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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11 Responses to Dirty Clean Words

  1. Kyle says:

    This statement just reiterates that which is overwhelmingly obvious; however, I think people’s experiences and exposure to certain words dictate their reaction to certain language. For example, I’m a biology student and often use the word “flaccid” as a descriptor in cellular physiology. The word isn’t exclusively sexual for me.

    However, as a homosexual male, the word “vagina” creeps me out. I guess it’s just a matter of personal experience!

  2. Paul says:

    Reminds me of an old Letterman Top Ten List: “Top ten things that sound dirty but aren’t.” The only one I remember is “Shaking hands with Abe Lincoln.” Still makes me snicker.

  3. Mick says:

    I prefer the word “detumescent” over “flaccid” though it usually requires clarification so I end up saying “flaccid” and therefore giggle like a 13 year old.

  4. Philip says:

    Funny. Turgid is another one that cracks me up. I recently heard someone on the radio reviewing a book and she said the phrase “turgid prose”. I nearly did a spit take with my coffee.

    I actually love the word “tumescent”. It sounds so lofty and soaring.

    • Karl Swedberg says:

      Excellent! That reminds me of another one, “concupiscence,” which actually does have a sexual meaning, although it sounds more urinary to me.

  5. When I ignore the vegetable drawer in the frig, I’ve found celery that could only be described as ‘flaccid’. Moral: Ignore vegetables at your peril!

  6. Paul says:

    For those of you who have not discovered it yet, there’s a podcast about language for nerds like us: Slate Lexicon Valley.

  7. Sonja Wagenaar says:

    “Food porn” always reminds me of the flick “9 1/2 Weeks.”

  8. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard the word “flaccid” refer to anything but the male member ”

    I have recently use the term thusly:

    “His speech was uninspiring and flaccid”

    SWMBO the other day use it thusly referring to an artist:

    “I find her work timid, flaccid and uninspiring”

    Perhaps the usage here in the UK is less… specific :-D

  9. Mike Hunt says:


    The king of them all


    The crown prince

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