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"Cock" Means "Vagina." Let Us Explain

"Cock" Means "Vagina." Let Us Explain

Rodney Carmichael's early high school years were awkward. Like many young men, he wasn't sure how to talk to girls.

This was less of a problem for his stepbrother. Although a grade younger, he was bigger and had already become something of a junior high lothario. In fact, he had so many girls' numbers, he didn't know what to do with them all. Some he'd pass to Carmichael, who did what he could to heat things up over the phone.

And that's what got Carmichael into a conversation so awkward, he still remembers it a quarter-century later. (Now 40, he's the staff culture writer at Atlanta's Creative Loafing newspaper.)

He'd never met the girl in person but recalls that his stepbrother promised she was cute. Even better, she'd seen Carmichael from afar and thought the same thing about him. So their phone call slowly meandered from the getting-to-know-you phase to clumsy high school attempts at flirtation.

Then she asked the question that stopped him in his tracks.

"Do you eat cock?"

Carmichael was confused. To the young black man, everything to that point had suggested a typical teenage heterosexual courtship — but the question threw him for a loop. "I didn't know if she was talking about mine or hers," he remembers. "It was kind of nerve-racking."

His confusion was understandable. He didn't use the word "cock" much himself, but when he heard it used by white folks in the media (HBO movies, old issues of Playboy), it was slang for penis.

When it was used by some of his favorite rappers, however, it meant something else entirely. Take Miami rap act 2 Live Crew. The group — obsessed equally with bass and the female anatomy, and most famous for the hit "Me So Horny" — also had a song called "H.B.C.," in which they chanted:

Head, booty, and cock

What you like, fellas?

Head, booty, and cock

And 2 Live Crew were far from the only rap act talking that way in the 1980s and '90s. For a genre that was, until recently, quite homophobic, many male rappers — including plenty from the West Coast — spent a lot of time talking about their appreciation for cock. And by "cock," they meant vagina.

"When I bust my nut, I'm raisin' up off the cock," Snoop Dogg raps on his iconic 1993 hit "Gin and Juice." In Ice Cube's 1998 track "We Be Clubbin'," he brags about "hitting hairy cock all night long." Lil' Kim, New York's high priestess of hip-hop, once spoke of the wonders of her own, yes, cock.

Puberty is tough for anyone to navigate. When you're a teen, both the guys and the girls expect you to be conversant in sex, even if you have no idea what you're talking about. Since there was no Urban Dictionary back then, all Carmichael could do was bluff.

So perhaps it's no surprise that his fledgling courtship quickly wound down. Nobody's cock was ever eaten.

But Carmichael definitely wasn't alone in his confusion. There were surely many casualties in an era when hip-hop's sudden popularity forced this odd bit of slang into a head-on collision with the broader culture: For one group of people, "cock" referred to the male genitalia. For another, it referenced the female.

If you explain the etymological flexibility of the word "cock" to a group of Americans, their reactions generally fall into one of two distinct categories: utter disbelief or "yeah, duh" nonchalance.

Young people fall almost exclusively into the first category, while older Southerners and black people land in the second.

In pop culture and on the Internet, the Northern, white definition is almost universal. On the aforementioned Urban Dictionary, it's the most popular of three crowd-sourced meanings — the other two being "rooster" and "George W. Bush."

But if you listen to rap from previous decades, you'll hear it used the other way, and from quite unlikely sources. Like Mac Dre, the Vallejo gangsta rapper. He did five years in prison for robbery, and was murdered nine years ago by AK-47 gunfire on a Kansas City highway.

The case is unsolved, but there was no question about his sexual preference. There shouldn't have been, anyway, as his song "How I Got This Name" explains that since his school days he's been loving the women — he'd fuck a schoolgirl's whole clique, in fact.

Still, rapmusic.com commenters weren't convinced. In a 2009 thread called "Was Mac Dre Gay?" one cited lyrics from that same song, which chronicles his conversion to a gigolo:

I fucked a bitch who could fuck and suck good

And after that cock was nothin' to me

So I flipped the script and stopped fuckin' for free.

Mac Dre's former manager, Stretch, who is based in L.A., tells the Weekly that the rapper's preferences were strictly heterosexual. And the lyrics should be interpreted using the slang of the day: "Cock was nothing to me" meant simply that Mac Dre had more pussy than he could handle; "flipped the script" meant only that he became an unlikely male prostitute, charging women for his services.

Everyone, Stretch continues, used "cock" to mean vagina when he was coming up in Northern California; he first heard it at the dawn of the '90s as a middle schooler, and it didn't strike him as strange. "If you hear things in a certain context, it's normal. Anything a grown person said, you thought it was cool."

Adds a commenter on the rapmusic.com thread: "Only recently — like a couple years ago — did niggas start flippin' it to mean dick. It only means dick to you 'cause that's the only way YOU have ever heard it."

Words change their meaning all the time. Witness the way that "hot" and "cool," despite their contrasting formal definitions, now mean roughly the same thing when used as slang. Or how "bully" used to be a term of endearment — or how, pre–Michael Jackson, bad was the opposite of good.

Even the word "cock" has had plenty of other meanings over time, including "pal," "spirited fellow," "faucet," "rooster," "nonsense," "strap-on dildo" and, of course, "asshole." (To say nothing of its verb forms, or its importance to badminton.) Ever heard the baseball expression, referring to a pitch right down the middle, "down the cock"? Don't front. People use it.

But how did the cock-as-vagina usage come to be? Theories are many. Oakland writer Eric K. Arnold, who used to hear it while hanging out on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley in the early '90s, speculates cock in this sense to be a mutation of "cockhole."

Luke Campbell, the former leader of 2 Live Crew, says it came to Miami via immigrants from the Caribbean islands, shortened from the word "cockabred." (His mother came from the Bahamas, his dad from Jamaica.)

Jesse Sheidlower, North American editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary, has further insight into all of this. He's about as white as they come, but the 40-something Manhattanite is author of a history book about the word "fuck" and can rattle off Lil' Kim lyrics with zero prompting, N-word and all:

I got that bomb ass cock, a good ass shot

With hardcore flows to keep a nigga dick rock.

Documented use of cock-meaning-penis goes back to the 17th century, while the feminine usage dates back to at least the mid–19th century American South, Sheidlower says. He cites its entry in the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, which, in turn, cites a diary entry from hard-drinking, adulterous Nevada journalist Alfred Doten, who wrote in 1867: "We felt of each other's cocks ... and then she got on and fucked me bully."

This origin of this usage, Sheidlower says, is not entirely clear. It's possible that the word's meaning may have morphed from the male genitalia to a more general term for any genitalia, in the way that a "Coke" in the South may well be a Pepsi or a ginger ale. (Many Southerners interviewed for this story say they grew up hearing the word "cock" used both ways.)

"It could be referring to 'cockle,' as in shellfish, because there are a lot of expressions using mollusks that are also used for female genitalia, like clam and oyster," Sheidlower says. He also cites the French influence of coquille, the French word for shell.

Ozarks folklorist Vance Randolph's posthumously published 1992 collection of sheet music, Roll Me in Your Arms: "Unprintable" Ozark Folksongs and Folklore, explores the matter in the context of the (bonkers) old-time Ozarks folk song "The Old Sea Crab" — which includes the line, "Old woman got up to do a little job/An' the blamed old sea crab got her by the cock."

Randolph wrote, "This confusing usage originated during the French domination of the U.S. South; it comes from the French term, given in 18th-century French slang dictionaries, of coquille, cockleshell, for the vagina, and coquillage, for a young woman's virginity."

And the South seems to have been cock's jumping-off point nationally as a slang word for female genitalia. Both whites and blacks in the region used it in the old days, Sheidlower says.

One prominent white Mississippi intellectual, who asked not to be named, remembers an old friend once offering up this downright poetic rhyme: Cock's cock, even on livestock.

"As in," he explains, "pussy is pussy, even if it's a cow."

Much like soul food, the usage spread throughout the country during the great black migration of the 20th century, which sent blacks out of the South into the West, Northeast and Midwest in hopes of escaping racial persecution and finding greater economic opportunity. (In Los Angeles, the black population more than quadrupled between 1940 and 1970.)

"It's common for Southern expressions to become a part of African-American vernacular," Sheidlower says. "People would have taken this word with them."

The 1985 edition of the Dictionary of American Regional English noted that the division roughly paralleled the Mason-Dixon Line, with Northerners using it to mean the boy part and Southerners using it to mean the girl part. "Missouri is a border state in which both meanings are used," it added.

But the word was said privately, mostly unrecorded in books or on the radio, and unspoken in polite company. Robert W. Duffy, an Arkansas native and associate editor at the St. Louis Beacon, calls it "lowlife talk" limited to the locker room or over cigarettes.

"There's limited context in which sexual terms can be widely used, at least until recently," Sheidlower continues. "It took rap music to bring it to wider audiences."

Dre got some bitches from the city of Compton

To serve me, not with a cherry on top

'Cause when I bust my nut I'm raising up off the cock

Don't get upset, girl, that's just how it goes

I don't love you hoes, I'm out the door.

Upstairs at his under-construction Inglewood recording compound, blunt in hand, Snoop Dogg raps these words without irony. They're from perhaps the most beloved song in his catalog, "Gin and Juice," which is as important to rap's canon as "Satisfaction" is to rock's.

Yeah, he knows that cock usually means penis nowadays, but he makes no apologies, and he certainly doesn't perform "Gin and Juice" differently in concert. (Though, when he did it on Letterman a couple of years ago, "cock" was bleeped out.)

Rap music, along with the raunchy comedy of performers such as Blowfly, Rudy Ray Moore and Richard Pryor, helped bring authentic black speech — the way African-Americans actually talked to each other — to a wider audience.

Hip-hop's explosion in the '80s was uniquely positioned to expose the cock conundrum because its lyrics are both rooted in the black argot and unusually coarse for mainstream consumption. Previously, black musicians with wide distribution deals had seldom been allowed to be quite so blunt.

Snoop, for example, emphasizes that he never intended for his music to be popular; he did what he felt was true and real, and America just happened to be ready for it.

And that made hip-hop the perfect mechanism for exposing cock's dual meaning to a wider, whiter audience.

Thanks to the genre's verbal playfulness and versatility, Snoop notes that he wasn't shocked when he eventually heard cock being used the other way, to describe male genitalia. He'd learned to expect the unexpected.

"When it comes to the lingo, we always dipping and flipping," he says. After all, hip-hop slang evolves constantly. "It's always been a young man's game. [Young rappers] made it what it was."

Not everyone, however, took this change so well. For many black Southerners, they got the news via their first dial-up connections.

"I started seeing the word 'cock' on the Internet a lot, when I got a computer, in the late '90s," says Milton Crawley, a 28-year-old businessman and former rapper from Griffin, Ga. "Like: 'Cocksucker,' 'cock eater,' 'cock this,' 'cock that.' I was, like, 'Man, I thought it was a good thing!' "

Perhaps not surprisingly, the feminine usage of "cock" in hip-hop has fallen off dramatically in the past decade or so. You don't find it on many new releases, and you certainly don't hear it on current radio hits. One black co-worker speculates that the usage decreased dramatically because users "didn't want to be seen as gay."

But cock-meaning-pussy hasn't vanished yet. Sheidlower insists that white Southerners continue to employ it, and blacks certainly do.

"In the black community, it's still used in that way," Luke Campbell agrees. "If you at the beach looking at a girl in a bikini, some guys will be, like, 'Man, she got a fat cock.' "

That said, he wouldn't use it in a song anymore. That may be in part because he's trying to clean up his act; even in conversation, he'd prefer to be more politically correct. "I think I'd use the word 'vagina.' "

Editor's note:A previous version of this story gave an outdated job title for Rodney Carmichael. We regret the error.