Words for Women



Examine, if you will, the following three sentences.  First:

        “In some ways all human beings are the same.”

There is nothing objectionable about this sentence.  In fact, quite to the contrary, if anything the sentiment is reassuring and smacks of hope for the future; the sort of thing you expect to hear people say at Christmastime.  Second:

        “In some ways all men are the same.”

Once again, no-one would be bent out of shape.  Yes, in the English language we’ve got that confusion about whether men here means humans or males, but even if it were specified that the sentence concerns males, there’s nothing inherently insulting about it.  Virtually everyone is inclined to agree with the sentiment, and instantly and involuntarily starts making a mental list of the ways in which all males are indeed the same, most of which are harmless and amusing.  Finally:

        “In some ways all women are the same.”

As you knew right away upon reading it, all of a sudden this sentence is objectionable.  But why?  Logically, it is a subset of the first sentence, and so must be true if the first sentence is.  Forgetting even the first sentence, it is also logically implied by the second sentence:  if all males, and only males, are similar in ways XYZ, then all females are ipso facto similar insofar as they are not males.  Furthermore, it is (as are the first two sentences) inarguably true in hundreds of ways no-one can dispute:  all women breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, all women are warm-blooded, all women lack prehensile tails, and so forth.

But of course, these are not the traits to which we assume the sentence refers.  So what are?  Presumably, in the mind of someone who finds the sentence objectionable, it is being spoken by a man and the traits being referenced are harmful or silly stereotypes:  all women are addicted to shopping, all women are obsessed with marriage, all women are bad at telling jokes, etc.  Sure, the sentence could be Oprah talking about how all women have ESP or something, but this is not the first context that pops into our heads.  And even someone who does not find the sentence objectionable personally will still recognize it as something it would be better not to say, because many others will find it so.

The question, then, is why, when all three sentences are presented out of context, do people assume malice where the third sentence is concerned, but not the others?  Absolutely, malice is possible, but it is possible in the other cases as well.  The sentence about men being the same could be coming from a radical feminist or pissed-off stand-up comedienne and setting up comments that are quite critical, even damning — but this is not the first context we assume.  The sentence about human beings could be setting up a derogatory slam about Earthlings from a speciesist Martian — but (obviously) this is again not the first context we assume.

So the problem is that, unless we have first received explicit specifications to the contrary, our default interpretation is that all statements about women are insulting and motivated by a desire to belittle or wound.  Conversely, ambiguous statements about men (or humans generally) are given the benefit of the doubt.

The goes not only for statements about women, but even applies to mere terms for women, designed simply to refer to human females as a category and nothing else.  “Chicks” is just an Anglicization of the Spanish chiquita, or “young woman.”  Why is it offensive again?  “Skirts” is an example of metonymy, identifying women via an article of their clothing; if we called men “pants,” would anyone care?  A “dame” is the female equivalent of an English knight, and the word itself is just Old English for mother — how in the hell did an honorific title become offensive?  I have even known people to be upbraided from time to time for using “ladies.”  What is the problem with any of these words — is it just that we imagine them being spoken by smarmy assholes?

Fine.  But you could imagine the words “spoon,” “microscope,” and “giraffe” being spoken by a smarmy asshole if you wanted to.

…Or, you could not.

An NYC slam poetess from a few years back had a poem about how a word besides “wet” needed to be invented to refer to the state of female sexual arousal.  “Wet,” she argued, was offensive because “that’s what umbrellas and dogs are.” 

Okay.  Well, men could decide that the term “hard” is offensive because “that’s what stale cheese and calculus tests are,” if we wanted to.

…Or, you know, not.

“Wet” and “hard” are both merely the simplest literally denotative terms for the female and male states of arousal, respectively.  There is no conceivable reason why one should be seen as “offensive” and the other not.  None.  Unless people choose to insist that one is offensive purely for the sake of doing so.  The common appraisal is that men are not offended by words for man things because those terms are not offensive.  In actuality, the reverse is true:  terms for man things are not offensive because men do not choose to see them as such.

baseball bat 
“Baseball bat...?!  Are you implying that all men are vampires...?!

Think about the male distaffs of terms like “chicks.”  The two most common, as far as I can tell, are guys and dudes.  As everyone knows, neither of these is offensive.  But what most people don’t realize is that both of these terms were actually originally insults.  Guy was once the French proper name pronounced “ghee,” and then caught on as an English proper name with a different pronunciation.  The most famous traitor in English history, Guy Fawkes, happened to have this name, and so in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot the name began to be used as slang for a creepy or suspicious person, as well as for the stuffed effigies of Fawkes traditionally burned on the 5th of November.  Dude was coined over two centuries later, and originally referred to a foppish or ostentatiously well-dressed man (probably derived from duds, slang for “clothes”), as in “Dude Ranch,” a cowboy-role-play vacation spot for soft city slickers.  It continued to mean something along the lines of “dandy” for several decades, and wasn’t used to refer categorically to all males until it was absorbed into the surfing slang of the 1960s.  So, far from being inherently inoffensive, the two most common contemporary casual terms for men are words that basically used to mean “criminal” and “fag.”  Why are they so completely unobjectionable now?  Because men don’t give a shit, that’s why.

Conversely, words for women that were originally not only inoffensive but actually titles of honor, like “dame,” become offensive over time.  Why?  Because women choose to be upset by them.  Now, I am certainly not saying that no objectionable words are actually objectionable.  Only a fool would try to argue that the nasty character of a term like, say, “nigger” is merely an arbitrary illusion.  That word has a history that plainly demonstrates why it is considered so hateful.  My point, rather, is that some words — particularly those used to refer to women — have histories that are legitimately the opposite, and somehow still ended up being considered objectionable, apparently merely because of the fact that they refer to women at all.

Everyone knows that “bitch,” yet another pejorative term, originally meant “female canine,” and so we can easily see why this term is considered insulting.  Until we stop and think about the fact that — once again — the male equivalent, “dog,” which was once also an insult used for cowardly or groveling men, is now a common form of address for males, equivalent to “dude.”  (We are used to the sentence “a bitch is a female dog,” but how weird does the sentence “a dog is a male bitch” sound?)  Yes, women sometimes playfully address one another as “bitch,” but like with the n-word, this is an ironic reclamation, accompanied by an eternally open dialogue about who is allowed to say it and when it should or shouldn’t be said.  Can you imagine a conversation about who is “allowed” to say dude?

 Randy Jackson
“I feel you, bitch!
…wait, that doesn’t work as well for some reason.”

I realize “bitch” was traditionally used as an insult.  But my point is, so were “guy,” “dude,” and “dog.”  In fact, “dog” is still regularly used as an insult for men by women, not only contemporaneously with its friendly usage by men for other men, but in fact for the same reasons:  a “dog” is a lifelong player (like, say, Tramp in Lady and the Tramp, which is yet another term that’s insulting when you say it about a woman), a “pussy hound” if you will.  And this is a compliment when a man says it about another man, but a reproach when a woman calls a man out on it.

Some would point out that “bitch” is technically an insult about a certain type of woman (or was, before rap usage generalized it).  But what type?  We are familiar with the feminist complaint about “assertive” women being called bitches, but is this actually how men use it?  Maybe it was in the ’50s or something, but I wasn’t alive then, and even my freaking parents were little kids.  In my lifetime, I have exclusively heard people use it about women who are acting mean or obnoxious in ways that would also be considered mean or obnoxious if a man acted thus — i.e., as the female distaff of “asshole,” because it sounds weird to call a woman an asshole.  Although I’m not sure why, since both men and women have assholes, so it’s not like saying “dick.”

“Hussy” was originally just short for husewif, “housewife” or wife.  “Minx” was a shortening of the Dutch minnekijn, “beloved.”  Both were pet names used specifically for women in relationships by their partners.  And they both eventually ended up meaning “slut.” 


There are hundreds of different words for “penis” in English.  Although many are considered impolite language generally, none of them is offensive to men — e.g., “dick” is a word for the penis that is an insult when used about a person, but is simply “normal” as a term for the penis.  It is considered a “curse word,” but not offensive to men specifically — in fact, like most “curse words,” it is more frequently thought objectionable by women than by men.  Someone who tried to come up with an offensive term for “penis” might very well find that it is actually impossible.  Similarly, there are countless different words for “vagina” in English—and all of them are considered offensive to women.

Even, to some, “vagina” itself, which is just the normal “doctor word” for it.  But actually, women who find the “doctor words” more offensive have a point:  vagina is from the Latin for “scabbard,” vulva means “wrapper,” and the most clinical and most objectionable of all, pudendum, means “thing that must be ashamed.”

Gash and slice are violent, implying castration, i.e., the absence of the “normal” penis.  More importantly, neither word is the least bit sexy, unless you are the type of guy who decorates his room with empty liquor bottles and wears shorts and a baseball cap with a jacket and tie.  And not that anybody knows this, but twat comes from Old Norse thvita, meaning “to cut off,” so it’s the same deal.

Pussy, the most common non-doctor term, is usually argued as offensive on the “it’s a word for an animal” basis.  First of all, so is cock, and men don’t care (plus cats are higher animals than roosters anyway).  And secondly, that’s not actually the etymology of pussy.  It comes from the Old Norse puss, meaning “pouch.”  So it’s no better than the literal meanings of the Latin terms, but also certainly no worse.

Poontang is from French putain or Greek/Italian putana, “whore,” so that one is legitimately offensive.  But it’s also a moot point, because no-one has actually said poontang since October of 1991 when the coolest guy in my eighth-grade class attempted to teach the rest of us that word at a sleepover party, only he was mistakenly saying Bhutan, which is a tiny Himalayan nation in which television was banned until eleven years ago.

Pictured: the flag of Poontang, according to Jay

Cooch/coochie is more complicated.  Traditionally, it’s thought to derive from coucher, the French verb for “to lie down / go to bed,” which gave rise to couchee, a noun for “bed meeting,” i.e., act of intercourse, and the rest is obvious.  A plausible alternate explanation points out that cwtch is Welsh for “cuddle” (it’s this term that is almost certainly the origin of saying “coochie-coo” to babies, which would certainly be bizarre if it meant “fuckie-vagina”).

But I’m skeptical of how long coochie has really meant “vagina,” or even “sexual intercourse” in American English.  Until mid-century, there don’t appear to be instances of its appearing separate from hoochie, as in hoochie-coochie, a style of dance that, although naughty in its day, still had a name innocent enough to be mentioned in the lyrics to “Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis” in 1904.  Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher” was “a red-hot hoochie-coocher” in 1931, and once again, though the dance itself is salacious, the name of the dance is not vulgar.  Even cooch by itself was evidently still innocent enough in 1949 for Vera-Ellen’s character in On the Town to refer to herself (repeatedly and hilariously) as a “cooch dancer.”  If the Hays Code folks made them change “hell of a town” to “wonderful town,” probably they wouldn’t have let a term that meant “vagina dancer” slide.

Hooch did then, as it does now, mean “liquor,” apparently by way of the powerful stuff brewed by the Hoochinoo, an indigenous people of Alaska.  Since one tends to find liquor and salacious dancing in the same places, the coochie part of hoochie-coochie may have just come about as a cute rhyme.  Then is the link to coucher really just a coincidence?  Well, anybody friendly enough with Eskimos to be drinking their booze in the 1800’s was probably some kind of Canadian trader who likely also spoke French, so it may have been a dirty joke that bilingual partygoers played on the ones who only knew English.  But nonsense rhymes like that are also frequently non-speaker corruptions of foreign phrases that still roughly capture the original sense (as in how, fittingly enough, hocus-pocus is a play on hoc est corpus, “this is [Christ’s] body,” from the communion of the Latin Mass).  It may derive from a longer French phrase ending in coucher, or even some approximation of Arabic, as the hoochie-coochie of the 1890s was a form of bellydancing. 

A connection to Creole or Haitian French, with voodoo overtones, is also possible.  By the time that Muddy Waters was your “Hoochie-Coochie Man” in 1954, the term certainly didn’t read as “slut-vagina,” the way it does now, but rather something darkly mystical, cluster’d around by gypsies, black cats, and the number seven.  Sexual, certainly, but more reminiscent of terms like mojo and heebie-jeebies than Parisian trysts or drunk Eskimos.  In any case, just like Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans, the term eventually conveniently divided, so that the first word refers to the entire slut and the second specifically to her vagina.

And of course, both terms are now offensive.  I’ve heard some women suggest that changing the spelling to cucci, so it’s like “Gucci,” makes it okay — but I honestly don’t see why taking a supposedly offensive word and adding materialism somehow renders it inoffensive.

Cunt, universally recognized as the most offensive word for vagina, may actually have the least offensive etymology:  we know that it goes back as far as the Middle English queynte used by Chaucer, but how it got into English before then is a mystery.  It seems like a no-brainer that it’s cognate with Latin cunnus (whence cunnilingus), but amazingly there is a long and complicated explanation of why it can’t possibly be — at least, not unless you accept the existence of a single ur-language, Proto-Indo-European (which, coincidentally, is referred to by linguists — and not just the cunning ones — as PIE), in which case it’s equally related to the Hieroglyphic ka’t, so we are really going back a ways here.  What is amazing is that all these “cunt family” words simply mean “vagina” — i.e., they are not metaphors, metonymies, comparisons, animal words, or jokes, but are all just the normal word in their respective languages for “vagina” and nothing else.  So etymologically speaking, cunt should be the only word for vagina that isn’t offensive — and yet it is the most offensive by a wide margin, simply as a holdover from the days when wealthy or educated (i.e., “classy”) people wrote in Latin and commoners in English.  (As has already been explained, the Latin words are, ironically, the ones that actually mean something insulting).

Yoni, the Sanskrit term sometimes used in new-agey sex manuals because it evokes mysticism and enlightenment and Eastern Philosophy and peace and harmony and the ’60s and all that good liberal stuff, is often held up as the official least offensive term.  But guess what?  It’s just Sanskrit for cunt.  That is, it’s the Sanskrit variation on the root discussed in the preceding paragraph.  Once again, which terms are or are not offensive is bafflingly arbitrary, and thrown off by our equally arbitrary characterizations of other cultures.  Like how the people who would get pissed that I used unnecessarily gendered terms like comedienne and poetess earlier in this essay because they think no words should be gendered tend to be the exact same people who are obsessed with France, even though in French the words for everything are gendered, even inanimate objects.

books on table
Pictured:  French gangbang

Obviously, these are not every word for “vagina.”  Compiling such a list would be impossible.  Hell, eight new words for “vagina” were probably invented in the junior high school down the block during the time I was writing this.  You know what?  Take a moment and make up a weird sound right now, preferably of one or two syllables.  Congratulations, it means “vagina.”  And is also offensive.

In fact, take any real, pre-existing word and simply add –ie to it.  Looking at the objects on my desk right now, we’ve got pennie, bookie, mousie, cellie, keysie, muggie, dishie  All of these words so clearly mean “vagina.”  Outside of modemie and keyboardie, which are a bit much, it completely works with everything else on my desk.  Actually, modemie might work if someone told you it was from some Eastern European language.  And even keyboardie might work if we finessed the spelling and pretended it was Scots — say, kibburdie.  So, yes, every single word does in fact mean “vagina” if you just put –ie at the end.   

Needless to say, all of these words are highly demeaning to women (especially dishie).  There is genuinely no word for “vagina” that is universally, or even largely, inoffensive.  But just because there’s no acceptable way to name something in speech, this doesn’t necessarily mean the thing in question is looked down upon by that culture.  It could just as easily be a mark of the highest respect.  After all, wasn’t this the case among the Ancient Hebrews when it came to referring to God?

When a woman says, “I love dressing like a whore for you,” she is tapping into and evoking something as close to magical as exists:  humanity’s limitless capacity for giving itself over to the rites of sexuality.  When her man says, “You look like a whore, and I’m going to fuck you the way a whore should be fucked,” he is acknowledging that her magic was successful.  Regardless of what words we use for them, sluts and whores are the most powerful entities of whose existence I have ever had evidence, and unless I am very much mistaken about the nature and origin of the universe, their record will never be broken.  No wonder it is a Magic Whore who rises up to challenge God in the Book of Revelation — who else possibly could?

 PDR in slut shirt
They are powerless against low Nielsen ratings, however.

Of course, to call a woman a whore in public is an insult, just as every term or phrase in English for a sexually magical woman, or her equipment, is an insult in public… and an intensely tender compliment in private.  It is, I suppose, fortunate that so many people find (or pretend to find) all these words so objectionable and shocking.  If this were not the case, they would not be nearly so much fun to say in bed.

And speaking of gender harmony, it is, it now occurs to me, entirely possible that, on some pre-programmed, subconscious level, women’s proclivity for finding words offensive is in fact a courtship display.  A mating dance.  A form of flirting.  Now, certainly an academic feminist writing an essay about why a certain term is objectionable is not consciously thinking about attracting a mate.  She may not even like men.  But this is immaterial.  A football player (who might not even like women) isn’t thinking about attracting a mate while on the field — his mind is on the game — and yet obviously sexual display is a big part of why human civilization evolved professional sports.

Human beings dance and display largely in language.  If, for example, being funny is a traditional form of male sexual display, in the sense that it is a demonstration of social dominance (we’ve certainly heard about how women want “a guy with a sense of humor”), then wouldn’t it make sense for acting unimpressed by or resistant to male language to be the female complement?  The sign that the man will have to work harder?  A woman who gets offended by things other women aren’t offended by is effectively saying “the way you talk may be good enough for these other females, but it isn’t good enough for me, because I am worth more.”  (Dating advice aimed at women does sometimes tell them not to swear, and to act offended when others swear, even if secretly they don’t care.)  A woman who does this too much (i.e., past the point that her physical attractiveness will let her get away with) will be seen as a pain in the ass — just as a man who is too macho is a dangerous bar-brawling lunatic — but the impulse to do it at all may in fact be a key aspect of the female sex drive.  After all, how better to know when a woman is yours than the moment she lets you call her something she wouldn’t let anyone else call her?  What clearer sign can a woman give that she has stopped dancing?

But as for whether any of these words are “really” objectionable, someone who decides to look hard enough for a reason why a given word is objectionable is going to find one (or failing that, make one up for others to find).  And if women continue to decide that every word for them, or for something to do with them, is offensive, then such words will continue to be so.  There is no way this could ever possibly stop.  Women will just have to keep thinking of new words for everything to do with women every five or ten years, for the rest of time, for no reason.

...Or just, you know, not.

*For much of the information touching the etymology of “cunt,” as well as many other unrelated fascinating etymological facts that continually distracted me from completing this piece, I am indebted to the research skills of fellow internet essayist Bill Casselman.

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