Friday, December 11, 2009

Beaver, or a little mystery solved

Ah, I love it when I find the answer to one of the mysteries of modern life in the Middle Ages.

This happened to me recently in relation to an ad from this series for a new brand of tampons. It shows a young woman spending the day with a cute furry beaver, buying it treats and, presumably, sharing girly secrets. The punch line is “You only have one, so look after it.” I was watching a movie with some friends when the ad ran, and it sparked a lively debate over where and how the word ‘beaver’ as a synonym for vagina could possibly have originated*. Theories ran from the mundane (“Um, they’re both furry?”) to the more bizarre. (I wondered if there might be some connection between the beaver’s giant teeth and the mythical vagina dentata, but clearly I watch too many B-grade horror flicks.)

A few days later I was reading Louise Fradenburg and Carla Freccero’s Premodern Sexualities (at the hairdressers. Hint: If you are one of those people who would rather read than make banal chitchat with the hairdresser, take something like this along with you. I promise you will not get asked any more than a single question about it.) Anyway, I was up to Elizabeth Pittenger’s chapter “Explicit Ink”, which examines the connections between sexuality and Latin grammar in Alain de Lille’s twelfth century classic De planctu Naturae (The Complaint of Nature), and I experienced a little thrill of discovery when I came across this passage:

Apocope [a Latin term meaning to lop off the end of words] serves as a figure…more curiously, for the beaver’s habit of chewing off its own genitals (Pr. 1, 103). The image is generated from the pun of the signifier “castor,” “beaver,” and its proximity to castration.” (p. 234).

Apparently, this whole ‘beaver = castration’ pun was considered the height of wit amongst later medieval Latinists, and what could be more symbolic of the feminine than losing your balls? I have no idea whether this really is the derivation of our modern slang term, but it’s better than any of the ideas my friends and I came up with. If you have a more convincing explanation, I’d like to hear it. (Really, I would! I’ve always been fascinated by the history of slang terms and argot.)

Always reliable on subjects like this, Got Medieval has more bizarre medieval beaver lore here.

* Is this a UK/Australian/New Zealand term? Or do North Americans use it too?

Image: A beaver castrating itself, from a mid-10th century Byzantine materia medica (Pierpont Morgan Library MS M.652).

(Also, apologies for the disconcerting change of font styles in this post. Obviously, Blogger is not liking me at the moment but I am in no mood to wrestle with the stupid HTML tags.)


The History Enthusiast said...

Oh my gosh, why would a beaver chew off its balls? That is terrible!

Anyway, this term is used in the U.S., and as far as I can tell people think of it because of the furry factor. At least on my favorite late night show (Chelsea Lately) it is usually accompanied by the word "shave," or something like that.

I think that perhaps your explanation is historically accurate, but that we've lost that knowledge and now just assume it is the similarities in visual appearance. Does that make sense? I'm very tired and its been a long semester, so sorry for the rambling!

RPS77 said...

Yup, that term is used in North America. I actually thought it was only a US/Canadian term.

I don't have any more convincing explanation - the modern use could descend directly from the medieval Latin pun, with its origins totally forgotten. I guess it might also just be a coincidence.

I'll bet that beavers don't actually do that - it sounds like the medieval equivalent of an urban legend. Then again, even if they did, the medieval legend might apply only to European beavers, which are a different species from those in North America.

Digger said...

I never knew there was such a thing as the European beaver. But I guess they had to figure out somehow that beavers (the creature... get your mind out of the gutter!) make good hats. (I got burned once at a conference re: when a species was introduced to North America, so I was all 10th century beaver? wtf). Learn something new every day :D

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I posted over at Got medieval on this, too. But it's a pre-medieval idea, the one of the beaver gnawing off its own testicles to avoid capture. It's in Book One of Apuleius' The Golden Ass

Bardiac said...

Wow, coolness!

Brian J. said...

I'd imagine the best way to verify a connection between the ancient beaver folklore/pun and the current genital euphemism would be to look for the euphemism's earliest textual attestation: the earlier the text, the more likely the connection. Anyone have access to a manuscript database? :D

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

You know, I presume, that Sartre called Simone de Beauvoir "Castor," because of the apparent similarity between Beauvoir and beaver. As far as I can tell, she relates the coining of this nickname absolutely deadpan. But it prompts speculation . . .

magistra said...

I'm doubtful about the etymology myself, because European beavers became extinct in Britain in the sixteenth century and have only just been reintroduced. Eric Partridge's 'Shakespeare's Bawdy' doesn't mention beavers and the OED's first use in that sense is from the 1920s (marked as chiefly US), so there's very little evidence for continuity.

One alternative possibility is that the term derives from another slang use of 'beaver' to indicate a bearded man. The OED has this from 1910, but I suspect it might be older.

Bavardess said...

I'm sure the story of the beaver chewing off its own testicles is metaphorical rather than literal. Maybe people felt bad about about taking them for medical use (I don't even want to know what they thought they were going to treat with beaver balls).

ADM - thanks for the classical reference. The fact that the illustration here came from a Greek materia medica made me think it must have had some earlier origin.

Dame Eleanor - the pun still holds in French (castor = beaver and castrer = to castrate) so I'm not sure what Jean Paul was *really* saying to Simone.

Magistra - I didn't know that about the beaver having become extinct in Britain. This is the sort of pun I imagine Shakespeare would have made use of had it been current in England in his time. Perhaps the usage remained continuous in the French language and then somehow got reintroduced into English last century? Though I admit that's pure speculation on my part.

dr ngo said...

But there's still a weak link in this chain of speculation. Does anyone know enough colloquial French to know if *they* use the term "castor" (beaver) for a woman's pubic hair? The jump from "castration" to that image is not self-evident, though it is plausible. But if the French didn't make this connection, then they can hardly have "reintroduced" it into English.

Leaving us with Magistra's speculation, which is at least grounded in English-language usage.

As long as we're speculating, that is.

Bavardess said...

Hmm, I have my last French class for the term tonight. That would be a good question to go out on!

Anonymous said...

In the 17th - late 19th century women that want to debilitate their vaginal regions for both fashionable and health reasons, however for comfort purposes (using the equipment of the day) it was found that some form of covering was required to avoid irritation .. the remedial object was known as a 'merkin' (you'll find this is complete dictionaries described as a female or pubic wig) .. these were fashioned from fine beaver pelts .. hence the modern idiom .. her 'beaver', which, correctly, should only apply to the hirsute appendages of the vaginal region.