Against Orthophemism



by Justin E. H. Smith

Surely no one makes the case for orthophemism as a virtue of public speech more clearly than Cicero: “When you speak of the anus,” he writes, “you call it by a name [‘anus’, i.e., ‘ring’] that is not its own; why not rather call it by its own [i.e., ‘culus’]? If it is indecent, do not use even the substituted name; if not, you had better call it by its own” (Epistolae ad familiares IX xxii).

This sounds like a reasonable enough demand: say what you mean, don’t hide it, don’t hold back. But notice what has happened in the languages that descend from Latin or that have borrowed heavily from its vocabulary: the straightshooting word (culus) has become a profanity (French cul, Spanish culo, etc.), and the word (anus) previously used for talking around what was really in question has moved in to serve as the orthophemism par excellence: doctors now say ‘anus’ to their patients to signal that they mean the actual anatomical region, with no cultural, moral, or aesthetic judgment implied; family members and other intimates will speak of their ‘butts’ or (Br.) ‘bums’; prudes and kindergarten teachers say ‘bottom’; while Lyndon B. Johnson, in celebration of his presidential might, proudly sings the song of his own ‘bunghole‘.

There is a wide array of choices here, but one senses that none gets it quite right. One senses in fact that it is impossible to get it right. All you can do is speak of the thing in question at various registers, and the trick of communication is to be able to judge what the correct register is in a given situation.

Anus started out as a euphemism, one meant to bring to mind rings in general rather than that particular sphincter (thus the noteworthy similarity to words such as the Latin annus, the Spanish año, and the English annual: all suggesting a cyclical or ring-like motion of the seasons back to where they started). Anyone who thinks that bodily opening can always be adequately discussed in total abstraction from its cultural, moral, aesthetic, etc., implications is missing out on most of what in fact motivates people to turn to this topic of conversation. We are not proctologists. If we insist too hard on using the proctological orthophemism, we will find that it, too, starts to sound funny, and we’ll have to move on to another supposed anchor of correctness. 

When it comes to words for the genital organs, the truth is I just don’t know what to say. ‘Penis’ and ‘vagina’ are out of the question. These, too, like anus, started out as Latin euphemisms. ‘Penis’ for example derives from a word for ‘tail’, and thus, like the German Schwanz, originates as a euphemism of the most common sort: a terminological displacement to another slightly more acceptable bodily part, presumably rendered safer by the fact that it is a part human beings lack. It is hard also not to believe that it is this particular lexeme that prevailed, at least for a time, in part as a result of a fortuitous impression of onomatopoeia: penises pee, just as bees buzz. It’s all so hopelessly diminutive, primitive, fundamentally unserious, notwithstanding its pretense of directness.

‘Penis’, ‘vagina’: people never just use these words, without also wanting it to be registered that they are using them. You’ve surely felt this yourself, as a speaker or a listener: the way they hang in the air, the way they demand recognition, even as the official rule of the conversational game is that one must take them straightfacedly, like adults. Like urologists.

As I’ve said, I just can’t play along. Nothing seems to work. I go searching in foreign tongues: I speak of le sexele membre. I go looking for archaicisms, such as ‘the yard’, or I deploy poetical convolutions, like ‘the mound of Venus’. But these overreach, and I retreat in embarrassment. I want to rewind and erase. I go searching instead in the dusty old files of vulgarities I learned in youth. But these are too low, now, and would give the impression of slumming (only ‘cunt’, I find, has any philological nobility). No, nothing works. Not the dysphemistic dick, nor the orthophemistic penis, nor yet the various high-brow talkings-around to which I have access thanks to my education in arts and letters. I just can’t find the right register.

When I do say these words, against my very nature, they hang in the air like lies.

Cicero missed the point, later established by solid sociolinguistic evidence, that any attempt to fix the right word once and for all will only send our imaginations elsewhere. This is what Eve Ensler has missed too, and all of our earnest young-adult friends in academic and self-styled progressive circles who use the language of urology to publicly display their coming of age, their sérieux. But there is perhaps a corollary point to the one Cicero makes: that if you wish to speak about something, you had better be sure you are ready to do so. On this line of thinking the fact that it is so hard to find the right register when it comes to the genital organs is a result of their, shall we say, particularly charged role in human life, in human imagination, phantasm, lore.

Academics, and other right-thinking people, imagine that it would be a mark of progress to drain the genitals of this charge. It seems to me however that the difficulty of finding the right register, and the essential instability of any elected orthophemism, could be a perfectly appropriate reflection of the significance of the domain of human life in question. Insisting on the clinical term neither deflates nor faces up to this significance, but in the end only constitutes its own sort of evasion.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website.