The origin of the word condom is unknown. There are three commonly given explanations that may be true, although none of them have any significant supporting evidence and all three must be classified as mere speculation:
- It is named after the village of Condom in southern France. This hypothesis was first proposed in 1904. Other than the similarity in form and the general English association with all things erotic to France, there is nothing to suggest that this is in fact the origin.
- It is from the Latin condus, meaning that which preserves, a reference to the device’s original use for preventing syphilis.
- It is from the Persian kondü or kendü, an earthen vessel for storing grain. This is a reference to the sheath’s function as a receptacle for semen. It supposedly made its way into English via Greek and Latin.
However, there is a more common, although probably false, tale about condom’s origin. Legend has it that the condom was named for its inventor, a British physician who lived during the reign of Charles II (1660-85). There is no evidence that such a Dr. Condom existed, but that has not stopped the spread of the legend. The hunt is made difficult by the early variations in spelling (quondam, condon, etc.) and the fact that respectable dictionaries did not include such words until very recently. The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, did not include condom until its 1972 supplement even though there is an 1888 letter to James Murray, that venerable dictionary’s most famous editor, containing the earliest known citation of the term’s use.
This first known use of the term is in a 1705 letter referring to John Campbell, the 2nd Duke of Argyll, who traveled from London to Edinburgh bringing with him a:
Certaine instrument called a Quondam, qch. occasioned ye debauching of a great number of Ladies of qualitie, and oyr young gentlewomen.
Argyll was a great advocate of the union between England and Scotland that would be known as the United Kingdom. As such he had many political enemies. Among them was John Hamilton, the 2nd Baron of Bellhaven, who penned the following poem in 1706 referring to Argyll and his device, the first appearance of the word in a published source:
When Reasoning’s answer’d
By seconded Votes,
And speeches are banter’d
By outfield turn-coats,
Then Sirenge and Condum
Come both in request,
While virtuous Quondam
Is treated in Jest.
The word condom is associated with then name of its inventor as early as 1708. This association is in an anonymous, satirical poem titled Almonds for Parrots:
A Gut the Learn’d call, Blind;
‘Till Condon, for the great invention fam’d,
Found out its Use, and after him ‘twas nam’d.
The following year, the claim that the prophylactic was named for its inventor is repeated in the newspaper The Tatler, which records the following account of the inventor’s alleged appearance in Will’s Coffee House on 13 May 1709. Although this account does not mention his name or even contain the word condom, it is important because the style is clearly satirical and it is likely that the supposed Dr. Condom is simply the invention of some wit:
[T]here are considerable Men appear in all Ages, who, for some eminent Quality or Invention, deserve the Esteem and Thanks of the Publick. Such a Benefactor is a Gentleman of the [Coffee-] House, who is observ’d by the Surgeons with much Envy; for he has invented an Engine for the Prevention of Harms by Love-Adventures, and has, by great Care and Application, made it an Immodesty to name his Name. This Act of Self-denial has gain’d this worthy Member of the Commonwealth a great Reputation. Some Law-givers have departed from their Abodes for ever, and commanded the Observation of their Laws till their Return; others have us’d other Artifices to fly the Applause of their Merit; but this Person shuns Glory with greater Address, and has by giving his Engine his own Name, made it obscene to speak of him more. However, he is rank’d among, and receiv’d by the modern Wits, as a Promoter of Gallantry and Pleasure.
In 1724 the inventor is given the title of doctor. Daniel Turner, in the 1724 edition of his Syphilis. A Practical Dissertation on the Venereal Disease writes:
Dr. Sharp, as well as the Wolverhampton Surgeon, with two or three others behind the Curtain, stand Candidates with Dr. C—n, for the Glory of the invention.
Unfortunately, Turner bowdlerizes the name. It is probably Condon.
In 1728, the doctor is referred to as a colonel. Over the next few centuries various accounts refer to him as either a physician or a colonel.
All this would make it seem that such a person did in fact exist. But there are problems, namely that no one has identified an actual person who is a logical candidate. Numerous scholars have searched high and low for candidates named Condom or Condon or something similar, to no avail.
Condum, Cundum, and Gondom simply are not English names. No one with these names appears in any histories or records of the period. There are names like Condon and Compton, but while people with these names can be found, none appear likely candidates. No record of a physician, surgeon, military officer, peer of the realm, member of philosophical societies, or known inventor from the period with these names has been found.
Two possibilities for an eponym still exist. The man could have been a person of no status or he could have been a foreigner. Both are unlikely. A person of no social rank would not have been frequenting Wills coffeehouse or hobnobbing with the nobility as the tales suggest. The early accounts treat him as a person of worth, not as a nobody. The other is that the inventor was not British and condoms were imported to Britain c.1700. This is also unlikely. The word makes its first appearance in English and from accounts of the period suggest that the name for the device was first used in Britain and only later crossed the channel to the Continent.
More likely, the story about and inventor named Condom or Condon is simply a fiction. The references to him are merely satire.
(Source: Kruck, William E., Looking For Dr. Condom, Publication of the American Dialect Society #66, University of Alabama Press, 1981.)
Copyright 1997-2016, by David Wilton