In my field, Folklore, we study not only fairy tales and community celebrations but also language itself. Like linguists, we’re interested in dialect and the regional and cultural variations between language uses and meanings. The term we use for this area is “folk speech.”
A guide to teaching verbal folklore defines folk speech as including:
Regional accents, like “Hyde Pork”/”Hyde Park” or “warsh”/”wash”; local terms, specialized language, and other elements that make up the distinctive speech patterns of a region, folk group, or occupation. Children have elaborate specialized language, which includes personalized names for games, such as “butt ball” for dodgeball; distinctive phraseology, such as “let’s bust some moves” for “let’s dance”; and distinctive languages, such as piglatin.
Okay, great, but what does this have to do with sex? Well, pretty much everything. When was the last time you heard “having sex” referred to as “having vaginal-penile penetrative intercourse” (assuming that’s what was meant by “sex” in the first place)? There is a huge amount of mystification around the words for sexual acts and eroticized body parts, in large part because sex remains a taboo topic in many cultures and sub-cultures. For a lot of people, it might just be easier to use a slang term rather than go out on a limb and say what they actually want.
There’s also a misconception that scientifically accurate terms are not sexy, or perhaps that they would ruin the mood by being too specific or precise. Maybe hearing a word used in a medical context (as when discussing childbirth or STI transmission) makes that word seem less erotic. Plus the roots of some of these words are, to put it mildly, sometimes offensive. For instance, “vagina” is derived from the Latin word for sheath or scabbard (source). I’m sorry, but what I have is not a sheath: it’s a functioning part of my body that does just fine on its own without needing something to fill it.
The main reason to study folk speech at all – and especially the subcategory of sexual slang – is to get a sense for how people’s speech patterns reflect their values. We have a ton of words mystifying and obfuscating sexual body parts and acts, so clearly there’s something going on with our culture’s relationship to sexuality. Whatever you want to call your parts or your partners, try to be honest with yourself about what it is you actually mean and actually want. You don’t literally have to call a spade a spade (for instance, if you prefer the sound of “cock” to that of “penis”), but good communication practices generally lead to safer and more enjoyable sex.
Follow us on Twitter @mysexprofessor. Follow Jeana, the author of this post, @foxyfolklorist.