A question for lexicographers

Jonathon Green slang at BLUEYONDER.CO.UK
Thu Sep 6 11:26:29 UTC 2001

>My question is this: Is the putative origin from French based only on a
>plausibility argument (i.e., the sense is right, the phonetics is right,
>the milieu is right [via Louisiana French or post WW I]), or is there some
>actual evidence of the derivation (e.g., early attestations of transitional
>forms, or memoirs from ca. 1920 stating that the word came from France or
>New Orleans or wherever)?

I went for 'putain' in CDS and, as you note, added a '?'.

Partridge was a great slang collector, but he would always prefer to essay a
guess (albeit informed) than emulate when it came to etymologies that
initially defeated him. I too cannot accept his links to the Philippines or
Amerindia. As to the crux of the question - early evidence - I cannot, alas,
help. Might the OED know?

The only thing that I would add is a possible link to the Caribbean
'punany'/'punaani' (I'm not sure that there is an established spelling (cits
to date include  both of those plus 'punyani', 'poonany' and 'punani'),
meaning vagina, and used in the same ways, lit. and fig. that 'cunt' is in
'standard' slang. Unfortunately Allsopp has chosen to exclude it, he
presumably sees it as overly coarse, from the Dict. Caribbean English Usage,
nor is it in Cassidy & LePage's earlier Dict. of Jamaican English. I cannot
offer a precise ety. though there maybe links to the synon. 'pum-pum' (which
is rooted in W. African Krio) or S. Afr. 'pundu' , itself from Xhosa
'impundu', buttocks or vagina. All that suggsted, I have no cit. for
'punany' earlier than 1980s.

One further suggestion, which you may not have seen, is in Major's dict. of
black slang, Juba to Jive. He dates it 1700s-1940s and spells it variously
'poontang' and 'puntang'. I cannot accept the first date (and surely he's
cut off its use very prematurely) but, as is often his way with a number of
terms to which ascribes W. African origins, he sees it as coming to the US
with the early slaves, and being rooted in " 'puntuny' (Lima) and/or 'mu
ntanga' (Bantu)" - both W. African langs. and both meaning vagina, sexual
intercourse and black female sexuality; these roots then 'converged with
'putain ' " Unfortunately his sources, primarily Edith Folb and contemporary
oral, offer no proof as to this 18C, or even 19C use.

Jonathon Green

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