat" -- which, by the way, is what the woman has got to do in order to get that pleasure, and which is also quite appropriately the origin of such terms as incline.) The second observation on corn dirt is the question of the origin of cornhole (anal intercourse): Did this term originally mean "hornhole" (to put one's horn in the "hornhole")? Needless to say, the "horn" is very like a corncob, thus reinforcing the "corn" element. And finally, the fact that pornography (aka porn) is often referred to as "smut" -- particularly by those rock-ribbed Republican farmers who pass the time with family and friends watching their pigs and horses and goats and chickens humping in the barnyard every day -- may very well originate as a resonance of the phrase describing a disease commonly seen on the farm -- corn smut. And if that isn't enuf to prove that corn is dirty, just remember the next time you eat it that you are eating a corn plant's balls. Or embryos. To conclude our discussion of corn, we note that the word corner is related to cornu in the sense of coming to a point. This then raises the question, could cornu be related to corn/grain in the sense that particles (corns) are "points" (as all horns come to)? Or in other words, are we on the horns of a dilemma?
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