μουνί < maimūn

By: | Post date: 2017-10-24 | Comments: No Comments
Posted in categories: Linguistics, Modern Greek

I’ve just discussed Kostas Karapotosoglou’s proposed Greek etymology for μουνί “cunt”, which he advanced in 2008 as an alternative to both the problematic Greek proposals to date, and the Italian proposals to date, which Italians themselves are not enthusiastic enough (although Tasos Kaplanis has argued for one here.)

In the Italian proposal article, I noted that the word also turns up in Occitan:

mouni in Occitan, reported as meaning variously “cunt”, “monkey”, and “cat”.

The same homophony between “cunt” and “monkey” also applies in Venetian. I further noted there a third possible etymology: Arabic maimūn “monkey”.

If the word for “cunt” came from Italian or Greek, then it is a coincidence that it sounds identical in Venetian and Occitan to the word they have borrowed from Arabic for “monkey”. And coincidences do happen. If the word for “cunt” does in fact originate from Arabic maimūn “monkey”, then that’s no coincidence. The homophony was avoided in Greek, because Greek took μαϊμού “monkey” directly from Arabic maimūn, and did not need to take it from Venetian monna.

Over at Nikos Sarantakos’ blog, Karapotosoglou has just posted the relevant entry from the Französisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch. The FEW takes it as a given that the Occitan (and, as it turns out, Arpitan) word originates in “monkey”. Here’s what it says, under maimūn (p. 117). (Pardon me for not expanding the abbreviations: the online guide was not comprehensive or friendly enough for me to work it out, and I wasn’t strongly motivated to anyway.)

2e. Female genitals: Stéph. monna “vulva”. – Rouchi moniche, slang id. DelvEr, monique, mouniche Sainéau Par 309, Paris moniche (Villatte; B); saint. mouniche, ard. “vulva of a little girl” Vauch, Lyon mounichi “female genitals”, Gren. monichi. — Npr. mouniflo. — Dauph. monon Ch.

The meaning “female genitals” (e above) also turns up in Northern and Central Italy (see RF 14, 522), Comelico mǫna ARom 10, 143, Modern Greek το μουνί (< Italian) Kr Jber 5, 368

Does that solve the issue?

Well, not quite. The Arabic origin of the word could explain it turning up in Sicilian and in Southern Italian Greek, without the need to appeal to Venetian influence there. Then again, Kaplanis has argued that monna “my lady” was in use throughout Italy. So in fact, the presence of the word in Southern Italy could be explained by any of Greek, Italian, or Arabic.

For the Arabic derivation to work, we would have to accept that people chose to call female genitals “monkeys”. I mean…

… really?

Are there any other secondary meanings to “monkey” that might be a little more plausible, in explaining that transition?

Actually, there are, but you have to keep reading to find them. This is the list of secondary meanings of words derived from maimūn “monkey” from the FEW. (That’s Occitan not Italian, but the relevant sense does show up in Italy as well.)

  • 2a. Ugly, grumpy person
  • 2b. Grimace
  • 2c. Bugbear
  • 2d. Child
  • 2e. Female genitals
  • 2f. Old cow
    • No, it’s not that one
  • 2g. (Drunken) Noise
  • 2h. Deaf
  • 2i. Stupid
  • 2j. Doll

A lot of these you’ll find in English too. Maybe not the cow. Or “deaf”.

Oh, I’m not done:

  • 2l. Other animals.

Oh? What other animals?

Mdauph. pr. mouno “cat”, Toulouse id. D., vel. mouna. Pr. Barc. mounet m. “little cat”; mdauph. mꭒnę́to “little female cat”, Nice mouneta. Bearn. mounoû, -oûne “male cat, female cat”, Ariège, HGar. mꭒnꭒ́ “cat call” ALG 463. Lim. mounasso “female cat”; mounassaria “patisserie”, Blim. mounossorio “all kinds of porridge or crepes”.

Bast. mamǫnęt “badger”.

Npr. mouno “gadus merlangus” [whiting], Nice mouna, Palavas id. RLR 23,142.

BRhône mounino “raja aquila” [now Myliobatis aquila, eagle ray], Cette mourina. Barbier RLR 52, 105; 56, 218; RlFn 11, 160, 171.

See any animals in that list that are more usually used to name female genitals after?

No, not whiting.

Now. Remember that FEW cited a paper in Kr Jber when it mentioned Greek μουνί as coming from Italian. Kr Jber, Googling tells me, is Kritischer Jahresbericht über die Fortschritte der Romanischen Philologie, a Romance linguistics journal. And the paper cited there is by none other than the greatest Greek historical linguist who ever drew breath, Hubert Pernot. In fact, this issue of the journal was intended as an encyclopaedia of Romance philology, and his article is the Modern Greek bit. 1 Here’s Pernot’s paragraph; as always my translation, and I’ve supplied Boerio’s definition of Venetian monìn:

Modern Greek calls feminine genitals μουνί. The initial proposed etymology was Greek βουνί “mountain”. Psichari (EPh Ngr LXXX) thought, more reasonably, that it was múnno, Venetian monna (Boerio, s.v. mona); but I don’t think, as he does, that we should take the sense “monkey” as our starting point. Wouldn’t the meaning “cat” be preferable? Somavera II 306,3 does render mona (animal) as ἡ μαϊμοῦ μὲ τὴν οὐρὰν (cf. I 249,3 gatto sariano “tabby cat”) and “nature [genitals] of a woman”, but he also gives gatta “cat”. So I would link Greek μουνί directly to Venetian monìn (with a closed o, a nasal i and a barely audible n) = mu[s]cino (Boerio, s.v. monìn: [“a name for a cat, or used to call a cat”]). Cf. French chat “pussy”, despite the ingenuity of the spelling chas. D. Hesseling informs me that the Dutch word poes “pussy cat” has the meaning of μουνί in Afrikaans. In Modern Greek the word γάτα “cat” itself is a Venetian loan.

(Yes, Pernot is citing his mate Hesseling again. And I’m not finding it particularly difficult to imaging them chatting about this.)

And yes, I am writing this in yet another language in which a word for “cat” has been conflated with a word for female genitals, although which meaning came first is not actually as obvious as you’d think.

Pernot, incidentally, is citing Somavera’s 1700 Italian–Modern Greek dictionary, which I had previously cited, misreading sariano as fariano. It claims that the Italian loanword μούνα in Greek meant “monkey” or “tabby cat”—which is consistent with the word being ambiguous between the two in Italian.

I’d defer to any Arabists reading as to whether “monkey” > “cat” had already happened within Arabic. If it had not, then an Arabic origin of μουνί in maimūn would not have given μουνί its semantics; that would have happened once the word had also come to mean “cat”, in Northern Italy and Southern France.

… whereupon once again Sicily and Southern Italian Greece are a problem, because that meaning shift would have had to have happened there independently.

So. We have three languages that Greek μουνί, Venetian (and Northern Italian) mona ~ monìn, Calabrian Greek munno, Erice Sicilian munnu, and Occitan monna ~ moniche could have come from: Arabic (“monkey” > “cat”); Italian (“my lady”? “Simona”?); Greek (“mountain”? “lip”? “bed”? “down”? “red fig”?).

Once the intermediate meaning “cat” is introduced, Arabic “monkey” looks somewhat more attractive. Italian makes more sense as the vector for transmitting the word, since Venetians were the ones doing the travelling. But I’m not coming away with any more conviction about which of the three etymologies is best.

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    1. Pernot, Hubert. 1903. Mittel- und Neugriechisch. Kritischer Jahresbericht über die Fortschritte der Romanischen Philologie 5: 358–372.

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