Hazel Katherine Larkin asks why some of us find it so difficult to say the word ‘vagina’ and looks at some of the euphemisms for it that have cropped up over the years. It’s the battle of vajayjay versus vagina.
Naomi Wolf ’s recently published a book entitled Vagina. Interviewed on Newstalk, Ms Wolf complimented Seán Moncrieff on his pronunciation of the word. Most people, she told him at least ‘giggle’ when saying ‘vagina’. Most people, I suspect rarely – if ever – allow the word to pass their lips. For some reason, ‘vagina’ is a word that people of both sexes find difficult to use. So we have a whole slew of different words for ‘down there’ (which drives me mad – ‘down there’ refers to my feet!).
Each of our substitute words is fraught with its own difficulty. I think part of the problem is that vaginas are named by the men who desire/despise them, rather than the women who own them.
Words like muff, pussy, beaver and box – to name just a few – are offensive on some level. And that’s before we go near the most offensive of all – the ‘c’ word.
These are clearly not words that women would invent – or even use – with any sort of comfort. ‘Fanny’ is probably the least-offensive term for the female genitalia, and is taken from the title of John Cleland’s book Fanny Hill or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1748). The only difficulty with this term is that it doesn’t cross the Atlantic well. A fanny in the US is a bottom. The kind you sit on. Not a ‘front bottom’ – which is another terrible term that gained popularity among ‘nice’ mothers of ‘nice’ girls in the 1970s and 1980s. As a girl with several brothers, I remember feeling short-changed because my brothers had ‘willies’ as well as ‘bums’. According to my mothers, I had two bums.
One feminist I know refuses to use the word ‘vagina’ because it means ‘sheath’ in Latin. In this context, the vagina is a sheath for the penis. My friend argues that the sheath belongs to the owner of the sword – but she alone owns her vagina. Instead, she uses yoni – a Sanskrit word meaning ‘sacred passage’. While I think that’s altogether prettier, I find it sounds a bit pretentious. Also, it only refers to the vagina and not whole genital area. ‘Pudenda’, which refers to the external genitalia, comes from the Latin word for ‘shame’; so I tend to use ‘vulva’ even though that word means – mind-bogglingly – ‘wrapper’.
Recently, vajayjay has become en vogue as a ‘nice’ word for female genitals. Originally coined by writers on Grey’s Anatomy, the word was popularised by Oprah Winfrey. Personally, I find vajayjay offensive. It’s like baby-talk. And infantilising women’s genitals is not something I’m comfortable with.
To be honest, I’m not happy with euphemisms in general. I don’t have a euphemism for my hand, or my foot, or my back, or my eyes. Why on earth would I want one for my genitals? Euphemisms are words and terms we apply to other words and terms we are embarrassed by, ashamed of, or uncomfortable with. I am very reluctant to perpetuate the notion that genitals are anything to be embarrassed by or ashamed of.
Wouldn’t frank, open, respectful, discussion diffuse the shame and embarrassment around sex and sexuality that so permeates our society?
Say it how it is
Years before I became a parent, I decided that euphemisms were not the way to go – and so I taught my daughters (I only have daughters) that their vulvas are the bits they can see and their vaginas are the bits they can’t.
This caused a bit of consternation a few years ago when my (then) two-year-old witnessed my sister-in-law changing my nephew’s nappy.
‘His vagina’s broken!’ she gasped.
My sister-in-law’s daughter (who was eight at the time) was horrified.
‘Did you hear what she said?’ she asked her mother in hushed, scandalised tones.
‘He doesn’t have a vagina,’ I explained cheerfully to my daughter. ‘He has a penis.’
‘Winkle!’ my sister-in-law ‘corrected’ me.
I did wonder what she had instructed her daughter to call what she keeps in her knickers – but wasn’t brave enough to ask.
Hazel Katherine Larkin has a BA (Hons) in Psychology and an MA in Sexuality Studies.
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