We think language exists so that we can make ourselves understood and express the ideas inside us. What if language was the thing that shapes us and the ideas we think?

Take the outcry against the US Republican candidate Todd Akin who said in an interview that it was extremely rare for women to get pregnant from “legitimate rape.” Most of us don’t feel that a right-wing, middle-aged man who has fathered six children is the go-to authority on female reproduction, but what fascinates me is the way language slithers around in the pit of rape polemics.

He apologised for the term “legitimate”, said it was clumsy. It’s a tautology anyway. But the fact is that he is one of the sponsors of a law put before US Government which uses the equally tautological term  “forcible rape”. The aim of it is to withdraw taxpayer funding for abortions, including for victims of rape.

If you look up the modern French word for rape, you’ll get “Viol”. It’s related to violation. But if you go back into Old French there is no equivalent word. The word for rape back then was “esforcer” (force) as in “fame esforcer”. The word force derives from the Latin “fortis”, meaning strong. The medieval knight was a power-lord, and rape was an act of aggression used in war.

By the 13th century, the French word was “raptus”. You can see where “rape” comes in. However, the latin root for this word is “rapere”, which means to carry off, rob or abduct (especially a woman). The truth of it is that it’s a word describing a crime against property. The laws concerning raptus were made by men and applied to men who stole the property of men. The same Latin word also gives us “rapture”, which pulls us back full-circle to force and an outcome that’s different from the onset. And “violare” means to injure, outrage or dishonour. Crimes against property, again.

Not much better with the Old French word “ravir”, meaning to ravish (to seize by force) which is where “ravished” comes from. By the time we’re using middle English as influenced by the Normans, the word is “ravysshed”. The other meaning of ravished is to be held spellbound, as in a mystical experience, so when Chaucer writes in The Canterbury Tales that “ye han ofte tyme herd telle how that a frere ravysshed was to helle in spirit ones by a visioun” he’s talking about how a Friar sees images of Hell in a Vision.

So what the hell is this American politiican trying to say? He’s got this notion that a raped woman can’t become pregant because “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Where did he get that from? The answer is that there was an early medical debate between followers of Aristotle (the “one seed” theory of conception) and later thinkers such as a Roman doctor called Galen (129-161 AD) who argued for the “two-seed theory”. The idea is that both men and women produce a “seed” and both are required for conception. Because orgasm is what makes the seed, it follows that non-consenting sex without orgasm can’t result in pregnancy. Todd Akin therefore believes that chastity is a form of contraception.

We read Islamophobes telling us that Sharia law will take us back to 6th century morality. Now we have US politicians guiding us with 2nd century ideas. Sometimes it’s hard these days not to feel like a walnut in the jaws of a tough metal nutcracker.

I don’t trust the Politicians. I don’t much trust Language either.