Some words sound dirty but actually aren’t. Others don’t sound dirty, but their etymology suggests otherwise. And then there are those words that usually are considered dirty—though only in certain contexts. From titty to boner, here are nine inappropriate words whose lesser-known definitions don’t ruffle any feathers.
In 19th-century England, you might call a cat or kitten a titty—or, even better, a titty pussy. Tit also has a whole host of obsolete meanings that have nothing to do with breasts. As a noun, it could refer to a young or small man, a young or small horse, a tug or pull, a steel rod used in nail manufacturing, and more. To tit someone in medieval Scotland, meanwhile, meant to grab them by force or put them to death by hanging.
Nobody really knows where the word dildo came from. But when it first started appearing in print in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, people were using it in songs and poems as a lilting nonsense word not unlike la. Here’s an example from Robert Jones’s 1601 Second Book of Songs and Ayres:
“Sweet, now go not yet, I pray;
Let no doubt thy mind dismay.
Here with me thou shalt but stay
Only till I can display
What I will do
With a dildo,
Sing do with a dildo.”
It's unclear whether such songs had anything to do with dildo in the sex toy sense, which started cropping up in print around the same time. In the late 17th century, the shape of those objects gave rise to yet another meaning: “a downward-hanging sausage curl on a wig.” In his 1688 book The Academy of Armory, for example, Randle Holme described a campaign wig as having “a Dildo on each side.”
If you’re not using prick as a personal insult or slang for male genitalia, it might just be functioning as a synonym for pierce or poke. It also once described wine or beer whose flavor had gone sour; as in, “All the wine that pricks,” from a 1731 essay by Peter Shaw. To “prick a hare” meant to track a hare; and “prick and praise” meant “the praise of excellence or success,” per the Oxford English Dictionary.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, some people even used prick as a term of endearment for men—though this trend was almost definitely related to the prick-as-penis sense. “Ah, ha! are we not alone, my prick? ... Let us go together into my inner bed-chamber,” a character says in Desiderius Erasmus’s Colloquies, translated in 1671.
The history of poop doesn’t just involve feces and ship decks. Back in the 16th century, it could mean “to fool or deceive.” “Ay, she quickly pooped him; she made him roast-meat for worms,” one character says in Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Poop was also a 20th-century military slang term for the latest information—especially if it was confidential or important enough to be memorized.
“Then, owls and bats,
Cowls and twats,
Monks and nuns, in a cloister's moods,
Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry!”
This was strange, considering twat had never been used to discuss a nun's garb before, and Oxford English Dictionary co-founder Frederick J. Furnivall later wrote to Browning inquiring about the word choice. The poet responded that he’d heard the term in a 17th-century ballad called “Vanity of Vanities, or Sir Harry Vane’s Picture,” which contains these bawdy lines:
“They talk’t of his having a Cardinalls Hat,
They’d send him as soon an Old Nuns Twat”
As Browning wrote in his letter to Furnivall, “the word struck me as a distinctive part of a nun’s attire that might fitly pair off with the cowl appropriated to a monk.” The ballad was not, unfortunately, talking about attire.
It’s a donkey, it’s a derrière, and it’s a multi-purpose curse word. But if you’re making paper by hand, per the OED, it’s a “curved wooden post” along the rim of your vat that you can place your mold on while it drains. It’s sometimes referred to as a donkey-rest, so the term is apparently unrelated to body parts. (Considering that donkey-engine and donkey-pump described small, supplemental steam engines and steam pumps, it seems like donkey was a popular modifier for tools of an auxiliary nature.)
Primarily in Australia, the booby (or the boob) is prison. You can even boob someone, meaning “put in prison.” Booby house is another old synonym for prison; it can also refer to a closed compartment or cabin on a ship. And booby alone (plus booby hack, booby hut, and booby hutch) also once described an enclosed horse-drawn sleigh common in New England. In 1870, for example, The Boston Post mentioned “Two elegant new Boobies, nearly finished.”
Boners are slaughterhouse employees responsible for stripping meat from animal bones, as well as cows whose meat is only good for lesser beef products. But to Victorian schoolchildren, boners were punches or other bodily blows. In Edmund Lechmere’s 1844 drama The Charter House Play, for instance, one schoolboy reacts to a classmate’s kitchen calamity with this rhyming response:
“Oh! how he’ll catch it from that bully Steady,
If, after prayers, the supper is not ready.
Poor Scrub! what licks, what boners I foresee;
I’m hanged if I a’nt glad it was not me.”
When Samuel Pepys called one of his domestic staff members “a most admirable slut” in a 1664 diary entry, he didn’t intend to offend. At the time, slut could refer to a scullery maid or any other lowly female servant. It was also just a catch-all term for female. “We country sluts of merry Fressingfield / Come to buy needless naughts, to make us fine,” one character says in Robert Greene’s Elizabethan comedy Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay.