Condoms in the 18th century

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Thu Apr 11 00:28:56 UTC 2013

On Apr 10, 2013, at 2:00 PM, Joel S. Berson wrote:

> At 4/10/2013 12:00 PM, Laurence Horn wrote:
>> On Apr 10, 2013, at 10:36 AM, Joel S. Berson wrote:
>> > Where would one find a collection of terms used for "condom" in the
>> > 18th century -- both standard and slang?
>> >
>> > Joel
>> >
>> I don't know about collections, but Farmer &
>> Henley (1890-1904) list such variants as "French
>> letter", "Spanish letter", "Italian letter", and
>> even "American letter", as well as "capote
>> anglaise" (English overcoat), 'usually described
>> in print as "specialities" or "circular
>> protectors"', but with no cites. The entry for
>> "cundum" curiously lists this as "an obsolete
>> appliance worn in the act of coition…the modern
>> equivalent is known as a French letter", with
>> one cite from Rochester et al.'s "Panegyric upon Cundum", 1767.
> Wouldn't Rochester (if this one is the libertine
> 2nd earl) be 1667, not 1767?  (See also Safire,
> citation below.)  Although in 1667 he would have
> been only 20.  (The first earl died in 1658; the
> third died in 1680 at the age of 10.)  If
> "Panegyric" really exists, it would antedate the
> OED's "condom" by 40 years.  But I am wondering
> -- I don't find "Panegyric ... Cundum" in Google Books or WorldCat.

Right about the date, of course.  This site-- the same panegyric, dating it to 1665 (maybe F&H were working with a later edition?); F&H appear to have taken the earl at his word in taking his subject to be an eponym for a putative (but apparently non-existent?) Dr. Cundum/Condom, physician to Charles II.  Grose apparently thought he was a colonel, rather than (or as well as?) a doctor.

Here's the misdated F&H entry, in an awkwardly long URL:

> If there really is an instance of "French letter"
No, the claim is there's an instance of "cundum", not of "French letter"

> in 1667, it will antedate the OED's ?1844 and
> c1856 by 180-odd years.  Which I only know from
> having wondered yesterday how far back "French
> letter" went, and being surprised it was so
> late.

As noted, F&H take "French letter" (and related ethnonyms) to be the *modern* (i.e. Victorian) replacement for the "obsolete" cundum, which suggests there wouldn't be a 17th c. cite for the former to be found.


>  Ben's report from Grose is interesting --
> an absence of slang for "condom" (which the OED
> has from ?1706 and 1708) in the fairly-outspoken 18th century?  Surprises me!)
> No OED entries for "Spanish letter", "Italian
> letter", "American letter", nor "capote anglaise" and "English overcoat".
> Safire had something to say about "cundom" in
> _Coming to Terms_, in "Surgeon General's Warning"; see (Preview)
> (Therein on an unnumbered page.)  But probably
> nothing on the 18th century (the Preview omits some pages).
> Joel
>> LH, wondering whether the cundum would count as a major or minor appliance
>> P.S. Glancing down the page from "French
>> letter", I see that "French vice" is delicately
>> glossed as 'a euphemism for all sexual
>> malpractices'.  Wonder what the premiums for
>> malpractice insurance were like back then.
>> ------------------------------------------------------------
>> The American Dialect Society -
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society -

The American Dialect Society -

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