Thanks to Stan Carey, who introduced those of us who read his site to “Mysteries of Vernacular.” “Mysteries of Vernacular” is a series of animated shorts exploring the etymology of a few English words. Here’s the one for hearse. I like the interactive graphic that they give you to browse the videos:
The other day, Zach Weiner’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal featured an explanation of the origin of the phrase “vanilla sex.” The explanation:
The VAN- part comes from the Spanish “Vaina” from the Latin “Vagina.” The -ILLA part is diminutive. So, etymologically, “Vanilla Sex” refers to a little vaginal sex.
Each of the etymological claims in the explanation is basically true,* but the conclusion they allegedly support is ludicrous. Which I’m sure is the point, the etymological information represents a pun of an unusual and elaborate form.
*Basically. So Spanish vaina does come from the Latin vagina, but so does Spanish vagina. In Latin, vagina meant either “vagina” or “sheath”; in Spanish, vagina means “vagina” and vaina means “sheath.” So, etymologically, “vanilla” means “little sheath,” not “little vagina.” If the people who coined the phrase “vanilla sex” were thinking about the etymology behind the word “vanilla,” the etymological meaning of the phrase would be “little sheath sex.” In that case, we would expect the first appearances of the phrase to have some association with condoms. Perhaps with little condoms. Though perhaps not; sometimes the Romans used diminutive endings the way we use them in English, as terms of endearment or as ways of sounding cutesy (like the -sy on the end of “cutesy,” or the -y on the end of “thingy.”) So maybe “condom-y sex,” or “condomish sex” might be a more accurate rendering than “little condom sex” if the original formation of “vanilla” were in fact part of the history of the expression.