A Lesson in Latin Linguistics Through Mycology

I started reading The Latin Sexual Vocabulary by J.N. Adams today, taking my time going through all the Latin sources he uses, quite fascinating. Anyway, I wanted to talk about the word uerpa which I shall remain aloof and not divulge the details of its meaning. Adams’ treatment of the words are so scholarly and it really tickles me pink (and plus, you’ll figure it out sooner or later anyway). So this tale starts out in the year 1775, a wonderful year in which the scrappy American Revolution was due to start and on European continent, a man named Otto Friedrich Müller, a naturalist, named an ascomycete fungi related to the morels. Now, I am no mycologist, (from the Greek μύκης, mukēs, meaning “fungus”) so please bear with me on the details. For those who are curious a dictionary will show that the definition of an ascomycete is simply “a large group of fungi characterized by the presence of sexually produced spores formed within an ascus. Also called sac fungus.” Now of course you must wonder what an ascus is, (I sure did!). Linguistically speaking, it is from the Greek word ασκος, askos, meaning “bag”. The definition of ascus is “a membranous, often club-shaped structure in which typically eight ascospores are formed through sexual reproduction of ascomycetes. How fun! Now that we are acquainted with the terminology, onward to the matter at hand. So, our man, Müller named a certain ascomycete fungi Phallus conicus. So this is where things get entertaining. Although retaining its name many other individuals attempted in vain to place it into different genera. In 1815, Olaf Peter Swartz decided  that naming this fungus (pictured below) Phallus conicus was far too obvious in meaning to the average lay person so he changed it to Verpa conicus.


Verpa conica

This alteration wouldn’t really be noteworthy, except the reason why he changed it. In all likeliness (mere conjecture on my part) it was to avoid potential ridicule. The joke really is funnier in Latin, so they say, and this is no exception. So I will let you in on the joke, the term verpa according to J.N. Adams is thus:

Verpa can also be classified as a vox propria for the penis; it serves as a complement of mentulaVerpais recorded in literature only in Catullus (28.12), Martial (11.46.2), the Corpus Priapeorum (34.5) and perhaps Pomponius (see below), but its currency in vulgar speech is established by its frequency in graffiti (see CIL IV.1655, 1884, 2360, 2415, 4876, 8617).1

So, in short, the words verpa and mentula in Latin, for all intents and purposes are the most obscene words for the male genitalia as far as scholars can tell based on literary and archeological evidence. A proper Roman like Cicero has simply refused to write mentula in response to a letter and instead he wrote “id  uerbum,” that word. It is hard to approximate just how improper it was to use these words in civilized conversation, but one can imagine its equivalent today would be approximately the four letter word for pudenda muliebria. I suppose, to take it a step further, one must know exactly why this word was such a big deal. The term verpa is a very specific word for the phallus. It has an explicit meaning of an erect phallus with the foreskin pulled back and the glans exposed. This was considered exceptionally rude especially  for the upper class who was well versed in Greek culture.  Using this post as a segue, look for my next post which will be a treatment of the phallus by Graeco-Romans. Here. 1. J.N. Adams, The Latin Sexual Vocabulary (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1982), 12.