Since I'm beginning a series of publications relating to classical Rome, it only makes sense to begin with a book that reviews the vocabulary of sex in Latin. It isn't a work that is of particularly direct use for the topic of love or sex between women, as the author gives away his attitude toward the topic with words like "abnormal." But especially given how difficult it is to extract reliable information about female homoeroticism from the surviving Latin texts, the need to understand Roman attitudes toward sex in general is unavoidable.
I should probably note that the entire series of publications that I'm covering this month will be strongly focused on the mechanics of sex as understood and discussed in Roman culture and that much of the language will be explicit and...well...vulgar. Content warnings apply.
Adams, J.N. 1982. The Latin Sexual Vocabulary. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore. ISBN 0-8018-4106-2
Content Note: This book's topic is the vocabulary of genitalia and sex acts. These will be discussed straightforwardly using language that might ordinarily be considered crude or offensive (especially when a crude term best represents the original sense in Latin).
Both the structure of this book and the author’s attitude toward the material work to erase any specific consideration of terminology relating to sex between women. The book is organized thematically, first considering vocabulary relating to specific body parts, then considering vocabulary for actions done with or to those body parts, with a briefer discussion of the sociological context at the end. There are scattered references to terms relating to sex between women, but in a few cases Adams discounts or dismisses homoerotic contexts in favor of focusing on potential male-oriented interpretations. (For example, he discusses two ambiguous instances of frictrix without any consideration that it gave rise to words unambiguously meaning “tribade” in later Romance languages and without discussing a homoerotic interpretation at all.)
This is the sort of book that assumes that, if you are reading it, you are fluent in Greek and Latin and therefore don’t need any of the contextual citations to be translated. While this avoids adding an interpretive layer from the author, it’s a somewhat old-fashioned approach to classical studies with a tacitly gate-keeping function. It’s also worth noting that the scope of the book is not “vocabulary relating to love and affection” and the scope of “sexual” is interpreted somewhat narrowly. For example, although some vocabulary relating to non-genital contact (touching, embracing) is mentioned, generally it is included when used as a euphemism for genital acts. I don’t think kissing gets discussed at all. So the vocubulary shouldn’t be taken as a roadmap to how Roman people experienced their romantic and erotic lives as a whole.
The general scope of the work is language used to describe or refer to sexual and excretory acts, either as the primary meaning of the words, as a standard euphemism, or as ad hoc metaphorical or poetic reference. From the context of usage, especially the nature and formality of the text, one can identify hierarchies of offensiveness. (For example, formal, neutral terms are less likely to show up in the graffiti on whorehouse walls, while crude, offensive terms are less likely to show up in love poetry.) The types of body parts and acts that appear in the texts, as well as how they are treated, provide evidence of cultural preoccupations. For example, classical Latin had an extensive and specific vocabulary to identify penetrative sex involving different orifices, distinguishing whether the act was viewed from the “active” or “passive” partner. This detailed specificity reflects the significance of social hierarchies of different roles and acts. The book primarily covers Classical Latin, but also looks at medieval Latin and vocabulary in Romance languages in some cases.
Numerically, the majority of the terms covered are metaphoric or euphemisms--suggestive rather than direct. The metaphoric language may be isolated examples reflecting an active underlying metaphor that has not yet settled into fixed expressions. In other cases, originally metaphoric language may have shifted to becoming the primary referential sense of the word, and may displace older standard language as it becomes considered dated or too offensive.
In addition to language directly about sex, or using sexual contexts for the purpose of insult or innuendo, obscene language might be used in ceremonial/magical contexts either to ward off evil influences or to invoke fertility.
The cultural focus on male sexuality (and the filtering effect of who did the writing and which writings were preserved) mean that the majority of the book is focused on terms for male anatomy and male involvement in sex acts. A great deal of the male-oriented material is preoccupied with the negotiation and maintenance of masculine status with regard to “approved” sex acts, especially when performed between men. Although it’s safe to say that an understanding of Roman attitudes toward gender and sexuality cannot but grasped without that male-centered understanding, I’ll be skipping over large amounts of that material and only touching on female-relevant vocabulary.
The first set of terms are those that can be used for either male or female genitalia (which are listed at the end of the chapter of male genitals). Veretrum (derived from a root meaning “respect”) can be found occasionally for female genitals, but in other cases clearly is restricted to men. By the early medieval period, it seems to have become scholarly and obscure. Similarly neutral in tone is verenda (plural) meaning “that which inspires awe” which is found in late Classical Latin and medieval contexts, though somewhat rare. Verecunda has as it’s primary meaning “modesty” but can also be applied to genitals of any type with a neutral tone. In contrast, pudenda (shameful thing) is gender-neutral but conveys a sense of shame or disgust. The euphemism genitale, genitalia (generative parts) can be used in polite contexts but wasn’t typically used as a technical or medical term.
Other general euphemisms indicate the saliency of sexual organs: natura, naturalia (natural parts) occurs for both sexes but most commonly for women’s genitals in medical contexts; necessaria (necessary parts) occurs for both sexes; sexus (sexual part) is fairly rare but used for both men and women. [Note how many modern English technical terms were the ordinary words in Classical Latin.]
There is a disproportionate number of different terms referring to the penis, perhaps because writers felt freer to talk about that organ, or because it had greater cultural meaning. To understand the range of euphemisms, it’s important to understand the different concept of “modesty” in Roman culture. Casual public display of depictions of the penis reflect both a lack of generalized “shame” attached to genitals (as opposed to specific uses of them) and the use of the penis as a symbol of power. In contrast, female genitals were not used (either physically or symbolically) as a threat or boast in the same way that male genitals were. When female genitals were discussed in vulgar contexts, they were often associated with disgust or revulsion. Reference to the clitoris was typically in abusive contexts focusing on unnatural size.
Vocabulary for female genitals may distinguish between the external genitals, the vagina, and the uterus, or may conflate some subset (especially the latter two) or all of those.
The basic and most common obscene term for the female genitals is cunnus. [Note: despite the similarity, there isn’t a clear connection with the germanic word that appears in English as cunt, although that is probably the best functional translation.] Cunnus can be derogatory or abusive, but occasionally seems to be neutral if used in a non-derogatory context, though it would not be used as a polite term. It appears primarily in graffiti and in satirical epigrams. [Note: the epigram was a short poem that usually satirized or poked fun at the subject. Although often written by “serious” poets, the tone of the language was typically vulgar.]
Animal metaphors can be found for male genitals but are less common for women, though this may be an artifact of the types of surviving texts. One exception is the use of porcus (pig), which seems to have been used by women to refer to the genitals of young girls in a sort of “nursery talk” register. [Note: my guess is that this is a image-metaphor based on the smooth, rounded appearance of the hind end of a female piglet.]
Agricultural metaphors with meanings like “field, garden, meadow” are common, not only inspired by visual appearance (i.e., pubic hair seen as vegetation) and the implication of fertility, but also in connection with using metaphors of ploughing and sowing of seeds for the act of sex. Some specific terms include eugium (having good soil, fertile), a Greek borrowing associated with the language of prostitutes and considered vulgar. Sulcus (furrow) also comes from this field of meaning and appears to have been inoffensive.
Similarly, from the image of interior spaces in the landscape, words like specus (cave--it could also be used for the anus), fossa (ditch), piscina (pool, fish pond), barathrum (pit, but with a negative connotation “abyss”), with the latter two mostly appearing in epigrams.
Household objects were another source of metaphor, especially ones relating to cooking. The external genitals might be called a hearth and the vagina or womb an oven. A round cookpot (olla) was another word used for “female parts” (though I wonder if the rounded shape might also be an allusion, not just the “container” aspect?). Referring to the female genitals as an altar (ara) seems to have been an ad hoc coinage rather than a standard term. Other “container” words used for the interior genitals include bulga (bag) and vas (vessel, container). [Note: somewhat surprisingly, the book does not indicate that vagina (sheath) was used for the organ with that name today, although vagina was used in a few cases as part of a metaphor for anal sex to accompany the more common euphemism of penis=sword.]
A few other metaphoric terms are mentioned that may be ad hoc coinages: the external genitals called a door (ianuam), the vagina a path or road, or a sinus (hollow space), and possibly one instance of female genitals called a ship (navis) but in a context of word-play.
Another technique of euphemism was to refer to a taboo organ with the name for some nearby body part. Thus the female genitals may be called a “lap” (gremium) or especially in Biblical Latin, a navel (umbilicus) or thigh (femur). Somewhat more pointedly, words used for the anus might be applied to the vagina as well (longuo, culus).
Similarly to some of the generic terms that could mean either male or female genitals, there are terms meaning “female parts” (muliebria, feminal) or simply “the place” (loca) or “the inner place” (interior pars, viscera).
Somewhat more crudely, we find words meaning “crack, fissure” (rima, fissa). The term hiatus (cleft, gap) appears in offensive contexts implying “a loose vagina" (presumably from excess use).
The term spurium is mentioned by classical authors as an obsolete term for the female genitals and is attributed to the Sabine or possibly Etruscan language. By the classical period, the sense had been transferred to “illegitimate (spurious) child”.
The remainder of the chapter on female genitals covers references to specific anatomic parts (whereas the above terms can have more general use).
Classical Romans understood the function of the clitoris in sex and envisioned tribades using it like a penis for penetrative sex. For this reason, identifying a clitoris as “large” was derogatory and implied pseudo-masculinity. The ordinary “proper” term for it was landica but in Classical Latin this was considered too indecent to use (although it survived into Old French). The Greek borrowing nymfe occurs but not in common use. The image metaphor nasus (nose) or crista (crest, [rooster’s] comb) appear in ad hoc use.
The labia might be called a mouth (orae) in medical literature. Terms meaning “wings” (pinnacula, pinnae) are noted as obsolete.
In addition to general terms that could be applied to the womb, the words uterus, venter, and aluus could mean either “womb” or “belly” generally. Of these uterus was the “proper” term but considered a bit too formal for everyday use. Aluus was somewhat obscure. Venter became the everyday term used in colloquial or vulgar contexts but was later replaced by more specialized words. Vulva eventually replaced uterus for everyday reference to the womb and both appear in formal poetry. Later, vulva became generalized to the female genitals as a whole. There’s an isolated example of vulva being used for the clitoris, identifiable because the object is described as tentigo (erect). In the late empire, medical works sometimes use matrix (“the breeding part”, derived from mater “mother”) for the womb.
Vocabulary for Sex Acts
[Note: Because of the way the book is structured, there isn’t a clear and separate discussion of vocabulary for sex acts between women. Also, the vocabulary of sex acts primarily focuses on penetrative sex and distinguishes the orifice, and whether the act is being considered from the point of view of the “active” or “passive” party, regardless of gender. I’m going to borrow from Williams Roman Homosexualities, which I’ll be covering shortly, to lay out the basic structure here. He uses “insertive” and “receptive” rather than “active” and “passive”. Obviously, the acts default to assuming the presence of a penis. The verbs (from which other vocabulary is derived) are as follows:
Vaginal - futuere (insertive), crisare (receptive)
Anal - pedicare (insertive), cevere (receptive)
Oral - irrumare (insertive), fellare (receptive)
[There are also nouns used for the receptive participant. Obviously, the usual noun for a vaginally receptive partner is “woman”. The case of the anally receptive partner is complicated and I’m going to skip it for now because it's mostly relevant to male-male relations. Note that both terms in the “oral” category are only referring to stimulation of the penis. See below for the complexity of cunnilingus, oral sex that stimulates a woman.]
The only context in which futuere (which can reasonably be considered equivalent to “fuck”) is used with a woman as the agent is when a woman is having penetrative sex with another woman. But Adams does a bit of reaching when considering the equivalent noun (fututor (m), fututrix (f)) in the feminine form. The entire discussion of this context is worth quoting, if only to demonstrate the author’s attitude toward the topic. I’ve added translations in brackets.
* * *
[quoted from book]
Except in the passive, futuo was not as a rule used of the female role. The woman in Martial [epigram] 7.70 (‘ipsarum tribadum tribas, Philaeni, / recte, quam futuis, uocas amicam’ [Philaenis, tribade of the tribades themselves, you rightly call the woman you fuck your ‘girlfriend’]) is a tribas who behaves like a man (cf. Seneca Epistle 95.21, where ineo [enter] is applied to the activities of similarly abnormal women); compare fututor at Martial [epigram] 1.90.6 (‘at tu, pro facinus, Bassa, fututor eras’ [But you, a crime, Bassa!, are a fucker]). But at Martial [epigram] 11.7.13 futuo (active) is definitely used of the female part in normal sexual intercourse: ‘quanto tu melius, quotiens placet ire fututum, / quae uerum mauis diere, Paula, uiro’ [Whenever you have a mind to go fuck, Paula, you prefer to tell your husband the truth]. There is no evidence that the supine was treated as indifferent in respect of voice. This example anticipates the intransitive use of fotre in Old French, of the woman. It is typically in the intransitive that verbs of this sense are transferred to the female role (cf. English she fucks).
There is also some evidence that fututrix had acquired a corresponding use (= ‘ea quae futuitur’ [she who fucks]): [examples skipped] Note too CIL IV.2204 Mula foutoutris [transcribed from Greek - Mola (female) fucker]. It is suggested at TLL VI.1.1664.61f that the reference here may be to a tribas, but that is unlikely: note CIL IV.2203 ‘futui Mula hic’ [I fucked Mula here], and for Mula see also 8185. CIL IV.4196 (‘Miduse fututrix’ [Miduse the (female) fucker]) and 4381 are impossible to interpret.
* * *
[Note: Observe how the author considers homoerotic interpretations “unlikely” or “impossible to interpret” without further comment. As well as the assumption that if Mula has been fucked (by a man presumably) she could not also be a fucker of women. The location of the graffiti in a brothel isn’t proof one way or another. The conclusion that fututrix cannot mean “a woman who fucks women” is simply assumed rather than demonstrated.]
Aside from the above examples, the vocabulary for penetrative sex acts are not relevant to this blog. So we’ll move on.
Lingo (to lick) can be used for any sex act performed with the mouth. It can default to being the standard term for cunnilingus but can be used for other acts when one wants to specify the part being stimulated (other than a penis, for which there is specialized vocabulary). The word order in the compound cunnilingo indicates that it was established early as a fixed phrase. Much less commonly, lambo is used with the same meaning for oral sex involving the cunnus, but it was not established as a standard sexual term.
The verb criso specifically meant “the movements made by a woman during vaginal intercourse” (and had a counterpart in ceveo for the movements of the receptive partner in anal intercourse). These are the basic meanings of the words in their earliest recorded examples, rather than being transferred from some other meaning. Their usage contexts indicate they were not particularly offensive. A less established term was crispo (to wave, brandish) which was used generally of lascivious movements but not associated with a specific sex act.
Metaphors for oral sex are unsurprisingly drawn from the act of eating. Many begin as vulgar slang but are then established in some of the less formal literary registers (such as epigrams). But eating can be applied to other penetrative acts where the receptive orifice “devours” the penis. This metaphor is expressed through the entire vocabulary of consumption rather than focusing on specific words.
Vocabulary for the experience of orgasm include generic verbs of accomplishment or reaching a goal. (It isn’t clear whether these apply only to male orgasm or to women’s experience as well.) These include patro (to accomplish [it]), perficio (to finish, achieve [it]), as well as more ad hoc metaphors such as sedeo (to sit, stay), pervenio (to arrive), ibo (to go), propero (to hurry), agito (to drive, impel).
Verbs referring to grinding (molo) or similar motions may be used in general for masturbation, but can also carry an implication of adultery “grinding your meal in someone else’s mill”. Similarly, to knead (depso) which appears in somewhat offensive contexts. [Note: interestingly, Adams appears to mention no examples of these verbs referring to sex between women, although cross-culturally, these activities appear regularly with that meaning. I don’t know if that sense simply wasn’t used in Classical Latin, or if examples simply didn’t survive, or if Adams has overlooked or ignored them.]
While the verb subigo (to master, subdue) was used only for the active role in penetrative sex, the derived form subigito had a more general sense of “fondle, lay hands on” as used in comic drama.
The lighter side of sex can be seen in the use of ioceri (to joke, play) as a sexual euphemism. Similarly ludo (to play a game or sport) can be used with any gender or role as the subject in contexts when sex is framed as a mutually pleasurable activity. These terms are often associated with youth.
Phrases that generically mean “to be/sleep/lie with” tended to have a neutral implication: esse cum (be with), dormio cum (sleep with), iaceo cum, con-cumbere (lie with, the latter being the source of “concubine”). Biblical Latin used phrases such as maneo cum (stay with) and noctem promittere (spend the night with).
The phrase co-eo (come together) was a standard term for the act of marriage but was also a euphemism for sex of all types and combinations (see: coitus). Verbs meaning “join” (iungo, coniungo) can be used with metonymic body parts (latus “side”, femur “thigh”, caput “head”) to refer to sex. Even more vaguely, verbs of holding and embracing (teneo, complector, amplector) can refer to sex.
As noted previously, verbs of rubbing or grinding can indicate a variety of sexual activities, not only intercourse. In addition to molo (to grind, mill) we find tero (similar in meaning but more general). Frico (to rub, the root of “friction”) is primarily used for masturbation. Adams expresses doubt that the female noun frictrix (woman-who-rubs) is (as generally assumed) a calque (i.e., literal translation) of Greek tribas and he appears to dismiss the possibility that it refers to sex between women (despite that being the dominant meaning in medieval Latin). [Note: it's also odd that Adams doesn't directly discuss tribas itself as used in Latin, despite including it in several quotations. If for no other reason, I have strong doubts that this book is a reliable guide to vocabulary specifically relevant to relations between women.]
The verb tango (to touch) is generally interpreted as “caress” but can also be used as a euphemism for intercourse. Verbs for the emotional experience of love could also be transferred to referring to sex acts: amo (love), libido (lust), venus (desire). There was sometimes a contrast between the use of venus as a neutral term for sex in contrast with stuprum which is the standard pejorative term for “shameful” types of sexual experience. But venus was an elevated word and doesn’t show up in this sense in vulgar literature.
Euphemisms for pleasure can indicated nuanced types of experience: deliciae (pleasures) had a fashion as slang for extramarital affairs, delecto (to please) referred to the pleasure a woman enjoys during sex, especially framed as something her partner does, and voluptas (pleasure) is the enjoyment that an active partner achieves in the act.
Derogatory euphemisms for sex include vitio (to spoil, violate) but doesn’t necessarily imply something imposed on a person, as Christian moral texts use it to indicate persons “defiling” themselves by participating in sex. Pecco (to sin) is also bound up with the emerging Christian view of sex. Under the Classical Roman moral system, the standard and common negative term for “shameful” sex was stuprum which originally meant something like “disgrace” in general but shifted in meaning to be specifically sexual.