While the words for "with" in most Romance languages seem to be direct descendents from Latin "cum" (e.g. Spanish/Italian "con", Portuguese "com", Romanian "cu") it got replaced by "avec" in French. Could it be that this is due to the fact that the latin obscenity for the female genitalia "cunnus" (whose reflexes seem to survive as taboo word in most Romance languages) also came to be pronounced "con", so that people tried to avoid the putative preposition "con" due to its obscene homophone?

(It's probably hard to tell with certainty why this particular change took place, but I'd also be happy to know whether avoidance of words with taboo homophones is a well-known linguistic phenomenon and attested or at least conjectured in other cases.)

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    There may have also been interference from L. "quomodo" > OFr. "com" > Fr. "comme" 'like'. Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 13:28
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    Ukrainian has a similar phenomenon when people whose job is associated with risk for life (pilots, paratroopers, firemen, etc) avoid using the word "last" (as in "my last assignment") for its connotation of "the very last before death". They use "rear" or "recent" instead. Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 14:36
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    Occitan and Cataln also don't use a descendant of "cum", using "amb" (or variants in different Occitan dialects) instead. I don't know if "con" would have a negative connotation in those languages, thogh, nor do I remember what "amb" supposedly comes from.
    – LjL
    Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 15:52
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    In Cantonese, the original word for 'tongue', sit3, was replaced by lei6 because sit3 sounded too much like sit6, which means losing money. Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 16:13
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    @jick - A great example! The same way in Russian the verb pisat' "to write" is written the same way as the verb meaning "to piss" (in pronunciation they have different stress which is not marked in writing), and nobody ever notices it and there're no problems with using it (and again, except for some puerile middle schoolers who capitalise the A in it on the Internet to make it clear they mean "to write" and with this they give out they are schoolers)).
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Mar 23, 2017 at 3:04

3 Answers 3


I am not a specialist in Old French, but I suspect that the obscene homophony was not the primary cause for the substitution of Early French con (< Latin cum) with avec (< Latin apud hoc or ab hoc). More important is the homophony with the word con in the meaning of the Modern French comparative adverb comme (see e.g. in this dictionary of the obsolete words in the XII cent. Le roman du renart). Same spelling was used also for what is Modern French quant "how much". You cannot confuse such highly frequent words as "with", "as" and "how much".

Moreover, con in its obscene meaning seems attested comparatively later than the other three meanings, just in the XIII cent. (search con on FEW here).

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    At least one good answer.
    – Alex B.
    Commented Mar 25, 2017 at 14:09

For the last question in parentheses:

A known example from the history of German is the death of a whole class of composita (both verbal and nominal) with after- after After became a word meaning "anus" in the 19th century.


Yes, this linguistic phenomenon is well-known.

In Japanese, they avoid using the numeral of Chinese origin 四 shi "four", because it sounds the same as the word 死 shi "death". This tradition is limited not only to Japan, but is widespread in the whole East Asian region. This phenomenon is called tetraphobia, it can go as far as skipping flour or room 4, after the 3rd floor the next floor is the 5th. Linguistically, the Japanese would rather use the original Japanese word for "four", yon, which has no assotiation with death.

In Russian, apart from the "last" superstition mentioned by @bytebuster, there is a rather recent (since 1980s) tendency to avoid using the verb кончить "to finish" since the spread of its slang meaning "to cum, to ejaculate", the verb закончить is used instead, it has the same meaning "to finish" but no sexual connotations.

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    This answers the parenthetical, but doesn't address the main question of whether the suppletion of "cum" was an example of this. Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 22:13
  • @MarkBeadles - Isn't that rather a question about a specific language, French, than about linguistics? I answered the linguistics part, the history of French is too specific.
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 22:17
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    It matters whether French "avec" is an example of this phenomenon or not. Commented Mar 25, 2017 at 14:28
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    Partial answers are all right in general, and I don't see any reason to close this one. Commented Mar 25, 2017 at 20:52

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