Come vs. cum: the seminal battle

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“How do I make cum taste better?” someone asked sex advice columnist Dan Savage.

His reply:

“Cum” is not a word. We don’t have three-letter alternate spellings for other four-letter words that have double meanings. You wouldn’t write “I know this guy who sucks and he’s a mean dick, but he’s so fucking hot, I want to suk his dik.” The proper spelling of “come” works just fine too. But in answer to your question: Come is an acquired taste. No one likes Guinness the first time they drink it, right? But soon you’re happily knocking back pints of the stuff.

If you believe the Oxford English Dictionary, Savage is right: the OED doesn’t even acknowledge cum, listing only come, but I think in this case the dictionary hasn’t caught up with current usage. The contemporary dictionary at oxforddictionaries.com is a bit more yielding, listing cum as a variant spelling of the preferred come. In the other corner we have Urban Dictionary, which brings up more than 120 entries for cum that have pretty much the same definition.

As a morpheme in a longer word, cum beats come hands down. Cum-a-holic (both with and without hyphens) brings up 188,900 hits on Google, compared with come-a-holic/comeaholic’s 48, and precum similarly demolishes precome in a Google Fight. Bizarrely, although the sexual cum isn’t in the OED, pre-cum is listed as an alternate spelling for the preferred pre-come. And seeming to contradict itself, the dictionary gives supporting quotations that both spell it pre-cum:

His cock, wet from pre-cum, slid easily into the ass that Steve had already loosened up. (R.N. Boyd Sex behind Bars, 1984)

HIV is in the blood, cum and pre-cum of an HIV positive man. (Gay Times, Feb. 2004)

So what is a discerning potty-mouthbrain to saywrite? Maybe a swim through cum’s history will guide us to righteousness.

What cum is not

The Internet brims with cum-related apocrypha. Cum isn’t…

…an abbreviation of scum

Reader HH responded to Dan Savage:

You’re wrong about “cum,” Dan. Linguistically and historically cum is shortened from scum. A condom was a “scumbag,” hence the derogatory term. You’ll find a tiny little bit of Internet evidence—with actual citations—here. So using cum (or scum) is perfectly OK, and if anything come (as a noun) is the more recent/improper use. Just figured I’d tell you as it is a fun bit of trivia.—HH

Unfortunately, that “fun bit of trivia” is wrong. Lexicographers agree that cum is an alternate spelling of come, and records of its use date back to the 1920s. Scum and scumbag were not recorded to mean semen and condom, respectively, until the 1960s.

…a cognate of the Latin cum

Pronounced “coom,” cum survives as a preposition meaning with in Latin expressions like magna cum laude and (pronounced “cum” in some dialects) as a connective in compounds like actor-cum-director, indicating a dual role. It has nothing to do with the sexual cum.

Interestingly, a friend of mine who thought this connective cum was a corruption of come believed actor-cum-director meant actor-turned-director—in other words, that they were sequential rather than simultaneous roles. I’m willing to bet he’s not alone.

Because the language gods are hilarious, precum also has a false cognate in Latin, as the genitive plural form of prex, meaning prayer. A book of prayers is liber precum.

…a result of textspeak and laziness

People spelled the spunky come as cum long before texting existed, and although cum does save a character, the most likely motivation for using it is that it instantly evokes bawdiness. In contrast, come has so many other uses that you might have to do a double-take to confirm what the writer meant.

Historically, both spellings were used in the non-sexual sense until the 17th century, when come prevailed as the standard. After that, writers sometimes used cum in dialogue—usually to characterize speakers who were less educated and who used nonstandard English.

“Oh, yas; Moye cum de possum ober de Cunnel, and make him b’lieve Sam war bad. De Cunnel du n no de hull ob dat story.” (James R. Gilmore, Among the Pines, 1862)

Come and cum sound exactly the same, so there’s no phonetic reason to substitute the latter for the former, but using cum implies a character’s distinct lack of refinement.

That association with coarseness and vulgarity is what makes cum so effective at conveying sexual context in modern usage, and, whether Dan Savage likes it or not, the sexual cum is going to stick. Too many people are using it for it to be policed into oblivion. However, its lewdness has activated censors (be warned that putting summa cum laude on a resume might reroute your job application to a spam folder), and the Latin cum meaning with has been so skunked by the pornier cum that we may see attic-cum-studio constructions give way to attic-slash-studio.

The upshot: whereas the sophisticated daintily sip come out of an appropriate receptacle (pinky raised), boorish philistines guzzle cum straight out of the bottle. In other words, cum is not wrong, but it certainly feels dirtier—which may be exactly the effect you’re aiming for.

What come/cum is

We may never settle on the proper way to spell come/cum, but can we at least agree on what it means?

As a noun

Come = semen. End of story?

Well, the OED says that it’s also used, though rarely, to denote “fluid secreted by the vagina during sexual play.”

The walls, the floor and even the roof of the hut were coated with your sperm and her come. (Richard Brautigan, Trout Fishing in America, 1967)

Many of Urban Dictionary’s top entries for cum concur that lady juices also count, but people are divided over whether cum includes all of her sexual fluids or just when she “squirts.” This quote shows the more inclusive usage:

The Caveman and The Roman both reached for Tiara’s buttocks, each grabbing a cheek, kneading and massaging their way to her anus, as they continued performing their lubricious manipulations on her breasts. Each man inserted a finger in her anus, which was already lubricated by the juices from her cum. (Zane, Caramel Flava, 2006)

As a verb

There seems to be general consensus that to come/to cum means to orgasm. This usage of the verb to come predates the noun come/cum by almost three centuries and may have begun as come off:

They lay soe close together, they made me much to wonder;
I knew not which was wether, until I saw her under.
Then off he came, and blusht for shame soe soon that he had endit;
Yet still she lies, and to him cryes, “one more and none can mend it.”
(“Walking in a Meadowe Greene,” c. 1650, in Bishop Percy’s Loose Songs)

Oddly enough, unlike get off or jack off, where the off conveys orgasm, come off retained its meaning even when it was shortened to come and later cum.

Like its noun form, the definition of the verb come/cum isn’t as straightforward as it seems. Both males and females* can come—but can both cum? Does coming (cumming) hinge on the production of come (cum)?

We know the past tense of come is came. Is it the same for cum? Or is it cummed?

Is to cum necessarily intransitive? Or can you use it transitively and “cum your pants”? Can to come ever be transitive?

For each of these questions, we can find examples of usage to support either side. Who’d have expected come to be so nuanced?

With all of these conflicting opinions, let’s settle the issue once and for all in the best way we can—through a thoroughly unscientific online poll:

Come/cum as a noun

1.

2.

Come/cum as a verb

3. 

4. 

5. 

6.


*Using male/female to denote biological sex vs. man/woman for gender

18 thoughts on “Come vs. cum: the seminal battle

  1. Stan Carey January 12, 2015 / 3:40 pm

    Interestingly, a friend of mine who thought this connective cum was a corruption of come believed actor-cum-director meant actor-turned-director—in other words, that they were sequential rather than simultaneous roles.

    I don’t think I’ve encountered this interpretation before. I wonder if it was influenced by the idea of someone coming to do something, e.g. an actor who came to direct.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Iva Cheung January 12, 2015 / 3:42 pm

      Yes, that’s exactly it.

      Like

  2. Ryan Godfrey (@rgodfrey) January 12, 2015 / 9:18 pm

    There’s the distinct feeling that the band Slade was getting away with something when they named their song “Cum On Feel the Noize” in 1973 (even if they commonly used nonstandard spellings in song titles and there’s nothing otherwise dirty about that song’s lyrics). When Quiet Riot covered the song in the ’80s, the spelling remained (and was displayed with the video on MTV in heavy rotation). I don’t think the title was something the PMRC was hip enough to ever object to, but I remember smirking about it with my 12-year-old friends at the time.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Oliana January 13, 2015 / 12:32 am

    A great post! I work on a youth line and have to use this word so kids will understand then I give them the real words but cum and pre-cum are often terms we use when they are asking questions about pregnancy scares…”but miss, he didn’t come.” “Um, yes, well there is pre-cum…..” Interesting homework you had us do too…great blog by the way!!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. John Kelly January 13, 2015 / 3:52 am

    The Latin for “with me” is “mecum,” perhaps heard in Tarzan’s bedroom.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Ari May 4, 2015 / 11:01 pm

    If you are a writer, ask your editor straight up which spelling they prefer. It depends. Honestly, I think you have to use your best judgement. Which one do you feel will make the most sense, be less confusing and keep your reader focused in on your scene? Whatever your answer is, stick with that.
    In my opinion, while “cum” seems the most “vulgar”, it’s spelled in a way you can’t confuse it with anything else. “Come” is prettier but it tends to pull me out of a scene simply due to the make of the English language. Some people feel the exact opposite and it isn’t clearly defined in the English language so go with your gut.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. astraya March 2, 2016 / 11:31 am

    I was thinking about cumming (linguistically, you understand!) several weeks ago as I was writing a blog post about signs I’d seen around my current South Korean city announcing ‘COMMING SOON’. I made a few notes to – ummm – flesh out into post to submit here, but Iva has covered more than I would have been able to say.
    ‘tecum’ (meaning ‘with you’) also occurs in the devotional hymn Stabat Mater Dolorosa, in close proximity to ‘fac’ (pronounced ‘fahk’, meaning ‘make): fac me tecum flere (make me weep with you).
    A colleague of mine told me that she’d been accompanying a rehearsal of (I can’t remember exactly what, but let’s say) ‘Swing low, sweet chariot’, with its refrain of ‘Coming for to carry me home’. This has to be sung with an amount of religious fervor, but the choir just wasn’t producing it. The conductor said (something like) ‘Get me excited. Make me want to come!’
    A composer I knew wrote a choral setting of ‘Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire’, with endless repetitions of ‘come’. Someone described the climax as ‘orgasmic’.
    I have written a setting of an Australian poem called ‘Love’s coming’.
    (PS I found this post rather late via the Tibetan/Newar phrasebook post.)

    Like

  7. lucifete March 23, 2017 / 6:39 am

    Thank you for your research and your word choices. Sexual aspect is always stigmatized as sensitive and sinful, while it’s actually an important aspect of life that we should normalize. This and many other posts of your are really helpful for public knowledge nowadays.

    Like

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