Last week I was unable to continue my “Middle English Mondays” because of finals. But here I am, with the most vulgar blog post topic I have so far: Chaucer’s wordplay on “queynte,” a word that sounds very similar to Middle English “cunte.” I trust you can figure out what the latter word means!
Eve Siebert at Skeptical Humanities has a great post on this word:
The word that Chaucer uses is not “cunt,” but “queynte.” “Queint,” as a noun, literally means “a clever or curious device or ornament” (Middle English Dictionary) or an “elegant, pleasing thing” (Riverside Chaucer). When used to refer to a woman’s genitalia, it is both a euphemism and a pun.
Her post explains the most well-known puns on “queynte” in The Canterbury Tales, so I won’t detail how the word shows up in “The Miller’s Tale” or “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue.” Instead I will look at both how the word shows up the The House of Fame.
The House of Fame is one of Chaucer’s dream-visions, a medieval genre in which a protagonist experiences an allegorical dream, often with a didactic dream guide. Dream visions often drew heavily on classical myth.
The House of Fame is perhaps Chaucer’s most enigmatic dream-vision. Scholars aren’t even sure whether it was left incomplete or has a deliberately ambiguous ending. In one of its dream-episodes, Chaucer enters the Temple of Venus and reads the story of Dido and Aeneas:
What shulde I speke more queynte,
Or peyne me my wordes peynte
To speke of love? Hyt wol not be;
I kan not of that faculte.
And eke to telle the manere
How they aqueynteden in fere,
Hyt were a long proces to telle,
And over-long for yow to dwelle. (lines 245-252)
In other words: Why should I speak more elegantly of their love? I know not how, and also to tell how they became acquainted in love – it would take too long to tell the story. I love the pun here on the first “queynte,” in the sense of clever or elegant, and the word “aqueynteden,” equivalent to the modern word “acquainted.” Chaucer here insinuates that their becoming acquainted has something to do with her queynte.
Given the word “queynte” has dropped out of modern English, this wordplay doesn’t translate well, and the most that one modern translator can convey is
Why should I speak more artfully or strive to paint my words in speaking of love?
That said, I do admire Neville Coghill’s modern rendering of the queynte wordplay in “The Miller’s Tale” (explained in Siebert’s post above):
Students are sly, and giving way to whim, / He made a grab and caught her by the quim
“Quim” is not a word we hear much these days (I had to look it up) but Coghill manages to preserve both the rhyme scheme and the wordplay. I find it fascinating how hard it is to translate even Middle English, a language so similar to ours especially in Chaucer’s dialect. If you want to read more on Chaucerian language, check out his other uses of the word “queynte” or just read his blog. Also, in honor of “Whan That Aprille Day,” I hope to have a review of Simon Horobin’s book on Chaucerian English.