The birth of trivia

Fri 15 Aug 2008 03:37 PM

At dinner several weeks ago, I mentioned that the word 'broad' to describe a woman originally referred to pregnant cows. I forget why I offered this item of trivia, but several of the people I was dining with were curious about it. One looked at the Online Etymology Dictionary and found an entirely different account. Later, I looked at the Oxford English Dictionary. Alas, it has no etymology for this "chiefly American" usage.

Scouting around online finds a couple of sites that mention the etymology I recounted, but only in the context of praising Robert Baker's 'Pricks and Chicks: A Plea for Persons.' That is where I read it, years ago, but I can find no independent confirmation of Baker's proposed etymology. As far as I can tell, the etymology for 'broad' is simply unknown.

And just today I read an article about the Perfect Vagina. Lisa Rogers laments that a man can talk about his willy, but that women cannot so easily talk about their nethers:

There isn't a similarly recognisable term for the vulva, because actually the vagina is the passage inside, and the word means "somewhere to sheathe your sword"! Yes, even the word means our sexual organs only exist in relation to a man. How depressing is that?
This etymology is easily corroborated. 'Vagina' comes from the Latin for sheath or scabbard. It is a nice illustration of the feminist point that the language describing women and their parts reflects (as the man says) the violence inherent in the system.

One last quibble: Rogers looks in vain for a word to describe the bits that are resculpted in female genital plastic surgery, like the familiar words that men have their johnson. It seems to me that 'pussy' fits the role, even if it has animal etymology and the OED calls it "coarse slang."