Attitudes regarding the word "cunt" have changed over the years. Nowadays, it's considered one of the most offensive words in the English language. Once upon a time, however, it wasn't. I would like to tell you a bit about one piece of the word's history.

The oldest known written citation of the word, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, dates from 1230 in the name of a London street called "Gropecunt Lane". It was a less innocent time, and quite a few cities had a street where prostitutes plied their trade. This was not an era of tender sensibilities, and these streets were named for what they were. London, Oxford, Bristol, York, Newcastle, and Dublin each had streets named "Gropecunt", and a number of other towns were less explicit, with streets named "Grope Lane" or "Fondle Street".

Interestingly, though perhaps not surprisingly, in most towns, Gropecunt Lane stood right in the center of town. Generally it was located near the town's main road; the evidence from these street names is that the oldest profession was centered in the same part of town as every other occupation in medieval towns, and if perhaps not condoned, it was at very least publicly acknowledged. Quite conveniently, after spending a day engaged doing business, in many cities, you could walk a little ways to Gropecunt Lane and spend your evening doing the same thing.

Alas, such colorful names went out of style during the Victorian Era, and in the early nineteenth century most of these names were lost. A number of Gropecunt Lanes were first renamed Grope and then Grape. A part of Oxford's Gropecunt Lane became Magpie Lane, while the other end is now Grove Passage. London once had no fewer than three streets named Gropecunt in different areas of the city; one of them is now Grape Street, while another retains a winking reference to its previous name — it's now Threadneedle Street, and it's the home of the Bank of England. The Bank is sometimes nicknamed "The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street." Wouldn't it be so much more fun if she was "The Old Lady of Gropecunt Lane"?

The earthiness of medieval street names was, lamentably, lost with the prudery of Victorian English society. It's particularly sad that this custom never had a chance to establish itself in the United States, where we're stuck naming our streets after the trees we cut down to build them. Don't you wish you had the opportunity to go up to someone on the street and ask directions to Gropecunt Lane? I know I do.


References

The Guardian. "A Street By Any Other Name . . . ". http://money.guardian.co.uk/homebuying/story/0,1456,1195113,00.html
Telegraph. "The meaning of body language". http://tinyurl.com/2jj79g
Historical Gazetteer of London Before the Great Fire. http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.asp?compid=5045
The Guardian. "Sidelines". http://www.guardian.co.uk/gender/story/0,11812,1453789,00.html

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