Wanted: a better vocabulary for private parts

My current WIP, a novel titled The Wedding of Earth and Sky has not one but two childbirth scenes. Both are described fairly graphically (for important plot-thematic reasons). And this presents me with a problem.

It’s impossible to talk about childbirth without talking about vaginas.

Now, I’m perfectly happy talking about vaginas in my novel, but I’d like to be able to do so with language that matches the tone and setting of the story. And the word vagina is entirely unsuited for this task. The word is:

  1. Modern, which clashes with the Bronze Age setting
  2. Clinical, which creates a psychic distance between the reader and the details which are meant to be visceral and intimate
  3. Latinate, which mixes poorly with the earthy, homey feel created by the largely Germanic vocabulary I’ve used elsewhere.

But all of the other one-word options are worse. The word cunt avoids all three of the problems above, but it introduces a new problem, which is that it’s vulgar and may provoke the reader to recoil or snicker. Other options are childish, or something worse.

At present I’m mostly using euphemism and circumlocution, which at least allows me to maintain my tone and setting. But it’s extremely annoying that there is no vocabulary available to me that isn’t fatally tainted by one thing or another.

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6 Comments

  1. Wow, quite a problem to have! I once heard someone on a water park ride call it a “cooter-wooter” — but I’m pretty sure that might be the worst suggestion yet. 🙂

  2. I frequently use pagan terms to discuss this, as they are much more earth-centered. It helps to consider how these people think of life, femininity, and the power a woman has to bring forth life. They were in awe of this power, and they recognized the woman’s resemblance to the earth in this regard.

    Now I’m assuming you’re actually referring to the vagina, and not the uterus? If it’s the uterus, then the word, “womb” is nearly perfect. I suspect it is Latin, but still, it evokes warmth, mystery, protection, and life-energy.

    For the vagina, I like to tell the women in my childbirth classes that during childbirth, they no longer have a vagina. They’ll get it back – but for birth, it’s the baby’s “birth canal,” and the baby gets total use of the space.

    Think of it as a path the baby must follow. Or as the opening into life, into space, light, and love, so that the baby can continue to grow and reach his full potential.

    If you need to refer to the actual opening, think of it in strong, healthy terms that honors the woman: the place of joy or comfort, where life comes forth.

    Now mind you, I’m sure the ancient pagans had their share of slang terms for these body parts. Probably better ones than we have, because they didn’t have our religious hang-ups about the body and sex.

    Hope this helps. You’re right, I guess, that there’s no old vocabulary handed down about this. Euphemisms may still need to be used.

    1. “Womb” is a great word, and I use it to good effect when that’s what I want to talk about. Someone else suggested that “birth canal” was really more appropriate, and “birth” is a solid Germanic root, while “canal” is at least native enough that it doesn’t jar. But still, the term “birth canal” sounds too modern to me.

      I briefly considered appropriating the Hindu term yoni, which is the only word that an English-speaking audience might be familiar with, but which doesn’t carry so much baggage. But I eventually dropped that, as well, since it didn’t fit with the setting.

  3. I think C. S. Lewis talks about this problem somewhere. No idea where. I’m not even 100% sure it’s him I’m remembering, but I can’t think who else it would be.

    1. I also remember Lewis complaining about essentially the same thing in one of his essays, and IIRC he didn’t have a good answer for it either.

    2. I just happened across the essay I was thinking of. In case you’re interested to know what it is and where it’s from, I figured I’d pass along its information. It’s titled ‘Prudery and Philology’; I have it in a collection of essays titled ‘C. S. Lewis Essay Collection: Literature, Philosophy and Short Stories’; the heading for the particular essay says:

      Published in ‘The Spectator’, Volume CXVIV (21 January 1955) and reproduced in ‘Present Concerns’ (1991), this also appeared in ‘Compelling Reason’ (1998).

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