Mind your language

Mind your language: Who says there's a 'correct name' for the penis?

27 July 2013

9:00 AM

27 July 2013

9:00 AM

In a very rum letter to the Daily Telegraph, the Mother’s Union of all people joined with some other bodies to demand that ‘primary schools should teach the correct names for genitalia’. What can they mean?

A confederate of the Mother’s Union in this campaign, the Sex Education Forum, says that by the age of seven, children should name ‘external genitalia’. From examples supplied, it seems to want us all to speak Latin. It’s as if we should no longer say womb but uterus, not skull but cranium, not big toe but hallux.

By using Latin names for genitalia, the campaigners hope to avoid ‘perpetuating shame’. I wonder whether they haven’t got hold of the wrong end of the stick. Thus, there is a Latin word penis, a word meaning ‘tail’ that came to be used metaphorically for another item of anatomy. What is the ‘correct’ English name?

Look at Shakespeare. Does he use the word penis? No. He does use tail (also in the sense of the female pudendum). He uses cock, pillicock, yard, prick and many more names. He jokes about the privates, male and female. The jokes are only possible because of cultural shame about pudenda — which is why they’re called pudenda.

The Sex Education Forum is very keen on sexual health, by which it means contraception (the avoidance of pregnancy, which I had thought was the point of sexual intercourse) and the prevention of disease. It seems to regard ‘incorrect’ words as unhealthy, a disease of language.

Much frowned upon are infantile names, such as willy, which (with apologies to William Shakespeare) is a diminutive of William. A diminutive in this sense seems to me no worse than in the naming of animals. We use donkey, a diminutive of Duncan, to mean ‘ass’. Oddly enough, donkey might have become popular in place of ass to avoid any appearance of saying arse. (A parallel current fear makes journalists use cockerel instead of cock.) Anatomy is not the only source of taboo words; scatology is a rich vein too. Here by contrast, to avoid unpleasantly ‘correct’ words such as excrement, educators (the Natural History Museum and others) now find the infantile word poo a godsend.

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