In the past week, I’ve noticed a number of very interesting and important debates brewing in Romancelandia. Questions about:
- HEA/HFN and whether they’re REALLY, yanno, a requirement for romance. Spoiler: YES! This is literally day 0.0001 knowledge for writing a proper romance. Everything else is pretty much up for grabs, but happily-ever-after or AT LEAST an emotionally satisfying happily-for-now is mandatory. And no, Snowflake, no one cares how edgy you THINK you’re being by flouting convention. If you come into the romance space and sell something as a romance which doesn’t meet the most basic criterion to be a romance, you’re screwing over the entire genre. Stop!
- inclusivity and who has the right to write which stories. My personal take: If you can conceive it, you should be able to write it without undue fear of stigma. However, if you can’t write it WELL and/or can’t get the perspectives of the people you’re speaking on, you should reconsider whether it’s a good idea.
- whether enough is being done to promote marginalized voices in romance. NOPE. Never has been and likely never will be, no matter how many marginalized voices and their allies stand up and say, “Yeah…this isn’t cool and really needs to stop.” Want to change this reality? Change the system. Not being flip, just saying the only real change we can expect on this front will and must inevitably come as a result of authors and readers alike standing accepted conventions on their heads. Sorry.
Obviously, these are hot takes and all my own personal opinion. I didn’t post them to start an argument or invite endless rebuttal. If you want THAT conversation, let’s have it over a glass of your favorite, thanks just the same.
What I really came to talk about today is the argument over “come” versus “cum.”
The word “cum” is a perfectly acceptable compromise in erotic works because it reduces the possibility of confusion for the reader. Unlike its homophonic counterpart, “come,” it is rarely used in regular speech for any other purpose than to denote orgasm and/or ejaculation, and is therefore a reasonable usage when used in the correct context.
If you’re older than 18, and please, PLEASE for the love of The Flying Spaghetti Monster’s noodly appendages BE over 18 if you’re reading this(!), you know each of these words has more than one usage. I’m going to break down the etymology a little, because this information has a direct bearing on my argument.
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines “come” in a number of ways.
I’m not going to parse them all, because if you can get here, I have utmost faith in your ability to click a link and read them for yourself. What’s important here is that “come” appears derive from a Germanic word, kwemana, meaning “to come,” from Proto-Indo-European gʷem, “to step.” This word morphed in Old English into cuman, similar to modern Dutch komen and German kommen, which means “to obtain.” The first use of “come” in the modern sexual slang sense appears to have occurred about 1650, in a poem called “Walking in a Meadow Greene” collected by Bishop Percy, and appears to have been first used to specifically referenced male ejaculation at the moment of orgasm in the 1920s.
In lowercase, “come” looks like a friendly word. Curves at both ends, which to my admittedly perverse mind looks a bit like buttocks, or perhaps breasts, a slightly elongated short “u” sound and four simple letters makes it appear, to my eye, simple yet balanced, a word which can and does do a lot of work, as with so many “simple” words. “Love,” anyone?
By contrast, “cum,” pronounced “koom,” originated from Latin, meaning “along with being.”
We see echoes of the original usage in academic credentials such as “summa cum laude,” meaning “with honors,” and “magna cum laude,” “with highest honors.” Just remember, summa cum lauder than summa others! (Okay, terrible pun, I know. Put the pitchfork down, thanks.) We also use it in terms of combined things: a statesman-cum-author or a bedroom-cum-office, for example. In this usage, it should always be pronounced “koom,” but Americans especially tend to have a very casual relationship to proper pronunciation.
From an etymological standpoint, the first recorded use of “cum” as a substitute and homonym for “come” in the orgasmic sense occurred in the early 1970s. Whether this was intentional or merely a result of shitty spelling, and for the record I’m inclined to believe the latter, it became popular enough that to see the word “cum” OR “come” in the context of a sexual encounter is now an understood shorthand for what is going on.
“Cum” is a far less attractive word, to my mind. It’s short and urgent, reminding me of a foreshortened penis. The lack of an offsetting curve on one end turns it into a vaguely threatening battering ram of a word, quick, direct and capable of conveying only one message. It’s not as aesthetically pleasing and doesn’t feel as balanced or secure as “come.” It’s the same sound, but in my mind at least it’s a bit harsher and makes me think of mud.
Conjugations (and why they suck)
“Come” has a number of well-known conjugations: Come, is coming, will come, has come, came. These permutations can be used a lot of different ways, which can make things tough on the reader.
On the other hand, the conjugations for “cum” are a little less intuitive, even to a native English speaker: cum as noun, cum as verb, is cumming, will cum, has cum, came. Wait, what? How do we get from “cum” to “cumming” to “came?” Seems a bit lazy, doesn’t it? HOWEVER, it has the advantage of being very clear about what exactly is going on. “Cum” in a sexual context is a one-trick pony, albeit one which has its uses.
A lot of readers have been sounding off that they dislike the word “cum” in a sexual context. I can sympathize with this point of view, based on the analysis above. However, I use “cum” for a number of reasons to signal climax. For purposes of the examples below, I’m going to stay in the heteronormative mode, with the hopes you’ll mentally edit to make these vignettes appropriate to your specific gender, orientation and circumstances.
- It eliminates confusion, as above. Saying, “He came into her” is a perfectly accurate if slightly clunky description of a man penetrating a woman. But if this construction happens at the beginning of a sex scene, it can be a stumbling block for the reader. Did he enter her? Did he orgasm already? Did he enter her AND orgasm? Is he a two-pump chump? What’s the author saying here? It pulls the reader out of the story while they try to figure out what the hell is going on, which is never a desirable outcome. Used at the end of a scene, the meaning becomes clearer, but still, it can be a bit confusing, given all the other meanings “come” can have.
- It’s just a bit dirty. When I’m writing a kink scene, for example, I want it to be slick and wet and nasty. I want the reader to feel just a little bit soiled, in the best possible way, for having read it. “Come,” being a relatively friendly word, makes me think of a genteel, whimpering climax coaxed lovingly from a woman’s body over the course of a long night of teasing and toying. “Cum,” on the other hand, signals hardcore, XXX-rated screaming, quivering orgasms, sweat and fluids and a huge wet spot on the bed, wrecked makeup and so on. There’s nothing inherently wrong with either of these, but each one has a time and place.
- Because of the considerations in #2, I don’t always use “cum” in a scene. If I want to set a more languid, slow note, as with two lovers uniting for the first time, it makes sense to use “come” in my mind as a subtle indicator of tone. “Cum,” conveying a sense of urgency and hunger, is more useful when the people in the scene are letting their wolves off the leash. It’s not a seduction, but a claiming and a taking of each person by the other(s) involved. (See my free Masturbation Monday stories on this site for examples of this.)
Now, some readers find “cum” a turn-off in the same way some people get squicked out over the word “moist.” Some people identify “cum” strictly with male pleasure, release and the tangible results of same, and this pulls them out of the story if, say, it’s a lesbian erotic scene. Okay, these are fair points. I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind or say if you don’t like the word “cum” for whatever reason, you’re bad or wrong or somehow less evolved than the rest of us.
My kink is not your kink, and that’s okay!
While “cum” may be inelegant and unglamorous compared to “come,” I feel there is some validity to its usage. Like any other word, it can be misused, overused, abused and contused to the point of “said-isms.” Some people use it in, shall we say “exotic,” ways which drain the meaning and life out of it.
However, as we’ve seen above, there are stylistic reasons why “cum” may be perfectly appropriate. When I write, “Come for me,” I’ve probably invested some time in a sweet, meandering interlude and I want the quiet, shivering orgasm the character has to represent that. When I write, “Cum for me, slut,” you can bet my character will be screaming so loudly every bat in a six-mile radius is calling their therapists before she finishes.
Again, if you dislike the word “cum,” that’s very much your prerogative. I hope in reading this, you might consider WHY the author elected to use one variation over another and how that sets the tone and mood of the scene. Again, this is all my own personal, and there’s no wrong way to read, or write, sex; there’s just what turns you on, and what does not.
With all this said, I’m curious to hear your thoughts! Do you like “come” or “cum?” Do you hate them BOTH? If so, what’s your preferred euphemism for orgasm/climax/ejaculation? Leave a pawprint and a comment below!
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