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Regarding the etymology of the term 'condom', Etymonline makes two interesting but weak assumptions:

  • 1) 1706, traditionally named for a British physician during reign of Charles II (a story traceable to 1709), but there is no evidence for that.

  • 2) Also spelled condam, quondam, which suggests it may be from Italian guantone, from guanto "a glove."

It adds that condom is:

  • A word omitted in the original OED (c. 1890) and not used openly in the U.S. and not advertised in mass media until November 1986 speech by Surgeon General C. Everett Koop on AIDS prevention.
  • As for the first assumption, does it seem plausible that condoms were used at the beginning of the 18th century?
  • As for the second one, I can confirm that still nowadays guanto (glove) is a slang term used for condoms in Italy, but when and why it was adopted by the English language is unclear.

Is there a more reliable story behind this term?

  • Boswell reports in his journal encountering a prostitute "in armor." I do not know if there is a euphemism of similar meaning in Pepys, who wrote during the reign of Charles II. In any case, condoms made of animal parts long preceded the more effective latex variety. Trojan still sells them. – Brian Donovan Aug 7 '15 at 18:12
  • Wikipedia says that condoms have been used in Europe at least since 1600, and may have been used in Asia long before that. So the answer to your first question is clearly "yes". – Peter Shor Aug 7 '15 at 18:19
  • I can attest that the term "condom" (as a more polite term for "rubber") has been well-known in the US since at least 1970. No doubt much earlier. – Hot Licks Aug 7 '15 at 19:17
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    "Condoms made of sheep intestines and fish lungs are mentioned in the ancient volume Classics of Mountains and Seas [...] Contraceptive sheaths were also fashioned in silk and cotton." –kaleidoscope.cultural-china.com – Mazura Aug 7 '15 at 23:49
6

Robert Hendrickson, The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins (2000), offers a surprisingly detailed account of the early days of condom:

condom. Condom derives from either of two real names. [Johann] Proksch in his Prevention of Venereal Diseases [1872] traces condom to a London doctor in the court of Charles II named Dr. Conton and insists that the contraceptives should thus be called "contons." Dr. Conton's invention is said to have been made from lamb intestines, dried and well oiled to make them soft and pliable. They immediately became popular, and Casanova is on record as buying a dozen, though he called them "English caps." It was only in 1826, Proksch claims, that a papal bull by Leo XIII damned Conton's discovery "because it hindered the arrangement of providence." Dr. Conton probably did improve upon the condom, but an equally reliable source traces the word derivation to a Colonel Condum of Britain's Royal Guards. This authority notes that the colonel devised the "French letter" early in the mid-17th century to protect his troops from the French. (The French, chauvinistic, too, called condoms "English letters.") In 1667, three English courtiers—Rochester, Roscommon, and Dorset—even wrote a pamphlet entitled A Panegyric Upon Condom, extolling their countryman's invention. ...

Fans of the Rochester School of randy verse can find the full-length "A Panegyrick upon Cundums" in Poems by the Earls of Roscomon and Dorset; the Dukes 0f Devonshire, Buckingham, &c., volume 2 (1739). A note in this edition attributes the name of the prophylactic to Colonel Cundum:

Hail, happy Albion, in whose fruitful Land

The wondrous* Pimp arose, from whose strange Skill

In inmost Nature, thou hast reap'd more Fame,

More solid Glory, than from NEWTON's Toil;

-------------------------------

*Colonel CUNDUM who invented them ; call'd so, from his Name.

Notwithstanding Hendrickson's detailed presentation, Glynnis Chantrell, The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories (2002), seems deeply skeptical of Dr. Conton:

condom {early 18th century} This is often said to be named after a physician who invented it, but no such person has been traced.

Nigel Rees, Cassell's Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (2004) is noncommittal as well:

condom. This name for a prophylactic sheath does not derive from the town of Condom in south-western France. Indeed, early eighteenth-century use of the term tended to be in the form 'cundum' (or 'condon'), suggesting a different source. No 'Dr Condom' who prescribed the method of contraception has been discovered either, A Colonel Cundum, while courtier to King Charles II, is also said to have introduced the sheath into Britain.

Francis Grose, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1788), has this entry for cundum:

CUNDUM. The dried gut of a sheep, worn by men in the act of coition, to prevent venereal infection ; said to have been invented by one colonel Cundum. These machines were long prepared and sold by a matron of the name of Philips, at the Green Canister, in Half-moon street, in the Strand. That good lady having acquired a fortune, retired from business; but learning that the town was not well served by her successors, she, out of a patriotic zeal for the public welfare, returned to her occupation; of which she gave notice by divers hand-bills, in circulation in the year 1776. Also, a false scabbard over a sword, and the oil-skin case for holding the colours of a regiment.

A later entry for "MACHINES" in the same reference work identifies them as "Mrs. Phillips's ware. See CUNDUM."

The spelling condum appears in Daniel Turner, Syphilis: A Practical Dissertation on the Venereal Disease (1717):

The Condum being the best, if not the only preservative our Libertines have found out at present ; and yet, by reason, of its blunting the Sensation, I have heard some of them acknowledge, that they had often, chose to risque a Clap, rather than engage cum Hastis sic clypeatis.

The legend of Dr. Condom (as opposed to Colonel Cundum) goes back at least to 1857. From Robley Dunglison, Dunglinson's Medical Dictionary, fifteenth edition (1857):

CONDOM. Armour, (F.) Baudruche, Redingote Anglaise, Gant des Dames, Calotte d'assurance, Peau divi[n]ae. The intestinum cæcum of a sheep, soaked for some hours in water, turned inside out, macerated again in weak, alkaline ley, changed every twelve hours, and scraped carefully to abstract the mucous membrane, leaving the peritoneal and muscular coats exposed to the vapour of burning brimstone, and afterwards washed with soap and water. It is then blown up, dried, cut to the length of seven or eight inches, and bordered at the open with a riband. It is drawn over the penis prior to coition, to prevent venereal infection and pregnancy. It received its name from its proposer, Dr. Condom.

Colonel Cundum and Doctor Conton have their adherents; but for skeptics of the eponym theories there is at least one an alternative explanation that includes an early historical reference. From David Lindsay, House of Invention: The Secret Life of Everyday Objects (2002):

The word condom was first used to describe a contraceptive device in 1705, when the Duke of Argyll is recorded as having entered the Scottish Parliament with a device made of animal intestine, which he called a "quondam." The following year, Lord Bellhaven wrote a poem containing the word Condum—the first example of the word in print. The word became officially equated with a person in London in 1708, when the play Almonds for Parrots included a character named Condun, who was said to have invented the device. By 1724, the whole business had already become something of an urban legend—so much so that one Dr. Daniel Turner could only speculate that "Dr. C----n" was probably the inventor.

Why the Duke of Argyll used the Latin word quondam ("once") for the device is left unanswered in Lindsay's account.

With regard to the Etymonline observation that condom was omitted from the original OED, I note that it is also absent from Ernest Weekley's generally very thorough An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (1921).


Perhaps the most amusing early denunciation of the condom appears in Pye Henry Chavasse, Man's Strength and Woman's Beauty: A Treatise on the Physical Life of Both Sexes (1879):

Another resort of the voluptuary is the use of the condom. Nor is this more safe. Their very fragility renders them unfit for the prevention of conception. Should they be made of such material as would not rupture, they of course annul sensation. They may then be dismissed with the words of Madame de Stæl : "The Condom is a Breastplate against Pleasure and a Cobweb against Danger."


Conclusion

All of the popular explanations of the etymological origin of condom are appealing in one way or another, but none is completely convincing. Fortunately you don't have to believe them to enjoy reading them. For me, the most accurate answer remains, "Origin unknown."

  • It is a pity and it is also surprising that there is no 'certain' origin of the term. Probably the taboos about its usage have somehow contributed to make it unclear. – user66974 Aug 8 '15 at 15:10
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The origin of the word can neither be proved or disproved. There are many versions accounting for the origin of the word , however, none have any significant supporting evidence:

  • Most attribute the word to a Dr. Condom, a physician in England in the 1600s.

(The most famous story declares that Dr. Condom invented the sheath in response to the annoyance displayed by Charles II at the number of his illegitimate children)

  • Condoms may have been derived from the Latin condon/condus that means "receptacle".
  • Another speculation is that it may be from the Persian Kondu, an earthen vessel for storing grain.
  • It supposedly made its way into English via Greek and Latin.

(Clinical Gynecologic Endocrinology and Infertility By Marc A. Fritz, Leon Speroff )

Condum: OED cites John Hamilton's poem of 1706 as the earliest known printing of the word.

(Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends By David Wilton )

2

I am always very suspicious of eponymic etymologies. They are too easy to claim and too difficult to disprove.

Given that cunnus is Latin for "vulva" and dummy means "something made deliberately ineffective", I am going to go for the obvious.

  • 1
    I would say that's cunning language, but you'd no doubt take it the wrong way. – Hot Licks Aug 7 '15 at 19:18
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    Big talk from someone calling himself @HotLicks... – Malvolio Aug 7 '15 at 20:01

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