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This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, answer a phonecall from language but all I can hear is breathing.
Content note about today’s show: expect rich words about sexual acts and associated body parts.
So get out now if it’s not appropriate for you to listen to a discussion of flanges, belltowers, collywobbling, curds and whey, furious eels…
Let’s lube up for that with some word history, sponsored by Living Language from Penguin-Random House. It’s the self-study language program available in forty languages, which you can learn at your own speed via books, apps, online materials, and e-tutorials with native speakers. Fun fact: the program was developed in 1946 for diplomats and service personnel being posted overseas. They probably weren’t using it to learn Dothraki in those days. But you can, if you want - or Spanish, or Chinese, or Arabic, or English - go to livinglanguage.com/Allusionist to receive your free 1-month course.
Right, etymology time. In episode 21, we learned the origin of ‘penis’, from the Latin for ‘tail’; now it’s time for the etymology of ‘vagina’, which word has been around in English since about the 1680s. That meaning of ‘bodily passage’ was a specialised modern medical Latin sense of the older Latin word ‘vagina’, meaning a scabbard or sheath or husk, like a corn husk. That’s nice, isn’t it - the comparison of a vagina either to something withered and dry, or to a receptacle for a weapon. One interpretation would be that modern medical Latin was instituted by men who were either bitter, or self-aggrandizing - it’s not a sword, gentlemen. It's not a sword.
Quite a lot of genital words’ etymologies show the body part was just named after something it seemed to resemble.
'Glans': Latin for acorn. 'Pelvis': Latin for basin or bucket. 'Clitoris' is from Greek, could be from the verb ‘kleiein’, to sheathe, because it’s covered, or from the noun form of the word ‘kleis’, which meant ‘key’. Another possibility is it’s from ‘kleitys’, ‘the side of a hill’. So either a view of the whole arrangement as a lock and key, or zooming in so closely, all you can see is a hill.
An exception to the ‘things that look a bit like other things’ genital etymologies is the word ‘pudendum’: it derives from the Latin verb ‘pudere’, meaning to be ashamed. Your genitals were known as the things to be ashamed of. What are you supposed to do, hope that if you ignore them they’ll go away? The vocabulary of sex is laced with shame and condemnation - think of how many words there are like dirty and filthy.
Which returns me to the predicament we were discussing at the end of the previous episode: the deficiencies of the vocabulary for sex. Many of us find that the available words are too scientific to be romantic, too ridiculous to be sexy, or too florid to be said without choking on your own laughter.
MM: I am Mhairi McFarlane.
HZ: Mhairi McFarlane has written several romantic comedy novels, so I asked her how she puts sex into words, without falling into romance novel cliches of heaving bosoms, throbbing members, quivering flowers. It might be easier just to leave it out entirely, but Mhairi says, as a reader:
MHAIRI McFARLANE: ...I would want there to be some shagging. But I find it interesting that some people would write a romance and not put the lust element in, because in real life we all know if you fall in love with somebody, of course there's a lust element to it. So I thought, right, I've got to get round this, because I can't leave it out as a convenience to me.
So the accommodation I came to was that I would write the kind of leading up to the shag, because I think a big part of it is: it's not just you want to know if they've shagged; you actually want to know what the words are leading up right to them falling into bed together, and how it's all transacted between the two of them. I don't think you need to be there for the next hour or two, to be in the room, if you know what I mean.
Then I tend to cut to what's happening straight after, and the kind of postcoital thing. So you tend to have a fair old idea of what's happened, and whether it has gone well. But you're never there during the actual act. So it's a kind of sex scene and it's kind of not. But I really did think about this, because I was trying to think: Why are books sex scenes so often awful and so often unsuccessful? And my theory is that it's because you have to start naming body parts.
HZ: A hurdle that a visual medium such as film does not necessarily have to vault.
MHAIRI McFARLANE: But I think there are a lot more euphemistic tools at the disposal of a filmmaker and a director than there are of a novelist. And the problem with the novelist is, you have to start naming the anatomy and what's happening in quite a technical way. And once you start naming the anatomy, your basic choices are medical textbook or soft core porn, really. There aren't cool names. It's either it's either 'penis' or 'dick' isn't it, or a comedy word. And then it all starts getting very very uncomfortable.
KAITLIN PREST: Maybe it's because we're still culturally a little bit frightened or embarrassed around sex, a lot of the words around sex come off as jokes.
HZ: This is Kaitlin Prest, one of the hosts and producers of my Radiotopian sibling, the Heart. The show is about intimacy, and I think they do a magnificent job of portraying people’s relationships with their bodies, sex, emotions -
KAITLIN PREST: It's hard to describe feelings with words, with the English language that we have.
HZ: Oh good. It's not just me.
KAITLIN PREST: No! Oh my god! I've dedicated my entire life to trying to do this and I still find it close to impossible. It's hard to take a physical experience that is quite vivid and try to filter it through our brain, which is rational and intellectual, and then come out with a piece of language that can get at even the beginning of what that physical experience is like.
HZ: Stupid useless language!
KAITLIN PREST: I have had to face the question of “how do I translate this experience in writing?” I've done a million pieces about masturbating, like how do you how do you put to words what's going on here in a way that actually translates the experience? The experience of masturbating is really sexy, but even the word 'masturbate' is disgusting. It's my favorite thing to do. Least favorite thing to say.
HZ: So do you have a word that you prefer for it?
KAITLIN PREST: But that's the thing! There's no alternative that feels right to me. No.
HZ: The etymology of ‘masturbate’ is thought to be a contraction of two Latin words: ‘manus’, meaning hand, as in ‘manual’, and ‘stuprare’, to defile. So, altogether, to defile oneself with one’s hand. Now, this etymology is not certain, so it’s possible that an etymologist of the past speculated that the word had to have some element of shame, because synonyms for masturbation so often do. For instance Onanism, coined from the Book of Genesis character Onan, who ejaculated on the ground rather than into his brother’s widow to impregnate her, and as punishment was slain by God. This was interpreted by religious scholars over many centuries as divine criticism of semen being released for any cause aside from procreating, including the act that also got termed ‘self-pollution’, ‘self-abuse’.
KAITLIN PREST: That is so funny! I forgot about the word self abuse as a term for masturbation. That really brightened my day.
HZ: You've gone right back to Catholic boys’ school in the 1930s.
KAITLIN PREST: Actually I was brought up Catholic which I think is where a lot of these weird feelings come from. I'm going to go home and self-abuse - no, it doesn't sound right. 'Jerk off'. I guess I use jerk off a lot but that also doesn't really quite seem right. 'Rub one out' is another term that I have used but don't feel quite right about. 'Wank'.
HZ: 'Wanking'. That's the term in Britain really.
KAITLIN PREST: It feels very British. I don't think people could say it here with a straight face. I've heard a couple of people say it but it sounds a bit funny.
HZ: Maybe that's why we can cope with it. We have a lot of stupid words for sex because I think people can't cope with being honest about it. It's a national stereotype, but there's some truth in it.
KAITLIN PREST: That makes sense. Maybe part of it is that there's something really really overly earnest about unfettered sexual arousal or desire, and if you're really earnestly saying the words without joking about it, there's something uncomfortable about how earnest it is.
HZ: Discomfort may have characterised the sex lexicon - sexicon - for a very long time. Think of the Latin words that seem scientific and formal now - vagina, penis, glans, as aforementioned 'sheath', ‘little tail’, ‘acorn’ - those are all nicknames, really, for those body parts.
Sometimes the nicknaming takes the form of human names: dick, Johnson, John Thomas, or perhaps one you’ve selected yourself - the example familiar to everyone raised on the work of Judy Blume is ‘Ralph’, in her novel Forever, the love interest Michael has named his penis ‘Ralph’, which is disturbing firstly because it insinuates that he thinks of his penis as an independent, sentient being, and secondly because Ralph was also Judy Blume’s father’s name.
Psychological repercussions of that aside, perhaps people give human names to their bodily organs because if you can cope with saying a word in one context, it might be easier to splutter it out in another that you find more challenging. Or maybe it’s just because the other available words are too excruciating.
KAITLIN PREST: I feel totally comfortable with talking about my discomfort saying the word 'cock'. I really do.
HZ: Why do you think it's uncomfortable? Is it because it sounds like a porny thing to say?
KAITLIN PREST: A little bit. I was never given a diversity of language around...how to talk about our body parts and our sex feelings - we just don't have that really yet. All of the words around sex are hard for me to say. Truthfully I feel much more comfortable saying Pussy now than I've ever felt and I do owe that to the women's march. I love that I get to thank Trump for the comfort that now middle age women, like my mom, how they feel saying the word 'pussy'. But pussy, cock - you know dirty talking, I find dirty talking uncomfortable. But I do it for people. But I always find it... what is it, what is it. Why am I scared? I'm trying to figure out why am I scared. Pussy, pussy, pussy. I like saying the word 'dick'; dick is OK.
HZ: Is that because it's a bit more silly?
KAITLIN PREST: I think it's because... My most formative boyfriend really liked the word 'dick', and the way he said it - he said it with a lot of confidence and that made me feel like it was OK to also say dick. But 'cock', 'pussy' - it does feel porny. When I think about my own vagina, I'm like, I don't feel like that's what it's called! It doesn't feel like that's what the name of it should be. You know what I mean. But I think you're right. I think it is because it's because the only place that you hear these words spoken is in porn. And it feels like I'm posturing something that I don't find that sexy.
HZ: So you're reflecting a male idea of what is sexy rather than your own one.
KAITLIN PREST: It's pornified. It's totally pornified.
HZ: If you’re looking for sexual words that are yet to be pornified, take a browse through some older English options. There’s ‘queynte’, the medieval equivalent of the ever-controversial star of episode 4 of this show, cunt. Or how about 'cods'? 'Fountains'? 'Hinges'? 'Secrets'? 'Uncomely parts'? 'Yard' - yeah, sure it is, chaps. And for sex itself: 'sport', 'jig', 'rantipole', 'play at all fours', 'play itch-buttocks'. The archaic term ‘joining giblets’ has to be more prophylactically effective than any True Love Waits campaign.
KAITLIN PREST: I personally call it - I like calling it my V. I call it my V.
HZ: V works because it's not only an abbreviation, it's sort of descriptive.
KAITLIN PREST: Yeah. Yeah exactly. Because it is kind of a V. I love calling it my V. I don't know why; I sometimes I worry that I'm saying V also because I'm secretly still scared to say, to name that part - you know what I mean. Is it out of shame that I'm calling it my V? But it's become sexy to me. I like V.
HZ: And do you have a phallic equivalent?
KAITLIN PREST: D.
KAITLIN PREST: I call sex 'P to V'. That's like my term. I do call it P to V but another former girlfriend of mine sort of chastised me for using it that way. She was like, that is not sexy at all. There's nothing remotely sexy about calling it P to V.
HZ: Very heteronormative as well.
KAITLIN PREST: Well that's the reason why I called it P to V, was because I was like, we need to get more specific: so I sometimes call it P to V; we can call it M to V; we can call it H to V; we can call it V to V. Or H to P, M to P, P to B. This system works for me.
HZ: It requires quite a lot of concentration, when you might not be feeling that verbal at a critical time.
KAITLIN PREST: Only works - it doesn't work when you have to say them all in a row. But it does work when you... anyways, it's more of a technical term. I use this whenever I'm describing what happened to friends of mine. I never use it while the things are happening. I'm never like, "Hey, do you want to give me some M to V?"
HZ: Good to know - nothing kills the moment like having to check the spreadsheet to decode what you’re supposed to be putting where.
KAITLIN PREST: I would really love to see some more options.
HZ: We're going to get them for you, Kaitlin.
KAITLIN PREST: I would really appreciate that. I need help.
HZ: Between Urban Dictionary and Roger’s Profanisaurus, there must be thousands and thousands of synonyms for every sexual act and each of the associated body parts. We couldn't cover all of them in this episode, it was just the tip. Of the iceberg. Which words work for you? I’m particularly interested to hear from you if you’re a sex educator of some kind, or a parent who’s been having The Talk with your offspring, or were yourself taught particularly well by such people: what are the words that don’t make you cringe or blush or laugh?
KAITLIN PREST: As a test that's a really good one. Can you say this without laughing? Or feeling the weird like butterfly embarrassment feelings. Or is it sexy? Does it feel sexy to you? I guess that's the question.
This episode is sponsored by Blue Apron, who create well-balanced meals, box up all the ingredients with an easy-to-follow recipe card, and drop them off at your door. It's minimal hassle to feed yourself a freshly cooked dinner, and it's also a great way to try new things. Had I encountered ingredients like fregola and pink lemons before Blue Apron sent them my way? No, I had not! I’ve led a sheltered life! Visit blueapron.com to peruse the dishes Blue Apron is serving up each week, to get free recipes, and to read up on Blue Apron’s commitment to ethically sourced ingredients and responsible agricultural practices. And, if you live in the contiguous United States, you can take advantage of this marvellous offer: get your first three Blue Apron meals free, plus free shipping, by visiting blueapron.com/allusionist.
The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a collection of the best podcasts on the interwaves. Such as The Heart - Kaitlin Prest and Mitra Kaboli and their team do such a beautiful job of exploring the human body and mind in a frank and artistically ingenious way. I'd particularly recommend it to young adults whose sexual identity is developing. Hear the Heart, and all the Radiotopian shows, at Radiotopia.fm.
Radiotopia is possible thanks to the largesse of you listeners, the Knight Foundation, and Mailchimp. Mailchimp’s randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
debridement, noun, medicine: the removal of damaged tissue or foreign objects from a wound.
Try using it in an email today.
The Allusionist was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, with thanks to Kaitlin Prest, Mhairi McFarlane and Dawn Foster. The music is by Martin Austwick. Seek out allusionistshow on Facebook and Twitter - or in person, I've got a live event coming up. I'm joining forces with Roman Mars of 99% Invisible, for a new live show, 99% Allusional. The first attempt will be on 4th April at the Oberon in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and at time of recording, there were only a handful of tickets left. I'll link to the event, and to Mhairi’s novels, and as always to the word of the day and other material related to this episode, at theallusionist.org.