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An Alphabet of Feminism #17: Q is for Queen

2011 February 7


To sour your happiness, I must report
The queen is dead.

Shakespeare, Cymbeline (1611) V.5.3400

Queen is one of the few Alphabet words with a firmly British origin, but it makes up for its lack of Latinate pedigree by being extremely complicated. So this is the part where the rap breaks down – it comes from the Old English cwen, the proto-Germanic kwoeniz, and (follow it back far enough) the proto-Indo-European gwen (= ‘woman, wife’). Proto-awesome, man. In this form it coincides rather nicely with the Greek gyne, meaning ‘woman, wife’ (thus gynecology, misoGYNy, gynophobia, and indeed gynocentric), and a whole host of other languages that I don’t think we need all up in our grill just now.

My Family and Other Animals

The interesting thing about these origins is their relation to another word: quean, originally a variant form of queen, meaning then ‘woman, female’ but now mostly an ‘effeminate homosexual man’ (cf., er, queen). Its etymology is similar, but with more emphasis on the insults: thus, quean‘s forebears include the Middle Dutch quene (= ‘older woman’), the Dutch kween (= ‘hussy’) and the Middle Low German quene (= ‘woman, wife, old woman’). It eventually gives us ‘a promiscuous woman’ sometime around the sixteenth century.

State painting: Queen Anne at the time of her marriage, before becoming queen. She wears a loose low-cut gown.

Anne, later Queen Anne, at the time of her marriage, 1683.

As is often the case, plenty of forebears inevitably only leads to plenty of embarrassing cousins, and many of these roots (cwen and the Greek gyne in particular) have also been claimed as parents to cunt ( =  ‘the vulva or vagina’), spelled quaint and sometimes queynt by Chaucer, just to illustrate the fluidity of ‘cw’, ‘qu’ and ‘cu’. When you know that portcwene ( = literally ‘a public woman’) means ‘prostitute’, the association of quean / quean and cunt may perhaps become somewhat clearer: it’s what you might call synecdoche. This may also throw some light on quean/queen‘s gay associations: inevitably, words that suggest penetration of the female (pussy, bitch) are eventually seized upon to denigrate an ‘effeminate’ man. Queen as ‘a flamboyant homosexual’ is from the 1920s (as is queer, which originally means ‘oblique, off centre’), thus coinciding with a modicum more gay visibility than its sixteenth century usage.

But it’s not all doom, gloom and back to the Unmentionables: let’s talk thrones. English is unusual in giving a queen her own word, and not simply feminizing king (= ‘of noble birth’) – compare the French roi and reine, from the Latin rex and regina. Nonetheless, the first definition of a queen in the dictionary is as ‘a king’s wife or consort; a lady who is wife to a king’ but the second sense, as ‘a woman who is the chief ruler of a state, having the same rank and position as a king’, is Old English itself, so the two definitions are likely to be essentially simultaneous.

The English the English the English are best.

Yes, over here on Albion’s chalk-ringed shores, we’ve had no less than seven reigning queens. By contrast, even pre-1789, the hated French would never let Ringo have a go – lol Salic law – and all their famous female royals were lowly consorts (Margaret de Valois, Catherine de Medici, Marie Antoinette…), although Henri IV was several degrees more awesome than any English king, ever. Look at how pleased with himself he is! But I digress.

However positive the existence of historical female monarchs on this royal throne of kings, this sceptr’d isle, the residual physicality of queen in relation to cunt is still lurking around, and the body of the queen has always carried a significance that goes beyond everyday concerns about legitimacy (although those are there too). Catherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves, queens to Henry VIII, were both publicly subjected to a series of intimate questions (and threatened physical examination) about their wedding-bed virginity, genital health and sexual history, and that’s before you get into discussions down the pub throughout history about When The King Is A Queen (thus Edward II roundly condemned for A Weak King and put to an ‘ironic’ death), and the reigning queen‘s menstrual cycle and likelihood of producing a royal heir.

This last was an issue that clearly dogged even those English queens ruling in their own right: in 1554, Mary I was declared to be with child, triggering thanksgiving services and country-wide celebration, until over a year later her belly decreased in size and the ‘pregnancy’ was revealed to be a humiliating ‘phantom’ (pseudocyesis), caused by her intense desire for an heir. After a second false pregnancy two years later, she died (possibly from a uterine tumour) in 1558.

Painting of Elizabeth I depicted in black with a high-necked white ruff, carrying a sieve, the traditional accessory of the Vestal Virgins

Elizabeth I carrying a sieve, the traditional accessory of the Vestal Virgins. c.1583

A couple of hundred years later, amid some of the most spectacular changes in British history, Mary ‘Williamanmary’ II and her sister, Anne, were competing to be the first to bear a child, and, in consequence, were rarely on speaking terms. Mary had an early miscarriage which may have permanently impaired her ability to have a baby, while Anne (despite being fairly definitely gay herself) had six children who died, eight still-births and four miscarriages. Meanwhile, a few Georges and a William later, Victoria‘s famous fruitfulness was widely seen as a positive statement about British greatness in an imperial age: the truly maternal monarch, whose offspring gave England royal relations in Hesse, Prussia (though post-1914 we didn’t talk about that), and Russia (oops).

Queen Of My Heart.

But, of course, we (along with everyone else, ho ho) have not touched on Elizabeth I, the ‘Virgin Queen’, Gloriana, etc who managed to make a virtue of childlessness by representing the immaculate body of the queen as the symbol of a healthy nation. Bang on cue, queen‘s third meaning is ‘a female whose rank or pre-eminence is comparable to that of a queen; applied, for example, to the Virgin Mary, to the goddesses of ancient religions or mythologies, or to a woman as a term of endearment or honour’. This is the sense it has in Twelfth Night when Viola is ‘Orsino’s mistress and his fancy’s queen‘, in which context it has something of lady about it, just ramped up to full throttle: someone who is also the ‘chief  ruler of a state’ is indeed a mistress par excellence.

It was this tradition that Elizabeth milked till it had no more to give, presenting herself as the adored lady at the centre of a courtly cult of virginity, an age which produced Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and Walter Raleigh’s The Ocean To Cynthia, as well as hundreds of portraits depicting Queen Elizabeth as immaculate goddess and virgin. Her fleshlessness was only exacerbated after 1592, when the elderly queen stopped sitting for portraits at all, forcing artists to work from earlier templates of her face, creating an eternal ‘Mask of Youth’.

So queen is a word that fuses sexuality and a microscopic focus on the body (where more so than in its use to attack people for what they like to do in the bedroom?) with a kind of awestruck ‘Glorianian’ respect. Those who sit on this lexical pedestal are perhaps a little wonky: it is unfortunate that queenly success seems attainable only for those rulers who have produced litters of miniature monarchs and the one who maintained a virginal ice-princess sort of deal. But then, looking back over England’s history (and, of course, its present), it is cheering to see that Women Have At Least Done It. Now if we could just fix that male primogeniture business…

Illustration by Hodge: Q is for Queen. Green initial letter Q with a Boudicca-style warrior queen in a green cloak, wearing blue woad-style warpaint and gold arm torcs, standing holding a sword.

NEXT WEEK: R is for Rake

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Pet Jeffery permalink
    February 7, 2011

    A sense of “queen” that you don’t mention is “adult female cat”. Pair this with the etymological connection with “cunt” (how come did I never guess that?) and we seem to be back to “pussy”. Crumbs!

  2. Pet Jeffery permalink
    February 7, 2011

    Standing by the statue of Boudica at the end of Westminster Bridge last summer, I remarked to a Mexican friend that the English love their queens. And I think that England may be unique amongst nations in having queens reigning during two high watermarks of their culture and position as a world power. (I say “England” because Elizabeth’s reign didn’t extend over the Scots… Perhaps I should say “English and Welsh”, but I don’t think the Welsh were anything like equal partners in Elizabeth I’s kingdom… and it was still a “kingdom”, not a “queendom”.)

    Anyway, it was under Elizabeth that England defeated the Spaniards and became a world power for the first time. Virginia was named after the queen, which underlines the justice of your remarks, Hodge… emphasising her virginity in naming the New World. It was also a time English culture flowered — Shakespeare, and all that.

    Elizabeth’s reputation led to the coining of the phrase “the new Elizabethan age” during my childhood (the 1950s). The phrase didn’t last, of course, because the promise it implied never materialised. But it’s symptomatic of the regard accorded to Elizabeth I.

    And Victoria’s reign marked, of course, the greatest extension of Britain (now with the Scots on board) as a world power. The map of the world was a mass of pink. (Interesting, but presumably a coincidence, that pink is now a colour so closely associated with girls.) When I was doing A Level history, the teacher suggested that 1901 (the year of Victoria’s death) marked the start of the decline of the British Empire.

    Culturally, Victoria’s reign saw a flowering of the English novel. Such famous London landmarks as the Houses of Parliament and Tower Bridge date to Victoria’s reign… and so do a startlingly large number of houses (including the one in which I live). The huge number of Victorian houses in London seems to imply that London, as we know it today, was essentially a Victorian creation.

    Of course both Elizabeth’s and Victoria’s reigns have their underbellies. When Maggie Thatcher used to bang on about restoring Victorian values, I thought: “including widespread child prostitution?” But Mrs Thatcher’s ill-considered words reflect a widespread rosy view of our queens’ reigns.

    As you say: “Now if we could just fix that male primogeniture business…” And, I might add, extend some of the high regard to every bird, bint, bitch, chick, doll, female, girl, hysteric, infant, jade…

    • Hodge permalink
      February 7, 2011

      I’ve always sort of felt the Victorian age was a great time for culture rather more in spite of Victoria than because of her. She had famously never read a novel, despite the existence of George Eliot, Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, Hardy, the Bronte sisters, etc, etc, during her reign and she patronised instead some of the the most dodgy aspects of the nineteenth century. Didn’t believe lesbianism existed, horrible colonialist and extremely personally boring, from all accounts. I suppose it’s important to remember that the presence of a woman in power (cf also Margaret Thatcher) is not a good thing intrinsically, although it’s good women should have the opportunity: just like men, women come in all stripes and colours.

      • Pet Jeffery permalink
        February 7, 2011

        Absolutely, Hodge! Just like men, women come in all stripes and colours. And it’s good that women should have the opportunity. Unfortunately, at least in my opinion, playing politics and the pursuit of power call for an extremely unpleasant personality. So the women who wield power are apt to be far from the most genial members of their sex. Indeed, since opportunities are not equal, women probably have to be nastier than men to gain and hold on to power. I think that it was, sadly, inevitable that our first female prime minister would be a woman who could beat the boys at their own nasty little games.

        I think that Elizabeth may have been a similar case. She may have gained the throne by right of birth, but keeping it surely entailed deep defilement in Tudor politics.

        Victoria was clearly different. Being boring may have (almost) been a requirement. I wonder, had she been more interesting, whether some means would have been found to ease her from the throne. (Although, presumably, unlike Elizabeth, nobody would have wished to behead her.) And patronising (as you put it) “some of the the most dodgy aspects of the nineteenth century” may have been pretty well mandatory for a monarch at that time. (Interesting, though, that you use the word “patronised”, with its etymology in fatherhood.)

        I’ve sometimes wondered about Victoria not believing that lesbians existed. However naive she may have been, is that really possible? Was it (perhaps) a convenient way to dismiss a subject on which she preferred not to dwell? (I find it impossible to believe, though, that she was either a lesbian or pro-lesbian.)

  3. Pet Jeffery permalink
    February 7, 2011

    If I may insert an Amazon plug, this CD is interesting: …there are, of course, other online shops which may offer this long-deleted disc…

    It’s a compilation of gender-role subverting tracks… mostly old recordings of women singing songs intended for men, and vice versa (a notable, jarring, example is Hutch singing “Ten Cents a Dance”). It also includes some songs in themselves gender-subverting. (The best is Ronald Frankau’s “Uncle Bill Has Much Improved”… I think the only one of them I’ve downloaded to my iPod.) The reason I mention the CD in the context of “queen” is Judd Rees’ 1934 song “The King’s a Queen at Heart”. It’s a fairly early example of the usage “Queen as ‘a flamboyant homosexual’”. The song is jaunty and suggests to me that a “queen” in this sense was more a figure of fun than of opprobrium.

  4. Pet Jeffery permalink
    February 14, 2011

    A queen who has only just come to mind is she of chess. I regard chess as a boring game, perhaps because I’m very bad at it, but the roles of the queen and king are interesting — in that they seem to reverse stereotypical gender roles. The king is the ineffectual damsel in distress, whom all of the other pieces strive to either menace or protect. The queen is the most free-moving piece (if she wears a crinoline, its function is to sweep all before her, and she’s definitely not in stilettos) — and the most powerful. She is the action hero.

    • Stephen B permalink
      February 14, 2011

      I read a good interpretation of chess as the ultimate patriarchal game – you must destroy your enemy, everything is black or white, everything revolves around the King, the Queen is a threat, and there are nice known rules and straight lines everywhere.

      It’s pretty infantile on an emotional level, which is why I eventually got bored of it. Yes, you can create great things within its absolutely uncompromising framework, but I’d rather have something with a bit humanity to it.

      • Miranda permalink*
        February 14, 2011

        “Amazon” is also an early word for the Queen chesspiece, Hodge discovered in A is for Amazon. Which I liked, though it’s now sadly obsolete.

        • Pet Jeffery permalink
          February 14, 2011

          If chess players started to call the queens “amazons” again, it could be revived. Is anyone connected with Bad Rep a chess player? Or with any influence on a chess player?

          • Miranda permalink*
            February 14, 2011

            Not to my knowledge. But then again, one of us just started building an engine in the garden (stay tuned for the post about it!), so for all I know there are more hidden hobbies where that one came from!

  5. March 24, 2011

    Hi there,

    Thanks for citing on your lovely blog! We’ve just returned some link juice back on our forum ( and facebook pages (

    Keep up the great work!

    The STANDS4 team

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