Sex education

The Word ‘Vagina’

Published: JULY 11, 2016
The word “vagina,” and the euphemisms we substitute for it, may have a more significant impact on us and our culture than we realize.

I’m going to preface this article by pointing out that it will contain language that some people view as strong, uncomfortable or even obscene. But that’s the point. People have strong feelings about the words we use to describe female body parts, especially one part in particular. The word “vagina,” and the euphemisms we substitute for it, may be having a more serious impact on us - and our relationship with our bodies - than we realize. So it’s probably time to talk about it. If you’re the sort who pops a monocle when faced with blunt wordplay, it might be best for you to turn back now.


The Origins of 'Vagina'

Let’s start with some etymology, which I promise is more fun than it sounds. Latin is where most of our words for sexual organs derive from. “Vagina,” as many of you know, comes from the word for “sheath,” the place a soldier puts his sword. So it’s not surprising that “Gladius,” the Latin word for sword was also commonly used to mean “penis.” Are you not entertained?

An exception to the Latin, the word “clitoris” comes from a Greek root that means “door keep” or “gate keeper.” I have to wonder why there’s no Latin word for “clitoris.” Seems a rather important thing to overlook, am I right?

The word “vulva” brings us back to a Latin root, with a root word that translates to “wrapper.” Makes sense if you think of the vulva as the wrapping on the candy that is the vagina. To this point, I should point out that the same root word from which we get “vagina” also gives us the word “vanilla.” Mmmmm.


Should We Avoid Using the Word 'Vagina'?

There are valid reasons to avoid using the word vagina. I was in college the first time I heard a woman refer to her “yoni.” I had no idea what it meant. Even when it was explained to me, I thought it was one of those strictly “feminist” words, like spelling women “womyn.” After some thought, however, it made sense not to refer to a part of my body only existing as a place for a man to put his, um … sword. A vagina has practical purposes; it's a portal of life and a source of pleasure. So why refer to it in a way that implies that its only purpose is in relation to penetrative sex? Yoni is my preferred term today, even when I have to explain it. A lot. It’s certainly preferable to the bevy of modern slang terms like “bearded clam,” or “beaver,” or the vile and ugly phrase “meat curtain.”

Ever hear someone refer to a vagina in a way that you know they’re actually talking about the vulva? Maddening, isn’t it? For example, a vagina doesn’t usually have pubic hair on it, because it’s on the inside of the body. You also can’t see someone’s vagina when her legs are closed. Even an oft-taught phrase like “Boys have a penis and girls have a vagina” is woefully inadequate, on both sides of the aisle. Even if we all titter whenever we encounter the words we use to describe sex organs, it’s worth using them if only so we all know we’re talking about the same thing. I mean, the words “muffin” or “honeypot” could refer to a vagina, but how can we know for sure? (Read: 10 Things You Don't Know About Vaginas.)

Societal discomfort with medically accurate words for body parts borders on the absurd. Children are taught to use nonsense words like “willy” or “thingy.” I’ve even seen commercials aimed at grown women that refer to lady parts as “vajayjay," "The V,” or even “mimsy.” C’mon, nobody has called it a “mimsy” since before World War II. In the 1600s, the vagina was referred to as a “chapel of ease” or a “tinderbox.” I confess, I like “tinderbox,” although I’m not sure I could ever use it without smirking.


Vagina and Misogyny

Thanks to misogyny, words for female sex organs have historically been reduced to insults. Given how awesome vaginas actually are, it’s hard to understand how being called “cunt” or “pussy” are even insults. Calling someone a majestic portal of life should be seen as a compliment. Yet, I’ve never met anyone who felt complimented when called a cunt. Why? Because widespread misogyny teaches us that being womanly is bad, weak and undesirable to all who aren’t the girliest of women. It sucks. But that’s a topic for another day.

To be fair, the vagina isn’t the only body part relegated to insult status in the American vernacular. Calling someone a “dick, prick,” or “asshole” is also common and offensive. Unlike women’s body parts, when someone is a “dick” or “prick,” they aren’t weak. They’re just pushing their power on others in an unpleasant way.

In my home state of Michigan, the word “vagina” has some vocal opponents. This past summer, a teacher claimed she was fired for using the word “vagina” in a discussion of the work of Georgia O’Keeffe. How anyone could be expected to lecture on O’Keeffe without mentioning vaginas is a mystery to me. The teacher, Allison Wint, told her local newspaper that she was told she used the word vagina “without proper approval.” In what world do teachers need staff approval before using the clinical name of a part of the human body? Is the word “penis” equally suspect? Wint also stated that, sure, the children giggled a bit at the first mention of the word. But after that, a substantive discussion took place. A substantive discussion that included the word “vagina”?! Heaven forbid!


Even the (arguably) grown-up world of politics can’t escape the hysteria attached to the word vagina. Michigan state representative Lisa Brown was silenced and asked to leave the House floor after using the word “vagina” in the context of an abortion debate. What she actually said was “I’m flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina, but no means no.” Sure, that was a bold statement about intrusive laws that restrict women’s body autonomy. However, Brown was punished like an unruly child who needed to sit in the corner and think about what she'd done.

This calls to mind the knee-jerk reaction some people have when they hear women taking ownership of the words that describe their own bodies. Leaving aside the confoundingly contentious issue of breastfeeding in public, some people are just horrified when women take ownership of the skin they live in. While some are uncomfortable with words like “vagina” or even “clit,” they have no issue with slang words for these same body parts. Maybe the O’Keeffe discussion should have included words like “snatch," "box," "slit," or "gash.” You know, to keep from offending delicate sensibilities. Maybe if Lisa Brown had asked people to keep their laws off her “punani,” she’d have been able to finish her statement in peace.

Wednesday Lee Friday

Wednesday Lee Friday is an eclectic writer of fact and fiction. She has worked as a reptile wrangler, phone sex operator, radio personality, concierge, editor, fast food manager, horror novelist, and she owns a soap shop. She prefers jobs that let her sleep during the day. Everybody knows all the best art and literature happen at night! Wednesday's work has appeared in Women's Health Interactive, Alternet, Screen Rant, The Roots of Loneliness Project and Authority...

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