Monday, April 03, 2006

A Discharge by Any Other Name

Last week on NPR I heard Eve Ensler reading her essay on the "This I Believe" segment of Morning Edition. Ensler is the author and playwright of The Vagina Monologues . In her essay, called "The Power and Mystery of Naming Things," she said:
"Think about the word 'vagina'. I believe that by saying it 128 times each show, night after night, naming my shame, exorcising my secrets, revealing my longing, was how I came back into my self, into my body."

Vagina. Vagina vagina vagina vagina.

When I was a girl, I didn't know the names of my private parts. I don't think we even called them "private parts". It was all vaguely referred to as "down there". Until the day one of my elementary school classmates, who had an older sister versed in These Things, informed us knowingly that the word was "vovey". So we called it "vovey", when we called it anything, when we dared to even speak about it, which was never, and only in a whisper, and only to each other, of course. One bold day, a friend and I revealed to each other that our "voveys" produced a secretion, which we gigglingly dubbed "vovey goo".

Twenty years later, I was a licensed physician with my own little girl. I knew the human body inside and out, and I was damned if my daughter was going to grow up without words for all of her body parts. I taught that kid "vulva" before I taught her "elbow". I wanted her to be proud of her body, to be comfortable with all of it. Naming was the first step.

[I knew that I had succeeded beyond my wildest dreams when she once shocked a Texas church potluck by standing in the middle of the room, pointing at each grey-hair in turn, and correctly identifying their gender by announcing, "YOU have a penis. YOU have a vulva." She was three years old. ]

In medical school, we learned anatomy the first semester, in the lecture hall and in the dissection lab. It was presented in an orderly fashion, head to toe. Where there were gender differences, the male anatomy was always presented first, followed by "the female version of this is..." Sure, it bothered me, but it fit in with the sexism that pervaded medical education.

When we got to the genitals, we learned the male anatomy first, as usual. I was amazed at the quantity of labels on the drawings, the number of named parts men have. Corpus cavernosum. Corpus spongiosum. Root. Bulb. Crus. Shaft. Corona. Prepuce. Glans. Four different named segments of urethra. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. I took notes dutifully.

Next slide. Female anatomy. Far fewer labels. Much briefer rundown by the teacher. As he prepared to switch slides, I raised my naive hand. "Excuse me. What are the names of those muscles?" I pointed to the striated bands surrounding the vagina at varying angles.

The professor looked confused. "What muscles?"

I showed him again.

"Oh. Those...uh, that....that's Vaginal Wall." Click. Next slide.

Now, wait a minute. I'm a woman, and half of my readers are probably women. Ladies, you KNOW that is not just one big muscle there, and it's not only useful for "holding your bladder" either. I was shocked that there weren't at least three different muscle groups in the vagina. Come on! The male urethra, a single tube, has
four different named segments. But one single catch-all label for the mysteries of a woman's depths? Puh-lease!

That was a long time ago, now, and I've (clearly) gotten over it. But that morning, hearing Eve Ensler, it all came back to me again, and got me thinking some more about this male/female naming discrepancy. I remembered "vovey goo" and contemplated the fact that there still isn't an official medical term for vaginal secretions. I'm not talking about slang. There's plenty of that, from "smegma" (sounds like Gollum's sister) to "honey" (nice, but not unique). I mean an unambiguous, descriptive, neutral word of it's own. Like "semen". That's a word that can't be mistaken for anything else. It only has one meaning, as far as I know. It's only a noun, and calls up a distinctive mental picture. Nobody gets confused about what you're talking about when you say "semen."

But what is the "female version" of "semen"? The closest I can come up with is "discharge." But this does not meet the criteria of specificity that "semen" does. No, "discharge" is a word that can be a noun or a verb, can apply to a vagina, a retiring serviceman, or a firing cannon. Not only that, I was taught in medical school that a vaginal discharge is
abnormal. Part of the Patient Interview is called the Review of Systems. When you do this, you verbally list the body systems, asking if there are any abnormal symptoms in each. (headache, double vision, vomiting blood, etc.) One of the questions is, "Do you have any vaginal discharge?" This is usually asked while shaking one's head and frowning slightly, subliminally communicating the right answer to the patient. Oh, no, ma'am. No vaginal discharge. Yuck, no!

Whereas in truth, feminine secretions are as normal as tears or saliva, or mucus.

I submit that we need a new word. A unique word for the entirely normal, benign, useful secretions that are produced in the vagina. What shall it be? We could call it "vuliva" (vuh-
lye-vuh) or "vugucus" (vuh-joo-kus) , echoes of its cousins at the "other end. " We could even stoop to "vovey goo", although that doesn't sound quite neutral to me. Or, come to think of it, we could have several words. The stuff changes, you know, throughout a woman's monthly cycle and lifetime. The eskimos have their myriad words for "snow". The male urethra has four separate words for one little tubule. Why shouldn't there be a different word for each variety of hormonally-influenced natural feminine product?

The devil is in the details. I can't think of a good word. I just know we need one. I'm open to suggestions. Once we get a good one, we can submit it to the American Board of New Anatomical Terminology, or wherever one submits these things. Then all we'll need is for Eve Ensler to say it 128 times a night for six years, and voila! Equal time in the anatomy lectures, and a new addition to the church potluck repertoire.


marybishop said...

My word I offer up:

Mellifluid as in melliflous fluid

Sewoman would be a runner up ;-)

And what is the name for that space above your lip and below your nose...?

marybishop said...

mistake! I meant to spell sewomen -

Bardiac said...

Nothing based on male stuff, please (thus, no sewoman).

I really like Mellifluid. Dang, that sounds GOOD!

marybishop said...

I also like Vu-Dew.

pegadoc said...




Great stuff, Marybishop!

More, more!

anafaran said...

Oh, boy, I mean girls, can we have a orgiastic field day with this one?
My preference is to keep it simple. I used to like to work with clay. When you put the clay on the potters wheel you need to handle a liquidy substance that is made of water and the clay, and this mixture is called "slip". If you have no slip, you can have no slide around the clay piece you are fashioning. What I like about the word "slip" is that it connotes something that is functional and essential to the creation of the work you aspire to create. There is the purpose of the vagina to consider afterall, is there not? It exists for us and serves us, to create pleasure and life. So I vote for "slip". If you want to specify the various kinds of "slip", then apply adjectives that derive from Latin, or Greek. It will add color and authenticity to our newly coined words. Fluid preceding menses, could be called "lunar slip" for example. During the days of bleeding, we could call it, "bloody slip" which is what it is. During orgasm we could call it, fantasmagorical slip. OK, you come up with something better, as you're the doctors.
It's never too late to augment our feminine vocabulary, I think, whatever we decide upon. Way to think outside the box, Dr. Pegger!

marybishop said...

Oh my and slip is an anagram for lips...which makes my brain come up with another word, labiation...or opposed to libation.

A definition of libation: A libation is a ritual pouring of a drink as an offering to a god. It was common in the religions of antiquity, including Judaism:The liquid used in libations varied; most commonly it was wine or olive oil, and in India, ghee....

The word ghee has much appeal to me for some reason.. which makes me think of "girl ghee" as another lovely word choice...perhaps in polite slang.

Peg Spencer said...

This is too good to push down the page with a new post. Wonderful word ideas here!! You gals rock!

I'm going to keep this one on top for a few more days, see what other words emerge.

marybishop said...

Peg, growing up I was told "private parts" too, but the family name for vagina was "La La" which to this day seems like a happy and non-shaming word.

So how about Goo-la la! Certainly the French would like this one...

We should be able to find a wonderful name for this honorable discharge!

(I also think vaginal wall should be renamed female fortress!)

anafaran said...

Somedays it's like goop, somedays like yuck, somedays it's clear and some days like the sediment of wine. It's a changeable substance but always the same, part of us. So what's it called anyway, because now I don't even know? And the entrance to the vagina should reinforce that it's a warm and fuzzy space, should it not? "Fortress" should be reserved for keeping the enemy and evil ones away. On the other hand maybe we need to discuss all the ramifications of what label is finally assigned to that particular part that acts as the vestibule to our second most precious organ.

Virginia said...

I too decided to use proper terminology with my grand child. This worked fine until I had to figure out what she meant by "my china" hurts. Eventually this was solved, and a removal of the bubble bath we were using helped with the pain. She can now pronounce vagina properly, by the way.

I love the idea of a new name for vaginal fluids, but don't have one to suggest. I like "slip" a lot.

Dr. Al said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Dr. Al said...

Why all the semantics? While an honorable "discharge" from the army may be desirable, a vaginal "discharge" is a downright nuisance. A discharge is a discharge, however. As Shakespeare once put it, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Obviously, the father of modern drama was not a gynecologist! Dr. Al

Bardiac said...

But, Dr. Al, most vaginal discharge ISN'T a nuisance, not at all, especially when we're turned on. And day to day, not nuisance, just like saliva's not a nuisance, or bad. Food would taste, err, tasteless? without saliva, right? Eating would be LOTS less pleasant. Vaginas without labation, slip, or mellifluid wouldn't feel nearly as good.

I'm loving the new vocabulary possibilities!

marybishop said...

"Vaginas without labation, slip, or mellifluid wouldn't feel nearly as good."

Great job, bardiac, of putting the words in one sentence!

I also agree that vaginal discharges are no more a nuisance than any other lubricating substance our bodies manage to manufacture. Think of our poor eyeballs without tears?

Mucous in general is our friend, protecting our organs from harm.

I do agree that mucous is not the most euphonic word, but most likely that's my own prejudice. Especially since I love the name Lucas and there's not much difference in sound.

More on slip...that might be the way to go because one could describe one's discharge as "full slip" or "half slip."

From Gloria Steinem's, "If Men Could Menstruate":

What would happen, for instance, if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not?
The answer is clear - menstruation would become an enviable, boast-worthy, masculine event:
Men would brag about how long and how much. (1978)

Worth reading if you haven't read it.

anafaran said...

Oh, you might say, we're on the "slip"-purr-y slope here, and loving it by the way. There's just not enough free and open talk on blogsites these days that make me this horny and what do you know?- there's not an obscene thought or photos of anything suggestive or hidden in the camel. Way to go me-llifellow bloggers!

marybishop said...

adafaran...I looked at your word "me-llifellow" quickly and I thought you wrote "life-flow"...and now I love this word because it makes women life-flowers!

So many reasons why this image works...

marybishop said...

anafaran sorry for the typo

anafaran said...

Perhaps I shouldn't write about what makes me horny. That is a topic of a personal nature and something women don't discuss on blogsites I guess, because who knows who's slipping in? But wait, this is a medical blogsite and our only mistake is we just get a bit sidetracked. Dr. Pegger, is this a candidate for another one of your insightful postings? It would take courage to go there. I'm not sure I've got that brand of "C".
And also because, for all you know, I'm nothing but a horny toad lizard. Now that's a turn off, unless of course, you're a male horny toad lizard.
Well, forgive me if I have offended anyone, and well, we all make mistakes. It's part of being human. Oh yeah, yeah, oh yeah!
But I was thinking a fun word for vagina, instead of fortress, could be camel. I like it. The camel has great lips, right? The camel is soft, right. The camel is durable, right. It's been used in combat, right? Hasn't it been an integral part of the cavalry in most desert wars. They are beasts of burden and used in long journeys in dry places. Lord knows they've been abused.
Anyone have any feelings about this terminology? C-A-M-E-L
I think I better hide my head in the sand now.

Shazam! said...

I really like the original valiva from your post, but the many images suggested here are great. I am going to link your post from my site, because this is cleary a very important and under-represented topic!

Anonymous said...

"and contemplated the fact that there still isn't an official medical term for vaginal secretions"

err - you did attend an english/latin/anything speaking medical school i hope?

leukorrhea or leucorrhea[Multilingual][i-[Multilingual]]
(leuko- + Gr. rhoia flow) a whitish, viscid discharge from the vagina and uterine cavity.

marybishop said...

Anafaran - all you say about the camel is true, but one thing you didn't mention is camels are considered pretty ugly and they have huge teeth which might evoke that whole "vagina dentata" fear.

Peg - there's an "anonymous" in every group!

pegarooni said...

Leukorrhea is usually used to describe an abnormal discharge, such as is created sometimes by use of the oral contraceptive pill.

It is the closest we have is to a specific term, you're right.

But isn't "valiva" or "mellifluid" more user- and lay person-friendly?

I know I haven't had a new post in a while. I've been sick and so has my internet connection!

anafaran said...

Since I'm not a doctor and just a mere aspiring paramedic, I guess I have more time to spend on non-medical terminology, and so you're absolutely right mary, I haven't thought of everything nasty that one thinks of when considering a camel. I think that camels are sort of cute myself. I never gave the teeth a thought, but it would solve a fair amount of all of women's sexual abuse problems if our vaginas included a set of choppers. OK, now I'm just getting wierd, I know? O-V-E-R

anafaran said...


badgerbag said...

"Slip" is great.

I can't believe no one's suggested "vucus".

But slip is a good short word and doesn't sound disgusting. It would be easy to modify with adjectives or to build out with prefixes and suffixes. The hormonal "slip cycle" should be outlined in basic sex ed!

Fat Doctor said...

Lord almighty, I just blew a mouthfull of Crystal Light lemonade out my nose. Your three year old in church sounds just precious - oh to have a video of that!

By the way, in my clinic, we call all vaginal discharge "Vagina Juice."

I'm adding you to my published blogroll. Please let me know if you prefer to be un-linked.

Kim said...

Some words NOT to use:


Somehow, thanks to Mama Doc, I will never see a "Jamba Juice" store without breaking into laughter.

Oh geeze, the word verification I have to type is "zdomy"....

Giovanni said...

There is one word which I definitely do not like - at all. It is 'discharge'. It connotes the effluesence of pustulent body fluids. Yuck.

I like the idea of men and women spontaneously creating love talk: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Delights.


Shazam! said...

Don't forget the term "lochia", which is the (normal) bloody discharge for days to weeks following delivery of a baby.

pegadoc said...

"lochia". Right, Shazam. I think that's actually a lovely word. Following a lovely (bloody) normal event.

Thanks for the reminder, and for visiting.


Anonymous said...
^found this stuff

I've asked myself this question, and it seems there's actually 3 basic fluids, but we have the word "semen" which means 'to seed' so I kinda thought maybe a word based off of 'germinis' which means to grow, both suggest the purpose of the organ.
A bit sad really how the old medical schools acted like idiots around female sexuality, to out right denying it!

peg said...

anonymous - somehow I missed your comment; sorry!

Three basic fluids? Hmmm (doing body inventory here....) I can think of at least five. If you include lochia and menses. There's also ovulatory mucous, post-menstrual fluid, premenstrual fluid.

You are so right about sexism in medicine. Sometimes subtle, sometimes overt. It's getting better, thank goodness.

Isaac said...

Great info you have here!!! just thinking.........The female genital organs can not be explored appropriately without mentioning the word vaginal discharge. This is the most crucial feature of female genitalia that enables the doctors to diagnose the proper ailment every time a woman presents a vaginal infection case. Vaginal discharge can range from the natural, to the embarrassing towards the critical variety. This is why every woman should learn to examine her own vaginal discharge throughout the month since her last periods so as to note any suspicious changes. More of this on VAGINAL DISCHARGE

junga said...

I love your new hair-do! I wish I could be more brave and try something like that! Your hair looks so shiny and healthy! Your dinner looks so good! I printed off the recipe for the raw pesto sauce also!

Anonymous said...

The word already exists. It's "cyprine".

Peg Spencer said...

"Cyprine" is a French word, Madame or Monsieur. I wish for its English equivalent!

Anonymous said...


Many words in the English language come from French: deja vu, laissez faire, coup d'etat, cinema verité, hors d'oeuvre, foyer, basé, je ne sais quoi, maitre d'hotel, ennui, milieu, enclave, chaise longue, douche, rendez-vous, elite, premiere, beaucoup, brassiere...

Why not adopt Cyprine as well?


The Authors of "50 Ways" Interview on KCHF TV

50 Ways to Leave Your 40s TV interview with Phoenix' Pat McMahon