Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Words We Use - 1

A few weeks ago I read an article in Time Magazine about a very successful sex education program, and one of the things this program was proud of doing was teaching kids the "proper" names for sexual organs and activities, rather than the "street" terms.

Now, I've had a long-standing beef with the idea is that there are "proper" and "vulgar" names for our sexual organs and sexual activities

Why? Because those "proper" names are merely the Latin-based clinical medical terms that we wouldn't use for any other parts of the body. After all, do we talk about putting the ring on the bride's "digit," in particular her "digitus quartus?" Of course not. We call a finger by its common English name: finger.

So what's up with using the "proper" terms of penis, testicles, vagina, etc instead of those words everyone else knows, and a few cute euphemisms that I've heard over the years? Well, frankly, everything sounds good in Latin. Or to put it a little differently, nothing sounds bad in Latin. When I was in high school, I heard of a family on Long Island whose crest included the inscription Semper superamus - fraudamus. Sounds impressive. But when you translated it into English, it became, "We always win. We cheat." The entire point of the Latin-based terms was to make it possible to talk about sex in "polite" company.

But here's my real problem with those terms. They're just too cold and clinical. They're not warm, fuzzy, and user-friendly. They're Gray's Anatomy, and not The Joy of Sex. For Pete's sake, they're medical terms.

Yes, I know The Joy of Sex uses those cold medical terms. There is something to be said for a standard terminology for public discourse. But why couldn't the standard terminology be the Anglo-Saxon terms that we're told "aren't proper," but all know?

And the Latin terms don't really mean what we make them mean in Latin. If my Internet sources are correct, "penis" comes from the word for "tail" and "vagina" comes from the word for "sheath." Looks like a little Roman slang, if you ask me. I wonder what the ancient Romans really called their "naughty bits."

With that in mind, I've had an image in my head for years of some poor little Roman kid getting his mouth washed out with soap for saying one of what we would consider the "proper" terms, and his mother telling him that from now on she only wants to hear him use what we would consider one of the offensive Anglo-Saxon terms.

Now that I think about it, this gets me to wondering. Is English the only language that hides its sexual terminology behind Latin words, or do other languages do it too? Are there any French, Spanish, Italian, German, etc speakers out there who want to let me know how their languages deal with this?

But getting back to the point, I just can't imagine anyone using those clinical terms behind closed doors. That would seem to me about as much of a turn-on as starting off the evening by asking your date if she'd like a collection of Dianthus caryophyllus. I'm betting that, in private, most people are using the good old "street" or "vulgar" terms that I consider informal and "user-friendly."

So I decided to find out once and for all. I've set up a two-question, anonymous, online survey, asking about sexual terminology. You can get to it by going to www.tinyurl.com/keg-terminology. 86 people have taken it so far. I figure that if all of my blog readers take it, and then forwards it on to their friends, I might get a whopping hundred.

I'll let you know what the results are in a few weeks.


  1. I was thinking about this and thought you'd like a couple additional interesting perspectives- there is sociollogical discussion about the meaning of language to people, and when letters become something more than there whole. While one viewpoint is that our use of language is not always consistant with another viewpoint is that language is not used to describe societal norms, but rather createsand is inseprable from our sense of the world. More on this available by researching the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Cited from wikipaedia: 1. Structural differences between language systems will, in general, be paralleled by nonlinguistic cognitive differences, of an unspecified sort, in the native speakers of the language.
    2. The structure of anyone's native language strongly influences or fully determines the worldview he will acquire as he learns the language. Eric Lenneberg, 1953.(cited in Brown 1976:158)

    Another view regarding the signifigance of these words can be taken from a gender-based relativity perspective. While neither gernder's "vulgar" terms would be used in some settings, and both used in other, intimate settings, I would expect that the "street" terms for genitalia would be taboo in some
    instances depending on the sex of the conversants. For example, members of the same sex might discuss their own, or other people of the same sex's, genitals casually, whereas not as frequently in mixed-gender casual settings. Additionally, street terms for female genitalia are often used in terms of sexual control, objectification, or domination by men. As women are societally viewed as more sexually vulnerable than men, the use of these terms in any instance can seem more vulgar than the female use of terms regarding men's equipment. Not to say women don't use the words, even with the same level of regularity but the severity of the male terms is lessened by men's established reputation as sexual aggressors.

    Food for thought.

  2. You're preachin' to the choir here. ;-)