Article Thumbnail

The Forever War Between ‘Come’ and ‘Cum’

The big controversy in sex slang comes down to a couple of vowels

Sorry to ask a personal question, but it’s important: Do you come, or do you cum?

The material reality is the same either way: a phenomenon properly known as “orgasm.” Coming, or cumming, is the sensation of climax and release during a sexual act, and the dueling variants of the word do not have separate literal meanings. They don’t even have different pronunciations. Yet so much is encoded in our preferred spelling — here and elsewhere — that the “come” vs. “cum” discrepancy is less of an academic debate than an ideological cold war. Those who pick a side are staking a claim not only to correctness but to how we should view and describe the greater mechanics of human pleasure. In just three or four letters, we communicate what being horny means to us.      

The reasoning behind your allegiance here is post-hoc; you can see from these tweets that most people begin with a visceral dislike for one style or the other, then rationalize the suitability of the alternative. Those willing to toggle between both often have a personal code of usage as fascinating as the schism — the notion of deploying “come” as the verb and “cum” as a noun (almost always for male ejaculate) is common. But in any event, “come” is understood to represent a conservative ethos. It’s buttoned-up, maybe even a little standoffish, and certainly euphemistic. It’s what a sensible copy editor at a respected publication will insist you use, if you’re allowed to use it at all.  

Yet the emergence of “I’m coming” as a sexual term is down to the very elasticity and universality of the verb: languages as diverse as German, Spanish, Farsi and Japanese have similarly constructed expressions. “Walking in a Meadowe Greene,” an erotic English rhyme that dates to 1650, relates the embarrassment of premature orgasm this way: “Then off he came & blusht for shame / soe soone that he had endit.”

From there, it’s easy to acquire the noun form of “come,” although the Oxford English Dictionary finds a colloquialism of the mid-1400s that further explains. In the malting process of alcohol production, some grains would cause the malt itself to rise to the top and occasionally shoot off. That material was called “the come.” Remind you of anything?     

“Cum,” obviously, is a more recent innovation, and a testament to our linguistic restlessness. “Cum On Feel the Noize,” a 1973 hit song by the English rock group Slade, was preceded by the single “Mama Weer All Crazee Now,” so inventive spellings were the order of the day — and while “Cum On Feel the Noize” is technically about the ecstasy of a concert crowd, the sexual overtones are there in both the sound and lyrics like “Girls rock your boys / We get wild, wild, wild.” It’s easy to see how this guitar-driven, freewheeling mood might carry “cum” into the sexual counterculture, especially as a hip, rude update on stuffy old “come.” That division persists today: One author friend I asked about this said that “‘come’ is for books,” while “‘cum’ is for texts.”    

The continued prevalence of “cum” in forward-thinking spaces and social groups is a point in its favor, says Chelsea Reynolds, an assistant professor of communications at California State University, Fullerton, who studies sexuality and gender in media systems. “I think 10 years ago I would have felt differently,” she tells me, “but grammar is changing so much in queer culture and digital communities that ‘cum’ is my preferred usage now.” She likes that people are reclaiming “vulgarities” as orthodox. “There’s something happening in internet-based culture, texting, where economy is important. Why be so attached to the formalism?”

Because it’s not the version you’ll find in an encyclopedia, she adds, it has the bite of a cuss: “The ‘cum’ spelling evokes pornography, lad magazines. I think of X-rated material.” And this works together with “cum” as a signifier of a more humorous approach to sex. “Why be so pretentious about a human, funny, icky, smelly, thing?” Reynolds asks. “When we’re orgasming, we’re not doing something prim and proper. The spelling can also evoke a mood a feeling, the grossness of sex sometimes.” That out-of-place “u” is somehow “transgressive,” she says, noting the compatible “u” in “queer.” It lets you know that there are no rules.

In light of how “cum” delights people less heteronormative and more sexually fluid (sorry), I wondered if it also demonstrated the need for a non-gendered bedroom vocabulary. That is, while everyone may “come,” the noun “come” would seem to be synonymous with “jizz,” “skeet,” “splooge,” etc. — the product of male anatomy. Reynolds agreed that the “cum” noun could indicate a broader definition; certainly men aren’t the only ones to secrete a substance during sex. The lingering attachment she has to “come,” meanwhile, as with virtually everyone who code-switches here, is tied to the beauty of its action. “It’s syntactically linked to a rising act,” she says. “To go through something, to come somewhere, is to move, to arrive. There’s something to be said about that as a verb, to arrive at an orgasm.” (In French, “to come” is arriver.)  

In a fun coincidence, though, “cum” is also a Latin word, as in “magna cum laude,” a preposition that can be translated as “with” or “in addition to.” One is tempted to make the scholarly case that to cum is to achieve a mutual and/or simultaneous orgasm along with a partner, whereas masturbation merely results in coming, a solo consummation. But Dennis R. Preston, a linguist and Regents Professor of Oklahoma State University’s English department, is quick to disabuse me of these Latinate fantasies, informing me that the surfacing of “cum” is a question of class friction rather than sophisticated double entendres.

“‘Cum,’” he says, “seems to belong to that whole host of misspellings” by which we profess to measure status, which Preston has taken to calling “Li’l Abner spellings,” after the midcentury comic strip that stereotyped hillbilly life in Appalachia. “The ‘cum’ spelling is just like substituting ‘wuz’ for the word ‘was’ when you want to indicate what an ignoramus someone is. The pronunciation is the same, of course, and nobody says ‘wahs.’ It demonstrates informality — that we’re not being serious here.”

Preston likens the staunch defenders of “come” to the prescriptivists who flipped out when the spelling “lite” came into vogue along with diet drinks. “Oh, as if the world is gonna end because some people are so lazy they can’t spell out the full word,” he jokes. “It’s the desire to make fun of people on the other side, but there’s nothing linguistically strange about it… people are enormously invested in language and know nothing about it. Linguists aren’t in charge of language, and thank god. Real people are out there doing what they do, and the old and higher-class people get up in arms.”

In the end, however, “the ne’er-do-wells have their way, as they always have,” he says. “Change comes from ordinary people, and never from the pundits and soothsayers.” With the “enormous presence” of “cum” on the web, he adds, it’s not going anywhere.

But the true import of “cum,” Preston says, is really not more complicated than “the two symbolic roles” of its usage: There’s the silly, frisky, informal attitude — spelling it “cum” has comedic and social value — and then there’s the “despicable” meaning, with potentially classist or racist overtones: “Even though this guy’s saying it like me, he’s a clodhopper dumbass,” he summarizes.

It all makes sense, except for a last, lingering concern of mine. If “cum” is a verb, isn’t it awkward to conjugate? “What!” Preston yelps when I ask this. “Didja cum, baby? Obviously you’ve never been in bed with someone who wasn’t sure if you’d ejaculated.” For the preterite, or past tense form, there’s no tweak necessary, he continues. “Some women would say, ‘You son of a bitch, you came on my skirt!’ but it’s just as effective to say” — and here he puts on a Southern accent — “‘You son of a bitch, you cum on my skirt!’ or ‘I cum yesterday.’ It’s that same Old English strong verb.”

By the way, this etymology may be of special interest to the “come” partisans, as the Anglo-Saxon root word Preston refers to here is “cuman,” for “to move with the purpose of reaching, or so as to reach, some point; to arrive by movement or progression.” That’s right: Before we had “come” as we know it, the controversial “u” was present in Latinate-alphabet spellings of its direct ancestor. Plus, the word could take an “o” or a “u” depending on tense, and sometimes even a “y.”  

So much for the historical pedigree of “come” — this word has played fast and loose with its vowels for more than a millennium already. And it’s not as though we can’t mess with the consonants, too: Preston remarks that his favorite gas station/quick mart chain is called Kum & Go. The brand likely predates our familiarity with “cum,” but no matter, “kum” is inherently amusing now. “Alas, if anything, the ‘k’ has made it even more noticeable,” Preston says. “When I drove into Oklahoma 12 years ago and saw that, I just giggled.”

There’s joy in the basic morphology as well as the innuendo (otherwise, why name your store that?), and in this case, the two effects appear to mutually reinforce one another. You might say that both qualities resist bland convention.

“Every time we express ourselves, we’re embedding meaning about our social status, gender, class, sexual orientation, disabilities — there’s so much happening in language tied to who we are as people,” says Chelsea Reynolds. “Naughty bedroom discourse isn’t an exception. It’s tied to what we’re confident about, preferences in terms of dominance and submission, all of that. Use of profanities or vulgarities like ‘fuck’ or ‘pussy’ says a lot, they say you’re not part of the Protestant normative cis patriarchy.”

Ultimately, she points out, the “come” vs. “cum” dispute is a written one, since the difference is only evident in text, not in speech. And it’s not a fight that looks good for the traditionalists. “The editorial perspective is very different from what’s happening out there in the culture,” she says, agreeing with Preston’s take on the democratic vectors of language. This may create problems for non-native speakers trying to cotton on to our slang, yet it’s also a measure of vibrancy, with hilarious ripples throughout the culture. Apple, for example, apparently censors the word “cum” when it turns up in a Latin phrase.     

Perhaps, after all, the confusion and collision of views are how we get our kicks. On the one hand, it’s ridiculous to be so passionate about this issue; on the other, orgasm and its byproducts are passion — physical and spiritual. The entanglement of “come” with “cum” shows something of the numberless permutations within sex itself. There is always a new angle, and everyone has their favorite standby. Feel free to advocate for yours, just don’t expect to vanquish the rest. All you can do is cum as you are.