De foot and de coun
Yesterday, Mark Liberman wrote a post at Language Log about "interlingual taboos", that is, words avoided in one language because they sound like a naughty word in another. He wrote about Thai people who, when speaking Thai around English people, avoid the Thai word khán "to crush, squeeze out" (because it sounds like the English word "cunt"), or Nootka Indian girls in Vancouver who avoid using the English word "such" because it sounds like the Nootka word sač "vāgīna ūmens" (a word whose use could not make them feel sicca).
This last example reminded me of the scene from Henry V, when Katharine is having an English lesson. She gladly learns various English words like "de nails, de arm, de ilbow" but blanches at the equivalents for "le pied" and "la robe", namely "de foot" and "de coun", exclaiming in a kind of French that itself seems to have been calqued directly from the English:
De foot et de coun! O Seigneur Dieu! ce sont mots de son mauvais, corruptible, gros, et impudique, et non pour les dames d'honneur d'user: je ne voudrais prononcer ces mots devant les seigneurs de France pour tout le monde. Foh! le foot et le coun!
"De foot" and "de coun"! O Lord God! These are words of bad, corruptible, gross and immodest sound, and not for women of honor to use; I would not want to pronounce these words before the lords of France for all the world. Faugh! the "foot" and the "coun"!
Apparently Katharine dislikes our word "foot" because it sounds like the French "foutre", which used to mean "to fuck" (but now means "to do"). I have never quite understood what Katharine dislikes about the "English" word "coun", which is apparently her mispronunciation of the word "gown" (as it is to translate "la robe"). Perhaps it reminds her of the French word "con" which now means something like a "jerk" or an "idiot" (but may in the past have meant "cunt", I surmise?).
It is hard to see how the French "con" /kɔ˜/ could have sounded anything like the english "gown" /gaʊn/, even if it was pronounced "coun" /kaʊn/. Probably those two words were, at that time, pronounced more similarly than they are now. This is a mystery I would very much like to elucidate, but right now I have as my only clue the fact that, once upon a time, French words that today have nasalized vowels were, when borrowed into English, spelled with a mysterious "u", which they have since lost, as in "romaunt" "enchaunt", etc. Coleridge seems to remember this lost "u" when he writes:
And lo! the deep, romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover,
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As ere beneath the waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
Even if "slanted" and "enchanted" are pronounced /'slɑ:ntɪd/ and /ɪn'tʃɑ:ntɪd/ after the English fashion, they still do not rhyme with "haunted" /'hɔ:ntɪd/.
If the French "con" were subjected to this rule, it would indeed come out written as "coun", but just what pronunciation this spelling is meant to represent, I do not know.