Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Pudendum, etc

The other day in my Chaucer seminar, one of my students was looking at a note in their text, and asked in that totally student way, "what's a pudendum?"

I explained. (Well, I thought I explained. I said female genitalia. On looking it up, I learned that it's specifically the external genitalia. Live and learn, I say!)

My students muttered about notes that obscure information by using words such as pudendum. I have to agree that if you're going to explain something in Chaucer, you need to use language your readers are likely to understand. But maybe in the 1960s, when this text was edited, your average student understood "pudendum" without having to look it up or ask his/her professor?

Today, because I'm that kind of nerd, I decided to look up pudendum. I had the OED opened up on the laptop anyways, looking up "comity" because Dean Dad used it and while I could pretty much guess the meaning, I'm that kind of nerd. (Not that my nerdliness is a major revelation by this point.)

Now, going with the nerd thing, I of course looked at the etymology, because, hey, it LOOKS Latin, right?

And here's what I found: "L., neuter gerundive of pudre to cause shame, ashame, lit. ‘that of which one ought to be ashamed’, used as n., commonly in pl."

(The commonly used in plural strikes me as interesting, but on with my rant.)

Now, I don't have my Latin/English dictionary with me, but I looked at an online dictionary (Whitaker Words), and the definition there wasn't about female genitalia but also about being shamed, causing shame, etc. Which is to say that pudendum isn't a Latin term for female genitalia, but the use of a Latin word for "shame" as an English word for "external female genitalia" with the implication that one should be ashamed about external female genitalia.

The OED gives the first usage in 1398, so I'm thinking it's a sort of metaphoric refusal of translation: rather than use a Latin word such as vulva, Trevisa (the origin of the 1398 quotation) and his followers, including the editor of my student's Chaucer (Baugh), chose a word that connects female genitalia* with shame, being shamed, humiliation, and so forth.

That choice seems odd at the outset for someone editing Chaucer, for gosh sakes, because we're talking about texts that describe sex pretty explicitly ("And sodeynly anon this Damyan / Gan pullen up the smok, and in he throng" "The Merchant's Tale" 1108-9), without much hint that sex per se is shameful or that women's genitals are shameful.

But editing using "pudendum" produces levels of shamefulness: students have to look up or ask for meanings from the glossing, and the meaning produced by the psuedo-Latin is one of shame at female genitalia. (And then there's the whole "glosing" thing, but I'm not going there today.)

So far as I know, my generation really hasn't started editing Chaucer in a big way, though we have begun on individual editions of Shakespeare.

I have one request for editors and future editors: don't imply that female sexuality is shameful, that vaginas**, clitorides*** (I had to look up the plural, this time in Dictionary dot com), labia (think Irigirayian plentitude!) are shameful.

Seriously, there are shameful acts which involve sex. Rape is a good example. But sex per se isn't shameful, and you shouldn't gloss sexual language, jokes, or innuendo so that your readers will need a second gloss or dictionary to understand the text, or to imply that body parts are shameful.

Yes, DO explain when a text uses body parts or fluids in ways intended to make women ashamed or to disempower women. But don't introduce shaming in your glossing. There's a difference.

*What, you ask? The OED shows "genital" about 1382 (it says "of generation," but the examples are about body parts, I think). (Oddly, the more properly Latin sounding "genitalia" starts being used in English in 1876, though the Latin English dictionary seems to indicate that it's straight from Latin, so maybe it's just not really Englished until the 19th century?)

**Vagina (Latin: sheath, scabbard) is problematic in it's own way because it seems defined by what it's "intended" to sheath rather than by itself. That is, it seems to serve an etymologically secondary function to the pleasure of the penis rather than to serve as its own area of pleasure and reproductive function. (The OED records its first use in 1682.)

***And, for the benefit of those who like to be irritated by phallogocentrism: The OED defines "clitoris" as "A homologue of the male penis, present, as a rudimentary organ, in the females of many of the higher vertebrata." (It's from the Greek for "shut"; I don't claim to understand that one.)

I'm sorry, but rudimentary organ it ain't. (And really, this is the ON-LINE OED, not a first edition. This is the most UP TO DATE!) (And to be honest, I'm not sorry the clitoris isn't rudimentary. I am sorry the OED editors are still sexist.)

Penis, on the other hand, is NOT (according to the OED) a homologue, but "1. Anat. and Zool. The male genital organ used (usually) for copulation and for the emission or dispersal of sperm, in mammals containing erectile tissue and serving also for the elimination of urine." (Dictionary dot com does better, and in its definition of penis includes the information that the penis is homologous with the clitoris. Go Dictionary dot com!)

I think we need new words/definitions. We need to name and define our organs and body parts for ourselves, for themselves, and only afterwards in relation to other bodies (some of which may be male).

I'm not the only one to think about such things. As I was getting all into the various definitions, I recalled this post on naming vaginal fluids, which resulted in this list over at a newish blog called Pegspot.

Let's define the clitoris, readers! And let's rename the vagina, while we're at it!

What's that song about the "love hump"? Even that seems too het... too male dependent.


  1. Yay! I'm with you! I used to love that OED, but the more I read it, the more I get annoyed with its editors. They're way too sexist, and way too Eurocentric, while we're on it.

    If it weren't such a bear of a job, I would say we need an AED. Written (of course) by a mixed crown of women and men and folk of multicultural backgrounds.

    Do you think we could get a grant?

  2. Quite the post, bardiac! You might have the beginnings of a paper here, if it hasn't already been written.

  3. Hey, tremendous post!
    (Plus it takes me back to childhood, when I was watching that Steve Martin movie Parenthood with a couple of friends, and one of them asked "What's a boner?" Neither of us knew. [And the OED doesn't have it either, in fact.])

  4. Woah.

    Who knew?

    Thanks for this Bardiac -- I learned so much!

    I think there was an article in Ms., back in the day, about new words -- albeit slang -- for female sexual organs (as a group, generally). I think "honey pot" won out, but personally I find that too cutesy. In other words, if it had an "i" in it, it would be too often written with a circle for the dot.

  5. Okay, this isn't your point, but I love the OED too. I love all the definitions & quotes & etymologies.
    But maybe not so much anymore with the sexism...

  6. This was a fantastic post, Bardiac! (Nothing really to contribute other than that, though I will respond to Dr. Virago that I'm also not a fan of honey pot.)

  7. THIS is an awesome post. In fact, one of my students was just saying something the other day about female genitalia and sheathes and I had no idea what she was talking about (she didn't seem sure, either--she was looking to me for confirmation that there was some connection, and all I could say was that it seemed like a potentially common metaphor). If only I had read this a week sooner!

    But knowledge is power, right? Wherever & whenever.

  8. Great post. I agree that the words/definitions of many of our body parts needs a major update/rewrite.

    We need to reclaim the power of the written word when it comes to our bodies.

  9. Great post!

    Actually, my sisters and I always called our vagina our Virginia. (And yes, Virginia there is a Santa Claus...)

  10. Wow! Totally educated. And I'm sending this to Mr. Geeky cause we had a thing about pudenda when we were dating and it was definitely not said in a shameful way!

  11. Delagar, I STILL love the OED, flawed as it is. As I love the STC, Wing, and Charlton Hinman's edition of the fantasy first folio.

    And I'm so glad I don't have to do that work!

    But get your grant and I'll send in some GREAT slips of paper!

    Hmm, Ianqui, do you think? I should think more about it!

    Kermit, one of my friends last summer showed me a billboard with a euphemism for an erection that I'd never heard before. (It's for a "gentleman's club" and the euphemism? chubby. I'd just never heard it. Oh well!)

    Dr. V. I'm with you on no honeypot. It's like there are too many women with problems to pretend that problems aren't also part of experience.

    Ceresina, I still love the OED because without it, I'd never be able to work through many of the things I learn. Even flawed, it's an amazing achievement.

    Thanks, Dr. Crazy :)

    La Lecturess, Thanks :) I actually remember a college dormmate telling me the sheath thing with great self-satisfaction. Ah, well, so much to learn!

    History Geek! I agree! I just don't know how we go about reclaiming that power. Language is just so difficult and all, changing all the time, but not necessarily in positive directions against oppression.

    Thanks, TBTAM, Virginia's way too weird for me, personally, both for the Elizabeth I connection, and because I have several relatives with the name. But there's a certain poetry to it, for sure!

    Laura, that may be the trick: rather than changing the words, change our attitudes towards them?

    Thanks, all :) I think if google knew what a pudendum is, I'd have a sex blog now... just as well!

  12. Anonymous6:53 AM

    About "pudendum": While the main point of your post is still true, I don't think "shame" would be the right word - it sounds more strong than I think it is. I would say it's something between shame and embarrassment.

    This comes not from my many conversations with Imperial Romans, but from the use of "pudor" in Spanish and Portuguese (and my inhability to find an appropriate translation into English).

  13. That's a great point, Maria. Now I need to ask some native Spanish speakers for some feedback.