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The word "condom"

The word “condom”

I had no intention to deal with this word, but a few days ago, one of our correspondents asked me whether the information on the etymology of condom one finds on the Internet can be trusted. The answer is “on the whole, yes.” A few websites provide debunked hypotheses, but most are reliable, especially if they cite the relevant bibliography. I may have a richer database on condom than some authors, because it contains references to such old English and German medical journals as Human Fertility, but I have not unearthed any information unknown to my predecessors. I am writing this blog post only out of deference to our reader.

For a long time, the word condom was unprintable. Neither the original OED nor The Century Dictionary (the latter a very full American reference work) featured the word. The same holds for all the other excellent thick dictionaries published a century ago and earlier. The Second Supplement to the OED does include condom. It even provides a brief note on the origin, while the OED online gives a rather detailed history of the futile attempts to trace condom to its source.

Several venues for discovering the origin of condom have been tried. It was long believed that Condom is the name of the person (presumably, a doctor) who invented the device. The English word surfaced in texts at the beginning of the eighteenth century, but we cannot be sure that the word was coined in England. Perhaps it was a borrowing from French, thus, a genuine “French letter.” In any case, the hunting of Dr or Mr Condom was not more successful than the hunting of the Snark. Words from names (Diesel, Shrapnel, Ohm, Ampere, and so forth) are very numerous, but one wonders whether anyone called Condom would relish the fame of being remembered as the inventor of such an object. Marley was dead to begin with, as Dickens informs us. So is Dr Condom, even though the family name Condom exists.

The best portrait of Mr/Dr Condom available.
(Photo by Chien Nguyen Minh on Unsplash, public domain)

There is a little town in France called Condom, and attempts have been made to derive the English word from this place name, especially because the town has a busy leather industry. However, in France, condoms are not called condoms (the word is préservatif; the same word is used in German and Russian, so that when French, German, and Russian speakers come to the United States and read that a certain product contains no preservatives, they are tickled to death). To be sure, in French, Condom is pronounced with stress on the second syllable and a nasal vowel, but it could have been naturalized and yielded English condom. The decisive argument against the borrowing is that the word in question does not exist in French. Such funny coincidences are not too rare. For example, there is a village in Upper Austria now called Fugging. Until 2021, the place name had ck, rather than gg, in the middle, and I have read that the inhabitants used to enjoy their fame. To be sure, in the German word, the letter u has the value of u in English put. Anyway, English condom owes nothing to the French place name.

A genuine French letter.
(Image by Karen Arnold, public domain)

It is, I think, unlikely that condom was borrowed wholesale from another language. Thus, a Persian source, an Italian word for “glove,” conundrum, and an Italian word group have been suggested as the source, to say nothing of partial homonyms in Latin that refer to entirely different objects. The argument against such ingenious derivations is the same as against French Condom. It is of course possible that a late seventeenth-century Englishman used French or Latin or Greek roots for coining the name of the new device. Think of our modern words like ibuprofen, Advil, and dozens of others (and see below!). Yet now that so much ingenuity has been wasted on discovering the etymology of condom, we should agree that the word surfaced in England.

It seems that condom has two roots: con and dom. Con (like Latin cum) means with, while dom reminds us of the Latin word for “house” and of English dome. Thus, the organ, supplied with the “dom,” had the protection of “a house.” Condoms have always been used to keep both men and women safe from venereal diseases, rather than as contraceptives, though the legend has it that Charlies II, whose court physician allegedly invented the device, began to feel annoyed at the ever-multiplying number of his illegitimate children. The emphasis may be not (or at least not only) on the male organ but also or even mainly on the vagina.

View of Condom, France.
(Photo by Oxxo, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Professor Michael Shapiro once sent me his unpublished paper on the origin of the word condom, and I have not seen it in print since that time. He pointed out that Latin vagina means “sheath” and wrote: “If the condom is a ‘sheath’, as its destination (in use), then the only difference is that between a male and a female ‘sheath’. Hence in colloquial French it is a con d’homme ‘male vagina’, whence condom is only a matter of orthography.” It is an elegant etymology, but I had (and still have) some doubts about it. According to Shapiro, the word is French and was coined by French speakers, though, as we have seen, the word’s home seems to be eighteenth-century England. However, French enjoyed tremendous popularity during the reign of Charles II, so that a French term could be easily coined by an Englishman during his reign. Though I wonder why no French etymologist has hit on such a transparent derivation, Shapiro is right that among the numerous works on the origin of condom there is not a single French title. Apparently, the word has never interested French historical linguists.

Blessed are those who need no condoms and don’t bother about etymology.
(Photo by Daniel Schwen, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

In this state of uncertainty, I may say that I also look on condom as a compound, possibly with reference to French concunnus, vagina” (or to some forgotten con word for “penis”?). It would be nice if the word meant “penis sheath” or if –dom resolved itself into d’homme “of a man,” on the assumption that condom was a French word coined in England.

Now back to the Internet. Trust only such websites that offer a survey of opinions and ignore the authors who offer a certain etymology as proven. Above, I have not given any references to the literature on the subject. Anyone seriously interested in this literature will find it in my Bibliography of English Etymology and in the book Looking for Dr. Condom by Wm. E. Kruck. (Publication of the American Dialect Society, No. 66. University of Alabama Press, 1981.) An excellent monograph; needless to say, Dr Condom is an etymological ghost now laid to rest for all times.

Featured image by Faridun Saidov, public domain

Recent Comments

  1. Vivian Ramalingam

    In the early C16, the music theorists Francino Gaffurio and Giovanni Spataro had a vigorous epistolary confrontation, conducted entirely in Latin. This gave Gaffurio the advantage of addressing Spataro (“sheath”) as “Vagina.”

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