For a long time, the word "condom" was unprintable.
September 21, 2022 11:38 AM   Subscribe

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.
posted by Etrigan (22 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
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

The French are tickled, you say?
posted by jedicus at 12:35 PM on September 21 [7 favorites]

Searching for the etymology of Jimmy Hat was disappointing.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 12:57 PM on September 21

The first time I visited Belgium in the late 90s with my wife we stayed in the home of a delightful lady in her 70s. My French was practically non-existent, but I was willing to try. The first morning at breakfast we were offered home made jam. In an attempt at conversation I asked "Est-ce qu'il y des preservatifs dedans?" Our new friend laughed out loud whilst I turned red as my mistake was explained to me. Should have said "conservateurs" apparently.
posted by IncognitoErgoSum at 1:03 PM on September 21 [5 favorites]

This is an interesting article and yet the writer seems curiously prudish about condoms.

but one wonders whether anyone called Condom would relish the fame of being remembered as the inventor of such an object. Why not? It's better than Shrapnel!

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. PHWOAR

I mean, it's a condom, what's the big deal?
posted by chavenet at 1:19 PM on September 21

I had a French letter from my friend Johnny about losing his rubber.
posted by Bee'sWing at 1:48 PM on September 21 [2 favorites]

Years ago driving on the freeway I passed a newly completed residential development with two multistory buildings separated by 75 ft. or so where they were just starting to sell the units.

CONDOM . . INIUMS read the two signs in three story tall red letters covering the top three floors of each building.
posted by jamjam at 2:49 PM on September 21 [3 favorites]

that reminds me of the ads I used to see on the subway in NY: "¡USA CONDONES!"

condones what? it's obviously some kind of sex-related thing! what is it the USA condones? help!
posted by chavenet at 3:38 PM on September 21 [2 favorites]

from etymology online, not only condom but also sheath, prophylactic, condominium, French, and rubber (which it says was introduced to Europe in 1744 by Charles Marie de la Condamine).
posted by winesong at 3:43 PM on September 21 [1 favorite]

does anyone know if there is a term for the phenomenon where the colloquial names for things that are considered distatesful (often realated to sex, but not always) ascribe them to another country? I'm thinking of "french letter" in English and "capote anglais" in french, but also dutch courage, German measles and the french disease.
posted by Fuchsoid at 5:05 PM on September 21

Hooray! Word-history is so much fun!
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 5:09 PM on September 21

Unprintable? I remember when people wouldn't even SAY the word.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:53 PM on September 21

At the drugstore...
1980s: "I'd like a pack of CIGARETTES ... and some condoms."
2020s: "I'd like a pack of CONDOMS ... and some cigarettes."
posted by Daily Alice at 6:44 PM on September 21 [11 favorites]

About 15 years ago I was promoting a rave where we used condoms as tickets. It was part of a series of parties that had the word 'fuck' in the title. The printer we were using, which was based in the US, balked at printing the word 'fuck' on the condom wrappers themselves. They were willing to print F*** or some variation thereof, but not 'fuck.'

Blows my mind to this day.
posted by jordantwodelta at 6:47 PM on September 21 [6 favorites]

I mean, it's a condom, what's the big deal?

In the autumn of 1991, Fox Broadcasting (as in The Simpsons, not Tucker) accepted a 15-second commercial from Trojan, the first such network-wide ad on TV in the US. It ran during a sitcom called Herman's Head, which was a lot like a sitcom version of the animated movie Inside Out, with multiple actors playing the emotions in the protagonist's head.

At the time, I was eight months into my first job in the TV industry, at a Fox affiliate in a small/medium-sized market in the Deeeeeeeep South. The general manager, the program director (my boss), and I were pretty much the only employees not from this very Baptsit, traditional community. (We were also the only three Jews anyone we worked with seemed to have ever met.)

It was a big deal that the tag line was something like "to reduce the risk" and if I recall correctly, it was solely promoted to halt the spread of AIDS, not pregnancy. The network had decided that promoting contraceptives was unacceptable and immoral, but promoting disease-prevention was OK. The other networks wouldn't accept condom ads because it was "tasteless." (Meanwhile, Preparation H ads ran during the dinner hour.)

BTW, we got one call. ONE. In my former career in TV, I fielded angry calls about everything from two female aliens on DS9 kissing to the performance of particular football teams to the Emergency Broadcasting System (and occasional weather emergencies) interrupting programming. People called about everything. And the person who called said it was nice to see that at least one station in town recognized there was a health crisis. Tempest, meet teapot.

And I don't know if others have had this experience, but before AIDS, I don't recall anyone ever saying "condom." The word existed, but "rubber" was far more the common parlance. I guess, after AIDS, condom seemed like a more delicate, serious, adult word for an era when sex was far less nudge-nudge-wink-wink than it had been perceived to be.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 7:18 PM on September 21 [10 favorites]

i just want to know why the british pronounce it that way. they seem to have a handle on every other word ending in 'dom' but they get to prophylactics and it's like something misfires in broca's area.
posted by logicpunk at 8:42 PM on September 21 [1 favorite]

I did a cursory search for Dubya pronouncing the word as "condemns" on TV but couldn't find a reference much less a recording.
posted by tigrrrlily at 7:10 AM on September 22


This is a word whose semantic drift has fascinated me, because it's a useful word for "thing which prevents something" which has migrated in usage to mean exclusively "STD preventative" and then to being a completely obscure word nobody uses.

I still use it (and its adverbially cousin "prophylactically") when I'm talking about preventing something, just to keep it still around and kicking. Then again, I also read a lot of 19th-century literature as a kid and when we were called upon to write our own fiction in school, I would, all innocence, use the word "ejaculate" the way the authors I read had used it, so really keeping "prophylactic" alive is just a continuation of my practice of trying to keep the non-sexual connotations of words alive.

(Protip: the participants tend to ejaculate when the intercourse gets heated)
posted by jackbishop at 7:33 AM on September 22 [7 favorites]

Last night we watched King of the Hill S1E2 and it has a marvelous little bit on condoms from Boomhauer.
posted by neuron at 8:41 AM on September 22

does anyone know if there is a term for the phenomenon where the colloquial names for things that are considered distatesful (often realated to sex, but not always) ascribe them to another country?

How does linguistic Chauvinism strike you?
Chauvinism is the unreasonable belief in the superiority or dominance of one's own group or people, who are seen as strong and virtuous, while others are considered weak, unworthy, or inferior.[1] It can be described as a form of extreme patriotism and nationalism, a fervent faith in national excellence and glory.[2]
The French will have a different name for it, naturellement.
posted by jamjam at 12:06 PM on September 22

Religions made birth control, by any means, illegal, discussion of methods, equipment, medicines, illegal. You couldn't say condom because it was a dirty word, no, you couldn't say or publish it, because we didn't have real freedom of speech, we still had a state religion, just like we do today. Those women who went to work to teach birth control, or women's rights, had their job cut out for them. Then the concept of condoms, they were something dirty people used, something people who frequented houses of ill repute used, even knowing about them was some sort of societal mark.
posted by Oyéah at 3:27 PM on September 22 [1 favorite]

What a frustratingly-written article. It has this oh-so-clever and yet impenetrable tone. Like the author is slyly mocking people in the past who have been prudish about the word condom, and yet in so doing is itself prudish about it. It mentions "con d’homme" which it defines as "male vagina" except that sounds like "with of a man" and doesn't explain where "male vagina" comes into play. What is the etymology of condom? I still don't know. Interestingly, etymonline suggests Italian guantone (glove) -> quondam -> condom. Which this article briefly dismisses without good explanation.
posted by lewedswiver at 12:29 PM on September 23

Anatoly Liberman is a treasure. I have met him numerous times at linguistic and lexicographic conferences, and heard him present papers. He has the driest wit, which is again on display in this OUP blog post. If you're not sure if it's meant to make you giggle, it most definitely is. Also, he's a brilliant man, cut from the old cloth, with mastery of languages. There are not many of his ilk.
posted by Mo Nickels at 7:53 AM on September 24 [1 favorite]

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