Hath not a woman eyes? Hath she not hands, organs, dimensions, senses?

I don’t want to get into the general debate surrounding the C-word – whether or not it’s misogynistic, whether it’s possible to “reclaim” it, whether it’s unacceptable to say it on television. But it is a very good example of how a euphemism in the wrong hands can prove more offensive than the unobscured meaning.

It probably started in the way that many euphemisms start: with the dilemma of how you report someone else’s speech if you think that one of the words used is unrepeatable.  In the case of the C-word, people started saying things like “a coarse word for part of the female anatomy”, “a slang word for a certain part of the female anatomy”, etc.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where a lot of people are happy to use long words without troubling to check what they mean. Many of those people have (incorrectly but understandably) guessed from context that “female anatomy” is a posh phrase denoting the vagina (and nothing else) and begun using the phrase with that intended meaning.

I hope it’s obvious why seeing “female anatomy” as synonymous with “female genitals” is misogynistic as well as a great way of failing medical school. But I want to go back and look at the misogyny in the original euphemism.

People using euphemisms like “a certain part of the female anatomy” are trying to convey that the word they’re talking about is a well-known swearword which can be both an insult and a slang term for a woman’s vagina. But there’s no need to do this. If you have a genuine desire to protect the listener from swearwords, you don’t need to make any effort to convey the specific swearword. Just say “He used a swearword to insult him”.

If you get specific in your description of the swearword, you are trying to evoke that word in the listener’s mind. That’s an acknowledgement that both you and your listener are familiar with the word. And by choosing a euphemism that emphasises the word’s literal meaning, you are bringing the literal and non-literal meanings together.

Then, of course, there’s the odd choice of vocabulary. A lot of people, when faced with the task of reporting offensive speech, will go for a kind of jokey floweriness in the language they use, e.g. “go forth and multiply”, “extracting the u-rine”, etc. But I think the choice of the phrase “female anatomy” is more significant than that. For a start, why not use one of the hundreds of existing synonyms for “vagina”? Or, if you really can’t bear to say any of those words, why not go for the more natural-sounding “part of a woman’s body”?

Because saying “a certain part of the female anatomy” is a distancing technique in which the quasi-medical language makes the object of the description seem more dirty and problematic.

So you’re reminding your listener of a word which links the vagina and insults; you’re reminding your listener that our culture connects women’s bodies with bad language; you’re implying that even ordinary words for the vagina aren’t suitable to say out loud; and you’re doing all that without even cursing. Talk about having your c*** and eating it.

As for the idiots who think that “female anatomy” is a fancy way of describing a woman’s genitals, you can’t stop them being stupid but you can have some fun with them. From this moment onwards, I therefore decree that “synecdoche” is an even more fancy euphemism for, y’know. A woman’s… y’know. Spread the word!

Explore posts in the same categories: euphemism, feminism, misogyny

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