That Which We Call a Vagina

Today, I learned that the word “vagina” came from the Latin word for “sheath.” The term was first recorded in 1682, while its counterpart, the mighty “penis” was first used in 1668. But before you imagine that penis came from the Latin word for “sword,” let me assure you that it did not. It came from the Latin word for “tail.”

I cannot say why this is so. I do not know why the vagina was named in relation to the penis, while the penis stands on its own (pun very much intended). All I can tell you is that to me, it sounded unfair that the mother of the universe was named as an afterthought to the cock. Sheaths are, after all, consequences of the blade, suggesting that vaginas were thought of then as mere scabbards to the all-conquering penises. And what does that say about me as a woman?

No, I have not the least intention of turning this discussion into a feminist rant. All I want to share with you is the power that names, ultimately words, hold over our thinking. You can tell a lot about a person’s background once you ask him the story of his name. You can learn more about a culture should you study its language. Names and words, basically anything you can spell, communicate more than they are generally thought to. The beauty of language is in its being the most effective tool for expression.

Consequently, my love affair with words leads me to the thinking that who I am is a matter of words. I am a name, a gender, an animal species. I am a combination of overlapping nouns and contrasting adjectives. I use words to present myself and other people use words to deal with and relate to me. Sometimes, I feel like words define my actual existence, that I do not exist if there are no words for me. It is during these times that I have to stop and remind myself that I am more than the names I call myself. After all, words aren’t everything, right?

In a class that dealt with language and culture back in college, the professor asked the question of which came first, language or culture? It was a chicken-egg question of whether perception came first or the word for it. Some people believe in the theory of linguistic determinism, meaning that how we see the world depends entirely on our vocabulary. In the same way, my initial thought when I learned that my vagina was named after a slot that holds a sword was that to be a woman is to be man’s plaything.

But stop, I tell myself. This is just me paying more attention to etymology than I should. Words aren’t everything and all languages are just metaphors for reality. In the end, this is a battle between linguistic determinism and human determination. In the same way that we can easily dismiss the etymologies of words as things of the past, so can we easily wave away society’s preconceived notions of what it is to be a woman.

It is said that when Shakespeare found that the words of the English language were no longer enough to convey what he wanted to mean, he made new sets to better express himself. Similarly, when the names and words you’re stuck with are bothering and even hindering you from advancing, you can always make new ones. We name territories, typhoons, pets, children, and even private parts for the purpose of establishing authority. I hate the history of the word “vagina” and what it implies so I’m taking control and naming my little girl something else. Everyone, meet my sword.

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