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μουνί vs. monín
OK, I don’t particularly intend for this blog to be turned over to the etymology of sundry four-letter words, but the etymology of μουνί which I had posted on turns out to be complicated, and interesting. It’s certainly attracted a lot of interest in comments; I don’t remember my article on πεσσός “pier” getting this much interest.
Things being complicated, I’ll break this up in two. The first post is on whether μουνί is originally Greek or Italian. The second goes through the attestation of μουνί in Early Modern Greek, and reviews the proposed etymologies. My godfather (TAK) has raised a major issue in comments, about whether the dates of any phenomena in literary texts before 1400 can be trusted; that’s a methodological issue, and will get its own post—hopefully with a lot less vulgarity.
The language advisory still applies, especially because I’ll be discussing a metaphor based on said word.
This post and the next is of course secondary scholarship, and is indebted to the linguists who have actually had a go at working out the etymology of μουνί. The latest reference in Kriaras’ Early Modern dictionary—which I’m now inclined to agree with— is:
- Moutsos, Demetrios. 1975. Varia Etymologica Graecanica. Byzantion 45. 118–130.
- The article also proposes etymologies for: αγνάντια “opposite”, ανακούρκουδα “crouching”, βότσαλο “pebble”, βούρδουλας “whip”, μουνί “cunt”, βυζί “breast”. The alphabetical bias suggests this resulted from lexicon work: Moutsos acknowledges Georgacas’ help, and I suspect the article came from Georgacas’ unfinished Greek–English dictionary.
The etymology of μουνί “cunt” is complicated alright. If I were vulgar, which of course I am (but not in Greek), I might go so far as to say that the etymology of μουνί… είναι μουνί. The expression doesn’t mean what it’s a cunt of an etymology would in English—meaning unpleasant, obnoxious. In Greek, it means “it’s a mess, it’s chaotic”. The expression is odd (why would vaginas be chaotic in particular?); and the reason behind the expression is actually a key point later on.
The major complication to note is, we have a very similar word in the Northwest Mediterranean, also meaning “cunt”:
- mona in Venetian (and the Venetian hinterland, in Veneto Guiliano and Trentino)
- a diminutive monín, which has made it to the Lingua Franca
- mouni in Occitan, reported as meaning variously “cunt”, “monkey”, and “cat”.
Coincidence can happen, but this kind of coincidence probably didn’t: these are likeliest the same word. If they are the same word, and there’s no obvious common ancestor, then one language borrowed it from other. So which came first?
I was worried about mon-a becoming μουν-ί(ο)ν: the 12th century is way too late for the Greek diminutive suffix -ίον to have remained productive, and a loanword ending in -a should have become a word ending in -α. (Contrast τιμόνι “steering wheel”, from Venetian timón.) The existence of monín in Venetian deals with that problem.
The change of vowel between /o/ and /u/ is another issue; but etymologists rarely care about vowels (as Voltaire apocryphally noted). Greek sporadically has /o/ > /u/ around labials; on the other hand, Venetian borrowed Arabic maimūn “monkey” as monna. So the vowel difference is not something to worry about.
The etymologies I had seen in the previous post were implausible enough that I was happy to accept mona came before μουνί. But there are reasons not to. For starters, we don’t actually have an accepted Latin origin of mona. The Loony Tunes Aristophanean etymology of mona from βυνεῖν, mentioned in the previous post, is proof that Italianists couldn’t come up with something closer to home. Boerio’s old dictionary of Venetian, which TAK cited in comments, left open which direction the word moved in.
But the compelling argument Moutsos mentions is where else the word shows up in Italy. Herhard Rohlfs noted that “cunt” is munno in the Greek of Bova, Calabria; and munnu in the Siciliano of Erice. It would be odd for a Venetian form to show up in the Calabrian and Sicilian hinterland. (OK, Bova and Erice are pretty close to the sea, but still.) Southern Italian Greek is archaic, with much influence on the Romance dialects that replaced it—that’s why Rohlfs became interested in it. The word didn’t get into Southern Italy from Latin: it’s much likelier to have gotten there from Greek than from Venetian.
That doesn’t necessarily mean *Ancient* Greek: Southern Italy only became cut off from Byzantium in the 11th century, and Greek was used as a legal language for several centuries longer.
Given Southern Italy, and the lack of a Latin etymon, I’m inclined to go with a Greek origin, then. The one remaining oddity is the ending: if it was difficult to accept mon-a becoming μουν-ίν, it is also difficult to accept μουν-ίν becoming mon-a. But it’s entirely possible that mona was backformed from monín, and that monín was the original form that entered Venetian.
That’s a matter for Romanists to work out, though; at any rate, Cortelazzo & Marcato’s 1992 Dizionario Etimologico dei Dialetti italiani accepts a Greek origin, with an Arabic sideswipe:
The word corresponds to the Modern Greek mouní, and seems to belong to the wave of Grecisms that penetrated into Venice in the 14th and 15th century (Cortelazzo 1970). Alternatively, the homophony with monna “barbery ape, monkey” (from the Arabic maimūn) could let us suspect a transition from the animal name; but there is no lack of other etymological hypotheses, including the personal name Mona, from Simona.
As often occurs in etymology, of course, coincidences matter: if Venetian had three identical words for “cunt”, “monkey”, and “Mona”, people will start conflating them in their heads. It’s plausible that Venetian monín went across to Occitan mouni, and it’s also plausible that the confusion took hold there, so that “monkey”, “pussy”, and “pussy cat” got entwined. (Is “monkey” a term of affection there? It sort of is in Greek, via “mischievous child”. Then again, that usage occasionaly turns up in English too.)
So mona has picked up semantic richness in Venice and Toulouse. But that’s not inconsistent with mona being borrowed from Greek. All you need is for the word to have become common and entrenched in the receiving language.
TAK also noted the coincidence of the expression “become cunt” in Venetian (deventar una mona), as recorded in Boerio’s dictionary, and Greek (έγινε μουνί). The expression also indicates a word common and entrenched enough to support metaphor; but I don’t think it is that illuminating. Or rather, it’s illuminating, but not illuminating about how the word travelled.
The Greek expression, as I mentioned above, means “to become messed up”. To illustrate it, I here reproduce an exchange I witnessed 15 years ago, between two recent female graduates in linguistics, in Salzburg:
GRADUATE 1: I’m not going to put the Mozartkuglen in my luggage, γιατί θα γίνουν μουνί! [Because they will become cunt = they will be ruined, they will be a mess]
GRADUATE 2: *laughs very nervously, because language taboos do still count for something*
GRADUATE 1: Μα θα *γίνουν* μουνί! [Well they *will* become cunt!]
Being a creature of little imagination, I couldn’t quite place what the analogy was between “cunt” and “mess”. That’s because I wasn’t aware of the other meaning it has in Greek: “be drenched”. (My experience of Greek has been sheltered.) To my surprise, the expression isn’t defined in slang.gr, the Greek Urban Dictionary; but it needn’t be, it’s in the “proper dictionaries”.
- This blog gives Babiniotis’ dictionary’s definition of μουνί, including the phrase τα κάνω μουνί/γίνομαι μουνί “make things cunt/become cunt”: “(i) drench someone/something; (ii) argue strongly with someone, ruin one’s relationship with”.
- The Triantafyllidis Institute’s dictionary entry skips the verb, and make “mess” (the missing link in Babiniotis’ entry) a secondary meaning of μουνί, optionally combined with καπέλο “hat”: “Phrase: cunt(–hat): (a) a mess, damage, or turmoil: After the party, his house was cunt(–hat); (b) a turn for the worse; (c) noisy argument: She’s become cunt(–hat) with her husband again.“
So Babiniotis records the “drenching” meaning as primary, and skips “mess” as a stepping stone between “drenching” and “argument”; OTOH Triantafyllidis skips “drenching”, and goes from “mess” to “argument”.
I trust my readers can work out the semantic transition “become [like] a cunt” > “become drenched” > “become a mess (physically)” > “become a mess (situation)” > “end up in an argument (with messy consequences)”. The metaphor builds on the taboo of μουνί, and packages it with plenty of sexism; but its starting point is the association of μουνί with wetness.
Venetian makes the opposite association: Boerio defines “become a cunt” as “become flabby, wither, dry up: lose freshness, beauty, joy; said of a man”.
Venetian’s exploiting the taboo of mona too, in the cause of colourful language; but the initial metaphor is not wetness. I’m guessing it is “shameful to behold” > “ugly to behold”; and the unseemliness is emphasised by applying it to the wrong gender. Which appears to involve a different repertoire of sexism.
So we have the same words in the expression, but different connotations leading to different senses. (And of course English has different senses again—let alone the different metaphorical meanings of cunt in American and Commonwealth English, as applied to a person.) That doesn’t really tells us which language the word came from. Metaphors cluster around concepts, however they happen to be expressed. Metaphors can travel, because people travel. But metaphors can be coined independently, and end up in different places.
So it doesn’t look like “become a cunt” necessarily travelled between Greece and Venice; it could have been coined independently. Still, the word itself clearly travelled. One further piece of evidence for monín getting around the Mediterranean is indirect evidence that it got into Lingua Franca. The *original* Lingua Franca. Kahane & Tietze’s reference work on Lingua Franca is based on common nautical loanwords through the Mediterranean, as they have ended up in Turkish. We don’t know a lot about the Lingua Franca, and we don’t need an intermediate pidgin to explain Italian nautical loanwords in Turkish. But since the Lingua Franca did exist, and was multilingual, it is the most plausible vehicle for such loans to have happened.
Now, one of the entries in Kahane & Tietze is *monín de gassa “cut splice”. We don’t have evidence for the Venetian expression (unsurprisingly, since it literally means “eye cunt”), but it did survive in Turkish as munikasa or münikasa. (Or at least it did: the Turkish Wikipedia names it as kesik örgü.)
A “cut splice” is a kind of rope splice, that, well, looks like a monín:
It looks more like a monín given that the slit closes when the rope is taut. Venetian sailors weren’t the only people who thought so: the English name of the splice is cut splice, but as Wikipedia informs us, there used to be an extra n in cut…