Duas Verpas.

Laudator Temporis Acti posts a wonderful little inscription from Sardinia (Meana Sardo, 2nd century AD, Iscrizioni latine della Sardegna I 183):

[vides d]uas berpas
[ego sum] tertius qui

You see two pricks.
I, the one reading this, am the third.

berpas = verpas. On verpa see J.N. Adams, The Latin Sexual Vocabulary (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982; rpt. 1993), pp. 12-14.

The confusion between b- and v- is interesting, and I should really get a copy of Adams. For verpa, see Wiktionary:

Possibly borrowed from a Germanic language, related to Proto-Germanic *werpaną (“to throw”). More likely from Proto-Italic source for “to turn round, to roll” (as in ‘unfurl, peel back, or retract foreskin’) via Proto-Indo-European *welw-, *wel- (“to turn, wind, round”).

1. (vulgar) a penis with the foreskin retracted, especially when erect
2. (vulgar) an erection, a hard-on


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    It was precisely to avoid this sort of trap that St Ambrose invented the practice of silent reading.*

    * Augustine, Confessions Bk 6 Ch 3:

    sed cum legebat, oculi ducebantur per paginas et cor intellectum rimabatur, vox autem et lingua quiescebant. saepe, cum adessemus — non enim vetabatur quisquam ingredi aut ei venientem nuntiari mos erat — sic eum legentem vidimus tacite et aliter numquam

  2. David Marjanović says

    The confusion between b- and v- is interesting

    It’s shared with modern Sardinian or what’s left of that. But that it’s already there in the 2nd century makes me suspect this is substrate influence – it could be yet another feature that this substrate shares with Basque.

    It was precisely to avoid this sort of trap

    To no avail. “Anyone who reads this is a” was a popular genre lo these onescore years ago.

  3. Vides or video? Who’s seeing two pricks?

  4. Michael Hendry says

    Two questions: 1. Does the inscription include pictures of two pricks, erect and ‘peeled’? The words seem to imply that, but I really want to know. 2. If not, is it broken in such a way that there could easily have been such pictures accompanying the words? I suppose the square brackets imply #2 as more likely.

  5. You can see the actual inscription in situ at the link.

  6. It’s more skillfully inscribed than the graffiti I was expecting.

    How far back does the Spanish b/v merger go?

  7. There is a similar inscription from Pompeii — Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum IV 2360 = Carmina Latina Epigraphica 45. See Attilio Mastino and Raimondo Zucca, “Verpa qui lego,” Sicilia Antiqua 13 (2016) 125-131.

    Verpa qui lego” is on academia, some 2 pages are dedicated to our inscriptption. The authors comment on the skillful execution as well and compare it to dicks on city walls and gates in Italy. And suggest that the dicks could be offered to locals… (in more delicate words: Il problema principale del testo meanese (che costituisce la prima testimonianza, nel cuore della Barbaria sarda, del latino, codice linguistico che dovette evolversi nella lingua romanza del sardo-nuorese),[12] è rappresentato dal suo contesto sociolinguistico.)

  8. In the paper drasvi linked to, what do people make of the claim that in a different inscription, speaking of the sequence PIS NISCI, “it’s preferable to understand the two signs IS as a false interpretation of a disarticulated A”?

  9. Yeah, I found the transition between ‘vides’ and ‘ego sum’ a little awkward (ok, it’s graffiti). I would have preferred something like ‘here are two pricks, I, the one reading this, am the third’ (but of course one can’t restore it thus). But in fact the more I look at it, the less awkward it seems.

    Random thought, probably of no consequence: I wonder why specifically two dicks were drawn. I find that people usually draw one in this sort of stuff (going on modern graffiti more than ancient).

    The b/v confusion isn’t especially noteworthy. It starts occurring in the first century AD, becomes common in the second, and pervasive thereafter.

    I too still need a copy of ‘The Latin Sexual Vocabulary’, though I have a couple of other books by Adams. I wholeheartedly recommend anything written by him as eminently worth reading.

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    I too still need a copy of ‘The Latin Sexual Vocabulary’


    “In a suggestive context almost any object or activity may be interpreted as a sexual image.”

  11. @DE: Skills, cheers!

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    I’ve always had something of a soft spot for the Pompeiian graffito IRRUMA MEDICOS. It’s good to know that our profession has always had some dissatisfied customers.

  13. David Marjanović says

    How far back does the Spanish b/v merger go?

    Apparently it’s much younger. Ladino lacks it AFAIK, and there were still prescriptivists in the 20th century who railed against it.

    Nowadays, however, it seems to be universal among languages in geographic shouting distance from Basque – Asturian through Catalan at least.

    Intervocalic b > v is much older and much more widespread, though.

  14. Random thought, probably of no consequence: I wonder why specifically two dicks were drawn. I find that people usually draw one in this sort of stuff (going on modern graffiti more than ancient).
    Now you know why some people look back on Classical Antiquity as a golden age. The dick-to-text ratio was higher back then. People made more of an effort.

  15. David Eddyshaw says

    Indeed. That’s how it was before the Internet rotted our brains.

  16. Unrelated to modern Romance verga.

  17. “It was precisely to avoid this sort of trap that St Ambrose invented the practice of silent reading.” DE
    I may have missed the silent prompt.
    Ambrose was not the first one silent.
    But–still–was Augustine impressed?

  18. two potential answers (aside from an aesthetics of symmetry) for the two-dick problem:

    there could’ve been two people present when it was carved (one illustrator, one letterer?). this would be more immediately supportable if the carvings were less abraded, but it looks a bit like the leftward dick has a bigger head and a bit more foreskin, which could imply portraiture.

    if there was going to be more than one dick (the reader) present, it might have to be three for poetic/narrative reasons. same as sons in any number of folktale traditions, whose numbers are quite narrowly prescribed.

    just so stories, of course, but ontology has to follow philology as best it can.

  19. See the votey comic with this recent SMBC for a hypothesis about ancient dick art.

  20. @Hans: LMFAO 🙂 I’ll have to remember that for the next time someone tiresomely asks me to justify my interest in Classics.

  21. David Eddyshaw says

    it might have to be three for poetic/narrative reasons

    Seven, ideally.

  22. biblically accurate!

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    Or even forty-nine and a jubilee.

  24. David Eddyshaw says

    Ambrose was not the first one silent

    No, he wasn’t, as you obviously know already, SG:


    but I was making a joke. (Still, I imagine that passing readers of graffiti probably did normally read them aloud.)

    I think that the passage does indeed reveal Augustine’s surprise at Ambrose’s ability, though: the counterarguments to the effect that he’s actually recording his resentment at the antisocial practice look pretty far-fetched to me. Why would he make such a palaver of explaining what the uncanny process actually entailed in that case?

  25. All right, next time I build a city, I’ll erect 7 penises on a sqaure. Sounds good.

  26. Also it is the canonical (among high school students) reading of the “[female character] and seven [male characters]” stories. I know the https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secretary_problem as “the problem about the princess and 100 dicks”.

  27. David Eddyshaw says

    The solution is simplicity itself.

    The princess (in virtue of her rank) can confine her candidate list to emperors. She need then only stipulate that they attend the interview wearing their new clothes. The actual selection may then proceed in parallel, rather than in series.

  28. I learned it from girls. “… each characterised by… let’s call it a certain parameter with an unique numerical (or otherwise allowing linear ordering) value that she can measure as they are spending the night together”.

    They did not say “dicks”: not as much because they wanted to avoid the word, I think, but because more abstract description is compatible with the adult version (which in Russia also involves a princess). They only added the part about spending the night.

  29. “adult” – adult from a student’s perspective. That is more censored.

  30. Faroese and Icelandic translations of verpa (in Wiktionary) are interesting: they also include “twist, wind”, and “lay an egg”.

    Why this later is interesting:
    Russian has a strange (in that it is very specialised) root -lup- used for 1. hatching (out of egg) 2. foreskin 3. eyes.
    4. paint and other hard covering substances peeling off the surface of something.

  31. 1. to loop-out self 2. the loop-over 3. to loop-out one’s eyes (when staring at something)
    4. to loop-around self (about the putty or paint or about the wall).

    P.S. I intended to write “lup-out” but let it be loop.
    P.P.S. вылупиться, залупа, вылупить, облупиться.

  32. David Marjanović says

    Intervocalic b > v is much older and much more widespread, though.

    Postvocalic, rather.

  33. January First-of-May says

    It was precisely to avoid this sort of trap that St Ambrose invented the practice of silent reading.

    Presumably by the time of birch bark letter 46 silent reading was sufficiently established that the letter had to be coded…

    (The decoded text, as preserved, ends with а хто се цита… “and who reads this…” with any further description torn off, though it would surely have been negative. TIL that Andrey Chernov had provided a rhyming emendation for the missing bit: а тои гуза “and they’re an arse”.)

  34. Possibly borrowed from a Germanic language, related to Proto-Germanic *werpaną (“to throw”). More likely from Proto-Italic source for “to turn round, to roll” (as in ‘unfurl, peel back, or retract foreskin’) via Proto-Indo-European *welw-, *wel- (“to turn, wind, round”).

    Since the two etymologies of Latin verpa currently offered by the Wiktionary are hardly convincing, I went looking for myself, and I thought I would post some of what I found for those LH readers who are curious.

    Any account of verpa (attested at least since Catullus onward, perhaps even in Lucius Pomponius, fl. c. 90 BCE) should also include a reasonable account of verpus, both ‘having the foreskin retracted and the glans exposed by erection of the penis, ψωλός’ (also from Catullus, onward) and ‘circumcised’. It would also be good to clarify the relation of Latin verpa to Lithuanian várpa ‘ear (of grain), penis’ (with Lithuanian acute, a falling tone) and Latvian vārpa ‘ear of grain, ear (of grain), swipple of a flail, plaited leather whip, tail of a cooked pig’ (vãrpa, with Latvian Dehnton, a level or weakly rising tone), with diminutive vārpiņa, ‘little ear of grain, penis’.

    (The Wiktionary’s proposed Germanic etymology is just a vague root etymology. At first glance, a derivation ‘thrown weapon, spear, javelin’ > ‘penis’ (like French dard) looks attractive. Would the Latin word a borrowing of a Germanic noun denoting some sort of thrown weapon? I am not familiar with any such word *werpa- or *werpō’thrown or hurled weapon’ from this root attested among the early Germanic languages, but I would be interested to learn of one. However, although the Germanic root *werp- often takes on the meaning ‘throw’, the original meaning seems to have more specific. The DWDS is good here: “Als Grundbedeutung ist ‘mit drehend geschwungenem Arm schleudern’ anzusetzen. Die Wurzelbedeutung ‘biegen’ ist noch erhalten in anord. oldri orpinn ‘vom Alter gebeugt’, engl. to warp, nhd. sich werfen ‘krumm werden, sich biegen’ (vom Holz).” So would the Germanic word originally have denoted something bent or curved, like English slang joint and crank ‘penis’? In the semantic field of sexual vocabulary, Latin verpa would seem early for a Germanic loanword in Latin—it is not exactly a commercial product imported from the North, the slave trade notwithstanding. There is no trace of an earlier meaning ‘Germanic spear’ or anything like that for verpa in Latin. And the adjective verpus would have to have been generated from verpa immediately after borrowing as well. It seems rather rushed.

    The other proposal, relating it to the root of Latin volvō (with reference to the rolling back of the foreskin?) has even less to recommend it. It is bad enough that there is nothing to motivate a dissimilatory change of *l to r. But this root etymology also seems to invoke a putative suffix *-peh₂ or *-po- (the latter if verpus is taken as primary, and verpa as a substantivization ‘(penis) with glans exposed’), or at least some sort of root extension in *-p-. There is very little material among the Indo-European languages that suggests reconstructing a primary deradical suffix *-po- or *-peh₂ for Indo-European or Italic. In Sanskrit, for example, there are only a few forms of obscure origin like púṣpa- ‘flower’, stupá- ‘tuft, topknot’, stū́pa- ‘tuft, topknot, stupa’, perhaps also in śáṣpa- ‘young or sprouting grass’.)

    Outside of the Wiktionary, someone has of course suggested an Etruscan origin — I have no idea on what basis.

  35. As for more serious treatments of verpa, one can begin with Walde–Hofmann:

    verpa, -ae f. „das männliche Glied” (Catull, rom. in Abltgen „Ochsenziemer”, s. Goldberger Gl. 18, 45), verpus, -ī m. „der Beschnittene” (Mart., Iuv.): unsicherer Herkunft, Gdf. *u̯erp-ā oder *u̯r̥p-ā. Vbdg. mit gr. ῥαπίς f. „Rute”, ῥάβδος „Stab” (s. repente und vepris, verbēna), an. orf, ahd. worf „Sensenstiel” (Fick II³ 247, Persson Wzerw. 53, Schrader KZ. 30, 481) wäre zwar für verpa allenfalls denkbar, doch weist verpus auch für verpa eher auf eine altere Bed. „beschinittenes männliches Glied” (oder ist verpus einer, der an der verpa einen Fehler hat ? [verpa : *verpare : verpus wie γυῖον : γυιόω : γυιός, Solmsen KZ. 37, 601¹]).

    (Greek γυῖον ‘limb’ : γυιόω : ‘to lame (i.e. deprive of the use of a limb)’ ; γυιός ‘lame’, adj.)

    Hamp (1971) “Latin uerpa”, in The American Journal of Philology vol. 92 is here on JSTOR and has an good introduction to the problems posed by the Latin and Baltic words.

    More recently, Sasha Nikolaev (2020) “Greek ἅρπαξ ‘robber; robbery’” Indogermanische Forschungen 125 (here on academia.edu) presents evidence for a new root *u̯erp- ‘to attack, to force oneself onto someone’ (in Luwian warp(i)- ‘weapon(?), warpalli- ‘mighty(?)’, Lydian varbtoki- ‘attack(?)’, Old Russian (на)воропъ ‘attack, raid, vanguard’). In footnote 19 on page 37, he comments:

    Latin verpa ‘penis’ and Lithuanian várpa ‘id.’ could in theory go back to our root (for the semantics compare Lat. sōpiō ‘penis’ and Hitt. šapp- ‘to strike, hit’, for which see Nikolaev 2015), but other explanations are available for these words: see the recent excellent treatment by Steer (2018) who after a careful consideration of various possibilities advocates for a connection with Greek ῥωπ- ‘shrub’ and other words referring to twigs, rods, and branches.

  36. The article to which Nikolaev refers is Thomas Steer (2018) “Lateinisch uerpa und uerpus”, pp. 159–176 in Priscis Libentius et Liberius Novis. Indogermanische und sprachwissenschaftliche Studien. Festschrift für Gerhard Meiser zum 65. Geburtstag, ed. Olav Hackstein et al. This article is not widely available in electronic form, but Steer essentially updates and fills out the etymology preferred by Walde–Hofmann, whereby verpa would originally have been ‘rod, pole’ and shows the same semantic shift seen in Latin virga to French verge, Spanish verga, etc. (cf. the formerly common obscene meaning of English yard). On p. 159, Steers offers the following detailed morphological analyses:

    Fazit: Für lat. uerpa f. ,Penis‘ ergeben sich innerlateinisch, soweit zu sehen ist, keine guten Anknüpfungspunkte; außerlateinisch kommen in formaler und semantischer Hinsicht — abgesehen von dem oben erwogenen Anschluss an heth. /u̯arp-/ ‚reiben; waschen‘ — am ehesten folgende Anschlüsse in Betracht:

    (5) gr. ῥωπ- und ῥαπ- ,biegsamer Zweig, Rute‘ (Letzteres in χρῡσό-ρραπις, ῥαπίζω und evtl. ῥάβδος‚ falls aus *ῥάπ-δο-ς. ῥωπ- kann aus (vor-)urgr. *u̯rōp- (und dies ggf. aus *u̯ōrp-, s. gleich). *ῥάπ- aus urgr. *u̯rəp- < urgr. *u̯r̥p- stammen (anlautendes *s- statt *u̯- wäre aber auch möglich; dann wäre lat. uerpa femzuhalten). Wegen ῥωπ- < *u̯rōp- wäre zunächs tvon einer WZ. *u̯rep- auszugehen, die vielleicht auch in verbalem ῥέπω ‚sich neigen, sinken‘ < *u̯répō steckt (wenn hier nicht *srépō zugrunde liegt; vgl. LIV² 701 mit Anm. 1). Falls ῥωπ- und ῥαπ- einem gemeinsamen Paradigma ῥωπ-/*ῥαπ- entsprungen sind, wäre aber auch eine zugrundeliegende WZ. *u̯erp- denkbar; der starke Stamm ῥωπ < *u̯rōp- könnte nämlich mittels Metathese auf eine ursprüngliche Form *u̯ōrp- zurückgehen. Let. uerpa < *u̯(e/o)rp-eh₂- könnte dann eine Weiterbildung des mutmaßlichen Wurzelnomens *u̯rō̆́p-/*u̯r̥p- ( *u̯rō̆́p-/*u̯r̥p-*u̯orp-eh₂- o. ä.) oder ein unabhängiger eh₂-Stamm zur WZ. *u̯erp- oder *u̯erp- sein.

    (6) gr. *ῥαπή (ā-St.). Es könnte dem llintergliecl des Kompositums χρῡσό-ρραπ-ι-ς ebenfalls zugrunde liegen (statt eines Wurzelnomens *ῥαπ-; doch könnten auch beide Stämme, *ῥαπ- und *ῥαπ-ή, nebeneinander existiert haben, vgl. ἄν-αλκ-ι-ς : ἀλκ- neben ἀλκή). Falls ein Stamm *ῥαπ-ή existiert hat und aus *u̯r̥p-eh₂ hervorgegangen ist, könnte er mit lat. uerpa formal identifiziert werden.

    (7) gr. ὅ/ὄρπαξ ,Schössling, junger biegsamer Zweig‘; falls nicht aus *sórp-āk-, sondern aus *u̯órp-āk- stammend, könnte ein evtl. darin enthaltener und um -k- erweiterter Stamm *u̯órp-ā- < *u̯orp-eh₂- auch lat. uerpa zugrunde liegen (zur Lautentwicklung lat. o > e s. o.).

    As for the genesis of verpus, Steer compares the relationship between Latin coxa and Medieval Latin (glossaries) coxus ‘lame’ (cf. Late Latin coxō ‘one who limps, lame man’ in the grammarian Nonius Marcellus as well as Catalan coix, Portuguese coxo, Spanish cojo ‘lame’), Greek ὗβος ‘hump’ beside adjective ὑβός ‘humpbacked’, Sanskrit śróṇi- ‘hip and loins, buttocks’ and śroṇá- ‘limping, crippled’ and proposes the following:

    In diesen derivationsmorphologischen Kontext könnte nun m. E. auch das Paar lat. verpa f. ,Penis‘ : uerpus eingeordnet werden. Das abgeleitete Adjectiv verpus bedeutete dann zunächst ,einen Penis habend, der eine besondere/auffällge Eigenschaft bzw. einen Defekt besitzt‘. Daraus erklärt sich problemlos die Bedeutung ,beschnitten‘ (woraus dann wiederum sekundär ,geil‘…)

  37. Here is Steer’s treatment of the Baltic forms:

    Lit. várpa f. ,Ähre; Penis‘, lett. vãrpa f. ,Ahre, Schlegel am Dreschflegel, geflochtene Lederpeitsche‘, vārpiņa ,Penis‘. Die baltischen Formen stehen lat. uerpa zwar in semantischer Hinsicht nicht ganz fern, da sie auch zur Bezeichnung des Penis gebraucht werden. Die Akut-Intonation spricht aber gegen die Herleitung von lit. várpa, lett. vãrpa aus einer Vorform *u̯erp-eh2-, die auch für lat. uerpa möglich wäre. Andererseits liegt dem akutierten Wurzelvokal der baltischen Formen kaum ein ererbter Langvokal (*ō, *ā) zugrunde; dagegen sprechen lautliche Gründe. Die Akutierung muss daher anders erklärt werden (métatonie rude), war aber nach Ausweis der litauischen und lettischen Form bereits urostbaltisch. Etymologisch werden die Bildungen zur Wz. von lit. ver̃pti ,stechen, eindringen‘ gestellt; eine Wurzelverwandtschaft mit lat. uerpa ,Penis‘ scheint nicht unmöglich.

    Métatonie rude, as Saussure termed it, is the substitution of an acute tone for a circumflex tone as part of a derivational process. This process is well known, although not well understood, in Balto-Slavic accentology. In this instance, the root of Lithuanian ver̃pti has original circumflex intonation, but the derived noun has acute intonation, várpa. (The Latvian Dehnton as well corresponds to the Lithuanian acute in nouns without accentual mobility.)

    Compare the treatment of Lithuanian várpa here in the online Altlitauisches etymologisches Wörterbuch :

    Das Nomen wirkt wie eine regulär o-stufige Ableitung zu lit. ver̃pti (-ia, -ė) ‘stechen, eindringen’, das LKŽ (meist mit į- und pra-) vor allem für žem. Mundarten um Kelmė, Telšiai und Viekšniai belegt. Wie die métatonie rude in der Wz. des Nomens zu erklären ist, bleibt aber dunkel (vgl. darüber Derksen 1996: 263-270).

    I recommend obtaining a copy of Steer’s article if the subject of verpa piques your interest.

  38. Thanks for all that! (I like the German word denkbar; I presume that’s where Cowgill got his “thinkable” from.)

  39. I put in the wrong entity for the symbol (>) above. That should be:

    zur Lautentwicklung lat. o > e s. o.

    One of many typos and OCR errors probably. ¡Carajo!

    This is the discussion that Steer references:

    *u̯órp-ā, mit o-stufiger Wz.; lat. o > e (im 2. Jh. v. Chr.) „hinter , wenn s, t oder tautosyllabisches r […] folgen“… vgl. z.B. lat. uoster > uester ,euer‘

  40. I put in the wrong entity


  41. David Marjanović says

    One of many typos and OCR errors probably. ¡Carajo!

    Not many, but zünachst is conspicuous; it’s zunächst “at first”.

  42. It would be interesting to learn more about internal Baltic etymology.

    ver̃pti ,stechen, eindringen‘

    Wiktionary translates it as “spin”.

  43. Not many, but zünachst is conspicuous; it’s zunächst “at first”.

    Fixed that too, thanks!

  44. As for plausibility of semantical derivation from rolling: Russian men are usually not circumcised.

    Залупа (and related verbs like залупать) is one of those words that were fully transparent in 19th centiury vernacular, but whose roots ceased to be productive in book (and modern educated spoken) Russian. It is still transparent.
    I do not use it to refer to foreskin or penis head as an adult (feel no need to), I don’t use it as an insult (at random, it is a popular insult…). I heard it very often in school from classmates, and I think village children may still use it in the penisual meaning.

    My classmates just shared rude words, or sometimes insulted each other, or joked (I remember my freind invented a phrase in the popular genre where the first part sounds obscene… until you continue and it turns out something else. Махни залупой…. В магазин “Оптика”! – which makes it clear that it was махни за лупой. Магазин “Оптика” is where you buy glasses, not magnifying glasses, loupes… But I don’t know where you buy magnifying glasses).

    There is also
    залупаться “to display agression, to provoke”, lit.”to-peel-off-oneself [at someone]” – but I don’t think it is understood as exposing the penis head.

    There is a synonymous literary задирать, where драть “tear”, also “tear off” is a common word for physical abuse and sex – cf. literary agent noun задира and modern colloquial задрал уже! (надоел).
    Задрать, завернуть (off – roll) is what you do with a skirt or blanket, and Dahl explains залупливать as synonymous (applied to hide, bark or clothes).

    -луп- is used in words about removing hard or soft cover (eggs, eyes, penises, paint – or skin in general).

    So what I am trying to say: there is a semantical niche for dick-words referring to furling.
    Залупа конская! – you’re a horse dick!

    But it is desirable to have words that can mean specifically ‘wrap’, ‘furl’ rather than just ‘rotate’ for such derivation to be possible.

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