Let’s call it what it is
Welcome to Vagina Week
To kick off Emerald Street’s Vagina Week – a seven-day celebration of one of the most brilliant bits of our bodies – Stevie Martin looks at why it’s time to embrace that word
‘Foof’. ‘Lady Garden’. ‘Fanny’. Just some words you may use for your vagina. ‘Ninepence’. ‘Mrs Fubbs’ Parlour’. ‘Catch-em-alive-o’. Just some words you may not. Unless, of course, you’re down with particularly specific slang from the 19th century.
The world has been using synonyms for this bit of our bodies for as long as it can remember, and it started with the most infamous word in the English language. You know, the four-letter one beginning with the letter ‘c’. While its ancient origins remain disputed, etymologists believe by the time ‘Gropecuntelane’ was listed as a street amid the brothels of Southwark in the 1200s, the now-divisive nickname was in general usage. From the 16th century, it was as taboo as it is today. Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1785, sums up the vibe by describing it as “a nasty word for a nasty thing”. Thanks, Francis.
But how did the vagina come to get just so many (and, more often than not, insulting) monikers? We need to look at the English language as a whole. “Slang takes its themes primarily from sex and parts of the body,” explains author and lexicographer Jonathon Green (who has also created this most illuminating timeline), “which is why the quantity of nicknames are vast, and the themes remain repetitive.”
Let’s do a quick recap. The 1400s saw the rather unpleasant ‘things that other things go into’ category boom, with ‘socket’, ‘purse’ and ‘dock’ in common usage. (It’s a mode of thinking we still haven’t moved on from; the term vagina originates from the Latin for ‘sheath for a sword’.) With the Renaissance period came predictably floral terms as ‘altar of Venus’ and ‘ace of hearts’. In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, many were based on places (the aforementioned ‘Mrs Fubbs’ Parlour’) or, oh-so-delightfully, nods to venereal disease. Even the famously polite Victorians had a darker side. As well as introducing a host of euphemistic terms like ‘that there’ and ‘you-know-what’ (both of which sound like another way of avoiding saying Lord Voldemort’s name), terms like ‘pit of darkness’ and ‘enemy’ are also recorded. The 20th century took an interesting turn, naming vaginas after household objects (‘sewing machine’ was big in the 1950s, it seems).
What do these all have in common? None of them sound like a woman came up with them. Perhaps it’s because the records are biased – so much chronicled history has come from the traditionally male-dominated strands of literature and theatre. But even parts of the vulva that have been more-or-less neglected in the name game have been seen through the male gaze. The clitoris, for example, has been nicknamed the ‘little man’ or the ‘boy in the boat’ since the 19th century. If that doesn’t illustrate how one-sided the slang surrounding our vaginas has been, what does?
“You can see nicknames of fear, fascination and pleasure for hundreds of years and I don’t see that ever changing,” says Dr Green. What is changing, though, is the way those words are being used and interpreted by women today. I ask him whether the new wave of feminism we’re experiencing will affect the language we use. Surely the movements we have seen in recent years, from outrage at Trump’s ‘pussy’ grabbing to the #MeToo hashtag, will have an impact? “It’s impossible to say, but certainly as women cut to the chase, become more visible and use the correct word for the correct parts, there’s less need for euphemism,” he says.
And it’s happening already. Whether it’s #ThisGirlCan which celebrates active women (no matter how red our faces get), or campaigns to remove period taboos with the #BloodNormal movement, we’re no longer pussyfooting around. Pun intended. We’re no longer embarrassed, ashamed, or voiceless. Feminist groups are reclaiming the C-word (although, tellingly, we still can’t print it or our emails will go straight to your spam). We’re half the population, we have vaginas and we want to be the ones to name them. So, all this week on Emerald Street, we’ll be proudly talking about that very wonderful, weird, confusing, painful, pleasurable and brilliant thing: the vagina.
That said, we’re still partial to the odd fun nickname. Especially if it’s as excellent as the 19th century term ‘central office’.