[This is one of a series of posts on Caitlin Moran's book How to Be a Woman. Click here for other posts in this series.]
I considered not publishing this because it has explicit language, but, well, we try not to be too squeamish here on Doves and Serpents, so I’m doing it–with a WARNING upfront for our readers who are less vulgar than some of us are. ;) Also, let’s remember that words mean different things in different countries, so the offending word in this post (see below if you dare) is not as bad over the pond as it is here.
Some parts of How to Be a Woman are so funny, they left me in bed, shrieking with laughter. I’m talking about legs sticking up the air, writhing in the bed, gripping the bed sheets laughing. I often read for a bit before falling asleep, with a bedside light on. Poor Brent, he could not fall asleep long as I was reading this book. I would vow to be quiet, but then I would get to a part that was just SO FUNNY I had to read it aloud to him. Or, I would fail at trying to keep the laughter to myself and end up snorting out loud. And then end up reading the passage aloud to him, anyway. Lucky for me, he’s a really good sport.
For this post, I’ll just share a couple of the funniest parts (and really, you can’t get the full effect unless you read it yourself; trust me). I’m a huge word nerd, so I love to talk about words and learn new words. Swear words are especially fun and entertaining. (Aside: my kids love for me to tell the story of when I was in Mexico as a 15 year old girl and the people I lived with—all adults—would beg me to say swear words in Spanish, with an affected Mexican accent. They’d urge me to spew forth with a “pinche pendejo” or a “puta madre” or “pinche cabrón” and all the tíos and tías and abuelitos would all burst into laughter. Usually I don’t talk like that, so my kids can’t figure out why I was willing, as a 15 year old girl living in a foreign country, to say such bad words. I explain to them that they weren’t “bad words” to me; they were just meaningless syllables, so I didn’t feel at all bad saying them. But that’s a story for another day . . .)
Caitlin Moran tackles the words we use for “vagina.” Moran recounts how, as teenagers, she and her sister contemplated what word to use for “vagina.” They simply couldn’t say it:
I can’t say it . . . I think I’d rather pretend I don’t have one at all than say ‘vagina.’ If I injure myself and end up in a very formal hospital where they don’t allow slang words and they ask, ‘Where is the pain?’ I think that, rather than say ‘In my vagina,’ I would just reply, ‘Guess!’ and then faint. I hate the word ‘vagina.’
The problem with the word ‘vagina’ is that vaginas seem to be just straight-out bad luck. Only a masochist would want one, because only awful things happen to them. Vaginas get torn. Vaginas get ‘examined.’ Evidence is found in them. Serial killers leave things in them, to taunt Morse—like they’re the shelf in the hallway, where you leave your keys and spare change. No one wants one of those.
So, says Moran, no one actually uses the word “vagina.” People use pet names that have been passed down for generations. When Moran asked on Twitter for people’s childhood appellations, she got over 500 replies in 20 minutes. Here are some of the words she got:
What Moran calls “Lovely and/or amusing terms”:
ducky (and duck’s disease for menstruation)
bits and pieces
Terms that were clearly the result of a family in-joke:
Birmingham City Centre
Downright bizarre and/or worrying:
Sweet Fanny Adams (nickname of a murdered Victorian child)
nearly the whole of the Teletubby family – la-la, tinky, and po
As for Moran, she prefers the word cunt (ouch!)—a word that is possibly the most cringe-inducing word in US English. She says:
I like how shocked people are when you say ‘cunt.’ It’s like I have a nuclear bomb in my underpants or a mad tiger, or a gun.
Compared to this, the most powerful swear word men have got out of their privates is ‘dick,’ which is frankly vanilla and, I believe, you’re allowed to use on children’s TV if something goes wrong. In a culture where nearly everything female is still seen as squeam-inducing and/or weak—menstruation, menopause, just the sheer, simple act of calling someone ‘a girl,’—I love that ‘cunt’ stands, on its own, as the supreme, unvanquishable word. It has almost mystic resonance. It is a cunt—we all know it’s a cunt—but we can’t call it a cunt. We can’t say the actual word. It’s too powerful. Like Jews can never utter the tetragrammaton—and must make do with ‘Jehovah’ instead.
Moran then details lots of words for vagina that she doesn’t like, some, for hilarious reasons:
And ones she does like:
minge (British? Hilarious.)
The Saarlac Pit (“endless resonance, not least because, however much it wants Han Solo inside it, it never quite gets him”). [Hilarious Star Wars reference.]
So, what say ye? Do you get squeamish about the word vagina? Are you like one of Moran’s tweet-ers who have an amusing pet name? or a family in-joke related term? Or do you, like Moran, prefer to reclaim one of the more vulgar terms and use it just because it makes people uncomfortable? (Or is this just a super weird conversation to be having online?)
And perhaps more importantly, does it matter what we call it? What does it say about us–either as individuals, collectively as women, or as societies–that there’s so much shame involved here? That we give so much power to a word?
Please, D & S readers, feel free to add some of your amusing/lovely/family in-joke terms in the comments section. Anonymously, if you wish.