The word "vagina" has had quite an airing recently. In the flurry of controversy following US politician Lisa Brown being barred from a debate after uttering the word an undeniable collective squeamishness has been uncovered. It seems that even our almost-anything-goes, full, frank, transparent, call-a-spade-a-spade 21st-century society just might be a little bit coy about, you know, down there. For some reason, this particular word doesn't slip easily off the tongue, so to speak.
I used to play Scrabble with a friend who knew every obscure word for "vagina" ever invented. "What's 'quim'?" I asked as she annoyingly used her letter Q. "It's slang for 'vagina'," she'd reply. It became a running gag whenever she introduced a word I didn't know. "I suppose that's slang for 'vagina', too," I'd say sarcastically. It usually was.
There's a list of informal terms for vagina at blackchampagne.com. Some of them are really good but I can't bring myself to type them in a family newspaper. They're rivalled only by the euphemisms for menstruating: visit from Aunt Flo, on the rag, she has the painters in and riding the cotton pony.
You have to love the last two - especially if you're into home decorating and equestrian pursuits. Who makes up such things?
Words for female genitalia have long experienced a rough time. The c-word consistently tops the Broadcasting Standards Authority's list of words New Zealanders find most offensive. Personally, I quite fancy "front bottom". As a term, of course - what did you think I meant?
"Front bottom" is one of those so-bad-it's-almost-good terms. In fact, I may have used it occasionally over the years when speaking to my daughter. And before the PC brigade tell me off for that, I'd like to advise that the appropriate term for external female genitalia is actually "vulva" - a fine point frequently overlooked by parents intent on calling body parts by their anatomical terms.
Promising "expert care for down there", the UK-based Femfresh range of products includes a Daily Intimate Wash as well as Feminine Freshness Wipes. Femfresh's mission statement must be to make women fret about their personal cleanliness and feel ashamed about their bodies but that's not the brand's only transgression; it also ran a poorly received advertising campaign centred on different names for a woman's private parts - such as fancy, flower, froo froo, hoo haa, kitty, la la, lady garden, twinkle and va jay jay.
This PR failure was highlighted in The Guardian's You can stick your feminine hygiene product ads up your hoo haa, Femfresh which itself revealed the delightful euphemism "fun tunnel" - how very meta. Yet hygiene products designed to freshen up love canals are really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to finessing the vagina. There's a whole range of cosmetic procedures - including labiaplasty, vaginoplasty and laser vaginal reconstruction - available for women intent on achieving a so-called designer vagina.
A protest march down London's Harley Street against such procedures was discussed in an article entitled The Muff March against 'designer vagina' surgery. Whatever your views on the topic itself you surely have to admit it has spawned some truly memorable headlines.
What's your favourite informal word for vagina? Why do you think some of us are squeamish about using the proper word? Is it just a misogynistic plot to undermine female genitalia? Have you ever played Scrabble with someone really annoying - and what was their area of expertise that you were ill-equipped to challenge?By Shelley Bridgeman