Diving into muff

On Twitter, Merriam-Webster lexicographer Peter Sokolowski reminded us:

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. Muffdiver 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 1." Image from merriam-webster.com/dictionary/muff.
“muff 1.” A good place to conceal a muff-pistol. Image from merriam-webster.com/dictionary/muff.

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.

19 thoughts on “Diving into muff

  1. Stan Carey May 15, 2015 / 8:37 am

    Very interesting history. I wonder too if the sense and sound symbolism of muffle (‘hinder speech through wrapping/covering mouth’) might have contributed to the slang extension, or at least reinforced it. In a muff-diving scenario one’s speech is muffled.

    Note that Mister Slang himself Jonathon Green has antedated the OED’s 1699 citation for slang muff, pushing the usage back to 1665.


    • John Kelly May 16, 2015 / 1:16 am

      We also have a “muff,” a kind of simpleton, perhaps become he mumbles (in the same vein of the “muffle” you cite) or perhaps because muffs constrain hands, hence a clumsy person.

      Thanks for pointing the earlier usage in one of Mister Slang’s incredible timelines! I certainly suspected he had dated it earlier than the OED–and perhaps even earlier than 1665, as he comments below.


    • John Krieger May 31, 2018 / 11:28 pm

      “Dive” as a slang term for oral sex is not at all 20th century in origin. It was used at least as far back as the 18th century—if not earlier, cf. the character “Jenny Diver” in “The Beggar’s Opera”. A “diver” was a person who engaged in oral sex, as noted in the article, except that it had nothing whatsoever to do with scuba diving.


      • John Kelly September 15, 2018 / 12:18 pm

        I stand corrected! Thanks for your dive into the slang ‘dive’.


    • Chris gow May 16, 2015 / 1:06 am

      Are you miffed that they muffed?


    • John Kelly May 16, 2015 / 1:10 am

      I can appreciate that, and I can definitely say that I always hesitate to write as a male on such topics. Here, the origin of the “muff” in “muff-diving” was simply surprising, an example of the taken-for-granted quality of words, I suppose.


    • John Kelly May 16, 2015 / 1:11 am

      Indeed! In my aside to James Harbeck, I link to a post he did on that sandwich. It’s a true wonder of a sandwich.


  2. rossmurray1 May 15, 2015 / 5:52 pm

    I just went to my French dictionary to confirm the spelling of the French for “skunk” — mouffette. There is also “mouflon” for “wild sheep.” Furry connotations. But then there is also “mouflet” or “mouflette” for small child, and now I’m lost.


    • John Kelly May 16, 2015 / 1:19 am

      Oh, these are interesting connections, particularly “mouflon” and “mouflet(te).” I suspect you’re onto something.


    • lievenm May 18, 2015 / 6:18 am

      A verlan variant of femme is meuf, so you get another English/French coincidence.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. misterslang May 15, 2015 / 6:08 pm

    I also encountered a 1929 play title: The Muff Diver, by one G. Fass. It was not published (perhaps unsurprisingly) and thus I can offer, frustratingly, no further information, for instance as to its content. That said, I cannot think a standard English use of the the term, so we must take this as the earliest recorded use to date.


    • John Kelly May 16, 2015 / 1:18 am

      1929. Wow. Are you able to elucidate the “mort” in the OED’s 1699 citation I link to, the “well-wearing of the Muff Mort”? I suspect the gloss of “mort” and “morts” on the verso are instructive.


      • misterslang May 16, 2015 / 9:46 am

        I assume that it is this:
        mort: a woman, esp. a prostitute.
        c.1566 Harman Caveat for Common Cursetours: The arche and chiefe walkers that hath walked a long time, whose experience is great, because of their continuinge practise, I meane all Mortes and Doxes, for their handsomnes and diligence for making of their couches.

        Which gives a personal favourite:
        mort wap-apace (UK Und.) an experienced prostitute or sexually active woman.
        c.1698 B.E. Dict. Canting Crew: Wap, c. to Lie with a Man. […] Mort wap-apace, c. a Woman of Experience, or very expert at the Sport.
        The possible ety. of this being slang wap: to fuck + SE apace; however Dekker (O Per Se O 1612) suggests an anecdote, noting that ‘There was an abram, who called his mort Madam Wap-apace’.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Joe Clark May 16, 2015 / 1:21 pm

    Ms Camille Paglia has been a strong proponent of the use of this term even in academic contexts.


  5. Baroness Buttercup May 18, 2015 / 6:32 am

    Lalochezia – The emotional relief gained by using indecent or vulgar language

    I’m a devoted lalochezian and it seem you might be one as well. Great blog!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Debunker May 24, 2015 / 1:53 pm

    Muff, of course, is a place just outside Derry on the Donegal side of the border. I am reliably informed that, because of the proximity of the Foyle, there are a handful of divers there … 🙂


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