The origins of the word, ‘condom’

The origins of the word, ‘condom’

If you want to promote a product and get people to like it and want it then branding is key, everyone knows that don’t they?  So, who was it exactly that came up with the title, ‘condom’?  It’s not exactly a word that encourages affiliation, a title that inspires embracement, the beginning of a real love affair – this is onomatopoeia for all the wrong reasons.

There are plenty of reasons (and excuses) not to wear a condom…too fiddly, too interrupting, passion killers, sex in a mac, there are so many reasons why they are one of the least favourite things in the bedroom.  So, isn’t it about time that condoms had a makeover?  Well, they are with the Gates Foundation sponsoring innovative ideas to improve the whole condom experience but everyone seems to have overlooked the name, surely after several centuries seemingly, it is time for a revamp?

Where does the word ‘condom’ originate from?

The origins of this word are shrouded in the mists of time and that’s because condoms actually date back centuries and so whoever coined the title, has long since receded in people’s memories.  Legend has it that the prophylactic was named after one Doctor Condom although this does seem a little far fetched and improbable.

Dr Condom was supposedly around during the reign of Charles II so 1630-1685 but this story doesn’t really hold water as condoms actually predate this era by some centuries.  There is a cave in France, Grotte des Combarrelles, which exhibits a cave drawing dating anywhere from 12,000 to 15,000 years in age which is said to display the use of a condom.  And there has been actual physical evidence of condoms found in both Japan and China which predates the 1600s.  So it would seem that the moniker, Doctor Condon, was some clever invention, a generic label used to recognise the inventor even if he can’t actually be identified.

In 1666, the word pops up (pun definitely intended) in an English Birth Rate Commission Report although that might have had more to do with the increasing prevalence of printing as a form of information distribution than anything else.  In this document, ‘condom’ was actually written as, ‘condon’.  The name has also appeared elsewhere as, ‘Quondam’  and by the 1700s, it seems comfortably settled in modern parlance certainly amongst medics anyway grappling with the enormity of diseases like syphilis.  As different materials like rubber came into play alongside growing understanding of STIs, the condom itself and its title developed into much more common usage but still, no-one seemed to be able to fathom out where the word had come from.

It is perhaps easiest (and most pleasant) to attribute the name condom to the town of the same name in south-west France – this gives a whole new meaning to the concept of the French letter.  The full name of the town is actually Condom-en-Armagnac to be completely fair.  Its residents are referred to as ‘the Condomois’.  This is perhaps one of the nicer and more appealing potential origins of the word, ‘condom’ as Condom-en-Armagnac is described by tourist guides as both idyllic and romantic.

But scholars and linguists have rejected this French connection and instead looked deeper into the actual linguistic origins of the word, namely the Latin, condus.  But even that seems too generic and was rejected by William E. Kruck, a scholar, in 1981 in his piece, “Looking for Doctor Condom”.   Not to be deterred, Kruck moved onto the Latin, condum, which means a pot or cup but eventually gave up any hope of establishing a connection with Latin at all.

Latin origins have continued to fascinate others who have been searching for the real paternity of this unusual word.  Conduma was investigated by another scholar, Thundy, in 1985 working on the basis that ‘con’ means with and ‘duma’ means dome.  Even as recently as 2007, writer Aine Collier suggests that the word condom is a corruption of the Latin cumdum which means sheath or scabbard.  As an onomatopoeic choice, ‘cumdum’ is far more relevant and descriptive than ‘condom’ but the real truth is, that no-one really knows where this word came from.

Stuart Brown

Stuart Brown

I'm Stuart, senior Editor at British Condoms. I am an expert in all areas of sexual health and have a passion to drive knowledge to youth in the UK. Any questions for me or media enquiries, please feel free to tweet me @britishcondoms. Always open to engagement.

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