The most remarkable etymologies are the ones that have been staring you right in the face your whole life.
— Peter Sokolowski (@PeterSokolowski) May 14, 2015
As he explained in subsequent tweets, Peter was wide-eyed over the origin and evolution of secular, including its French cognate, siècle. His remark was a resonant one, prompting many of us word lovers to offer our own instances. For me, his remark was right on the nose, shall we say, especially concerning some stronger language.
A slang term for “cunnilingus,” muff-diving has always struck me as a recent formulation. Its diving component is very vivid, conjuring up aquatic activities in my mind, particularly of the scuba variety. With its mouthy bilabial and furry fricative, muff seems phonetically fitting. Perhaps due to this scuba association and sound symbolism, I’ve never given much thought to the actual semantic or etymological content of muff. (This is quite the word tasting, eh, Mr. Harbeck?)
So, thanks to Peter, I dove into muff.
It turns out that muff-diving is older than I expected. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first records it in print (though oh-so much older in practice, of course) in 1941. Muff–diver appears yet earlier in 1930 to name a “performer of cunnilingus” or, more derogatorily, a “lesbian.”
And what’s the stuff of muff? By itself, muff is not so common to my American ears, though this may be due to the fact that it’s chiefly a historical term, as the OED notes. As Merriam-Webster.com defines it, a muff is “a warm tubular covering for the hands,” especially in use by women. The online entry illustration (below) helps us out.
Muff: right in front of my face this whole time. This visual aid drives home the development of muff-diving, to be sure, though a different sort of sexual act might also come to mind.
The OED notes muff as early as 1568 and records its usage as a slang term referring to “female pubic hair” and “the vagina” in 1699, as evidenced in A new dictionary of the terms ancient and modern of the canting crew. (The way to a man’s heart is his stomach, while, according to this text, the way to a woman’s is…) In broader metonymic misogyny, muff served as U.S. slang for a woman, particularly a promiscuous one, by 1914.
Now, muff might come into English-speaking mouths from the Dutch mof, a “mitten,” shortened from an earlier form, moffel. This, in turn, is owed to the Middle French moufle and, yet before, Late Latin’s muffula, a kind of thick, winter glove. Its further origin is unknown. Certain speakers of English may don a pair of muffles, while others may wrap mufflers around their necks. Dated in the mid-1400s, the verb muffle, in all of its enveloping and sound-deadening, might also be so derived from the French moufle.
So much for telling children to “put their earmuffs on” around strong language.