Dirty Clean Words

A few days ago Michigan state congresswoman Lisa Brown dared to utter the word “vagina” on the house floor. In return, she was prohibited from speaking the following day (cf. Detroit Free Press). Later, in a superb attempt at back-pedaling, the House Majority Leader later said that the punishment wasn’t about her use of the word, but about “decorum.” The episode got me thinking about words that most people wouldn’t consider dirty or offensive but that nevertheless make some people’s skin crawl.

Some women I know were talking about desserts one night when one of them exclaimed that she cannot stand the word “moist” and suggested half-jokingly that it should be banned from cooking literature. Although a few others nodded in agreement, it seemed she was alone in the severity of her reaction to the word.

The first time a friend of mine used the word “prophylactic” to refer to a preventive measure in the general sense I burst out laughing. And then I felt like a nine-year-old boy — or like Michael Scott, the hapless manager in The Office (U.S. version) who never misses an opportunity to reply with “that’s what she said.” Clearly I wasn’t mature enough for that conversation.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard the word “flaccid” refer to anything but the male member (except maybe in a description of a medical condition), even though the dictionary definitions don’t have a whiff of phallic innuendo: 1. Lacking firmness, resilience, or muscle tone 2. Lacking vigor or energy (American Heritage Dictionary). Can anyone say that word and keep a straight face?

What makes some words seem sexual to one person but not to another? And why are some words that have non-sexual origins almost always used in a sexual context? What makes a word charged in one situation and innocuous in another? I suppose there is plenty of research that attempts to answer these questions, but I’m feeling too flaccid to look it up.

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