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.


What Does Adpragmalic Mean?

Mosaic black bath –attendant. From Timgad, northwestern baths (at entrance to room, between two tepidaria.) 82 x 70 cm. Timgad, Musée Archéologique

Mosaic black bath –attendant. From Timgad, northwestern baths (at entrance to room, between two tepidaria.) 82 x 70 cm. Timgad, Musée Archéologique

At the heart of my current research titled Forging “Christian Rome”: Cultural Shifts of Late Antiquity  is the treatment of the image of the black African or Aethiopes. In one section of this paper I begin by looking at the treatment of the image of the black African by Romans as apotropaic which other scholars such as John Clarke, Katherine Dunbabin and others have. To be apotropaic meant having the power to avert evil influences of the Evil Eye. As the ubiquitous mosaic images found in bathing complexes showed black Africans not sexualized but simply ithyphallic, having an erect phallus or macrophallic, having an obviously large phallus. This leads to the monastic images of the Ethiopian demon found in their writings that changed the representation from a defense against evil to one of fornication and sexual evil, a demon of tainted lust.
So in the course of writing I created a new word to describe this unique and ironic change taking place during this period. This constituted the apotropaic image of the black African changing into something that monastic writers considered to be evil. In short, I present this neologism adpragmalic here and has been defined below.

ad•prag•mal•ic |ədpragˈmalik|


an ironic change to something that is contrary to the previous attribute of an object


adpragmalically |ədpragˈmali’k(ə)lēadverb

adpragmalism |ədpragˈmalizemnoun

In a sentence: The interpretation of the black african by monastic writers in the fourth century was adpragmalic.

ORIGIN: Late 20th cent.: from Latin malus ‘evil’ and Greek pragma ‘thing’, literally  “change to an evil thing.”

“Who Stitched For You This Bright Red Ὂλισβος?”


In the process of trying to find the appropriate word for penis in ancient Greek (for purely scholarly reasons, of course) as I knew what it was in Latin (mentula or uerpa) I embarked on a harrowing quest through the Greek lexicon known as the Liddell and Scott. I discovered rather, that the Greeks really did not have a word for it. However, they did have a word that was related. And the way that Liddell and Scott compiled it was rather secretive unless you knew both Latin and Greek.

ὄλισβος , ,

A. penis coriaceus, Cratin. 316Ar.Lys.109Fr.320.13.

Well I am sure you can figure out the cognate of the Latin word penis, but you must be a pretty savvy Latinist to know what coriaceus. Let us consult Lewis and Short:

cŏrĭăcĕus , a, um, adj. corium,

I. of leather: “naves” made of leatherAmm. 24, 3, 11.

So, the Greek word ὄλισβος is a leather penis!
Aside from the archeological evidence, there is literary evidence for the use of ὄλισβος. I will leave you with a short humorous scene from Herodas Mime 6.17-19, 58-79. Herodas wrote during the 3rd century BCE in Alexandria. The following scene involves two women Metro and Coritto discussing the procurement of dildos from a cobbler.

I beg you, don’t lie, dear Coritto: Who was the Man who stitched for you this bright red dildo? (2)
I don’t know if [Cerdon] is from Chios or Erythrae;(3) bald, small – you’d call him a right ‘Mr. Tradesman’. You’ll think you’re seeing the handiwork of Athena herself not Cerdon’s.
I – for he arrived bringing two, Metro – at the sight of them – well my eyes bulged; men can’t make their rods as rigid as this – we are alone and can be frank – and not only that, these are as soft as sleep; and the little leather straps are as soft as wool,not like leather straps at all. (4) a kinder cobbler to a woman you’ll not find – even by putting-out.
Why then did you not take the other one as well?
What didn’t I do, Metro? What sort of means of persuasion did I not apply him? Kissing him, stroking his bald head, pouring out a sweet drink for him, calling him by a pet name, giving him all by my body to enjoy. (5)
If he asked even that you ought to have given him it. (6)

Herodas Mime 6.17-19, 58-79:

Taken from Sexuality in Greek and Roman Society and Literature: a Sourcebook

Marguerite Johnson, Terry Ryan © 2005 published by Routledge Press ISBN 0-415-17330-2 (Hardback) ISBN 0-415-17331-0 (Paperback)


2. They were made of red leather like the phallus worn in comedy’ (Cunningham 164)

3. She knows his name but is uncertain of his place of origin: Chios is a large island off the coast of Lydia, opposite the peninsula on which Erythrae is the major center. Cerdon reappears in Mime 7 where his trade is confirmed as a shoemaker.

4. This dildo appears either to be a strap-on device for use in tribadic sex or to have straps designed to keep it in place within her body.

5. The reluctance to offer a sexual incentive is probably due to the class barriers; sexual preference may also be a factor.

6. While sharing her friend’s preferences, Metro clearly believes the acquisition of the second one would have been worth the sacrifice.