What’s a vagina?

Red Canna

by Georgia O'Keefe

How do you feel when you hear the word “vagina”? Does it make you squirm? Does it bring to mind a region of the female body that is to be guarded and unexamined unless necessary? Are you comfortable with your vagina, or at least talking about it? Were you taught to call it something else?

What if I were to tell you, that the word vagina in latin means “a sheath or scabbard”, as in “a sheath for a sword”. How do you feel now? Better? worse? indifferent?

I’ll tell you how I feel. Angry. I only recently learned of this etymological definition through a midwifery textbook, and I’m not sure why, but it really shook me up to acknowledge that the word we have been given (by men) to call one of women’s most sacred and beautiful elements, is literally in relation to how it can serve the penis of a man. I don’t know about you, but that thought has me on edge. Yes, no one recognizes the root of the word anymore or thinks of it this way (at least not that they will admit in developed countries) but in my mind, thousands of years of female subjection, abuse and disregard are wrapped up in this one small word.

But really, it’s a big word. Harsh on the tongue, loaded with cultural images and history of a time that women had to protect theirs fiercely in order to retain their value. And yet what is revealed in this word that has been chosen for us and perpetuated as medically accurate by an arbitrary system? That its (and women’s) function has for far too long been little than that of a covering for male ego.

But why be so angry? I questioned this of myself in response to my own reaction. And I concluded that my strong emotion lies in not only my own issues with a male dominated medical system and style of health care, but in my desire to do something about it. My textbook, written by a similarly opinioned woman, suggests that we stop using the term and replace it in practice. Seems simple enough, and even reasonable. Why not start small and see where the effort takes us? But even in what I’ve seen come out of the institution that is providing my curriculum, there is no trend to take the well respected author’s suggestion. And I have to wonder why. Why is it so hard to go against something so degrading by its very nature? Why can’t we stand up and release this term from our vocabulary? Honestly I don’t know. I’m sure it has something to do with our adherence to uniformity and our unwillingness in general to be so different that we stand out and appear “weird”. And I’m sure it has something to do with our lack of desire to challenge the male centered medical perspective that we give such deference to.

But these reasons don’t seem like enough. As I have thought about what to do in my own life, teaching my children seems like a good place to start. Yes, I know the stereotypes of parents that choose to give their children alternate and vague names for body parts, but really, there’s an equal stereotype for parents that teach early and correct anatomy, physiology and terminology. Both seem strange to the other side. And what is interesting to me, is that in the absence of direct teaching, children come up with their own names anyway. (My oldest began calling her’s “front bum” until we corrected her) So what can we do? Is it worth the risk of people not knowing what we’re talking about? Would it affect children socially? Should they ever be talking about it outside of the home anyway (at least not until sex ed)?

Of course, there was the natural question of what to call it instead. Anne Frye, author of Holistic Midwifery Volumes 1 and 2 suggests that we use the word “yoni”. Out of all other languages, the only one that didn’t further degrade female genitalia, was the sanskrit term for vagina. But even more than that, yoni is the “origin of life” in Hindu Tantric philosophy, and also referred to as the “divine mother of all”. Isn’t that a lovely image? A spoken and written connection to our divine mother as the giver of life? A symbolic break with centuries of patriarchy that attempted to control women down to their very sexual identity and terminology. Yes, I could continue to go with the flow and call it a vagina, but something in me feels the need to step out of my comfort zone and make a real change in perception, and maybe even offer a sense of greater empowerment to the women I serve.

What do you think? Do you think it’s weird to try and change the name for our genitals? How would you feel if you heard someone refer to a vagina as a yoni? What do you think of the word ‘yoni’ as a replacement?


Corktree is exploring life and spirituality in new ways and new environments while studying midwifery, reiki, yoga, homeopathy, herbology and evolutionary nutrition. She has 3 daughters and one son, which add up to what now feels like an enormous family of 6.

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69 Responses

  1. MJK says:

    In theory I like this idea. In practice it’s absurd to think it would work. We live in a culture where even the word “vagina” is too giggle-worthy to say. I had to verbally slap down a 45 year old woman who was a FREAKING SEX EDUCATOR who liked to use the term “va-jay-jay” because the other word… ohmygosh I can’t say THAT!!!

    Let’s not worry about the history of the term until we can get the world to deal with women’s sexual organs in a way that does not encompass either 1.) the male gaze or 2.) eeeeewwww gross!

    • Mike H. says:

      I know a Nurse that used “va-jay-jay” as well. I replied with “did you pass anatomy?” 😉

      Yes, with the smile icon.

  2. Sharee says:

    I vote for “yoni.”

  3. VeritasLiberat says:

    I’m not sure I’d trust Anne Frye’s opinion on Sanskrit linguistics.

    (To the best of my knowledge, the term yoni isn’t nearly as liberating as she seems to think it is. I’ve seen it defined as
    I think we do women a better service by proudly using the technical term
    “vagina” without embarrassment or giggles.

    And speaking of etymology, you’d think that if “vagina” was originally “sheath,” then “penis” would have something to do with a sword… but it doesn’t.
    It’s Latin for

    • alex w. says:

      Latin for “tail?” I love it when our language doesn’t make sense. Especially here, because knowing the history of words like uterus and vagina make me irritated at best.

    • Corktree says:

      I certainly didn’t take her at her word. Most of the definitions I found support what she claims for both words, and none of them used “holder” to define yoni. I agree that it’s not helpful to seem uncomfortable saying vagina, but that’s not the point. Although maybe this is part of the reason it makes us uncomfortable?

      • veritasliberat says:

        And I wasn’t disagreeing with the Latin etymology of vagina. As for Sanskrit, there are a number of dictionaries on line.

    • veritasliberat says:

      Another difficulty with “yoni” is that it’s not terribly precise. It refers to the entire female genitalia, including the vulva and womb, not just the vagina.

  4. Anon for this says:

    I can’t believe ancient women gave men the name “penis” to describe their genitals. Using the word tail makes men look like they are just some type of beast of burden.

  5. CatherineWO says:

    I really like the word yoni, and would love to see it as a replacement term, but I have to agree with MJK that the bigger issue is the attitudes that are exhibited by the use (or lack of) of the term vagina (or any term that represents female genitalia). The word penis is bandied about all the time. It seems to roll off the tongues of people with relative ease. Vagina? Not so much. It just makes everyone uncomfortable or giggly or elicites crude remarks. (Heaven forbid that we talk about women’s sexuality in a respectful manner!) Maybe replacing the word with a different one, like yoni, would make it more acceptable, but I don’t know. It seems to be a vicious circle with no end. But thank you for bringing it up. It’s definitely worth our thought and discussion.

    • Corktree says:

      That’s what I’m thinking (or hoping), that by raising awareness with a change in terminology we might foster thought and dialogue on why it is we are so uncomfortable as a society in discussing female sexuality and organs. Replacing it isn’t so that we can circumvent the discomfort, but so that we can bring it out into the open and address it for what it is.

  6. I remember being shocked when I first heard the German word for vagina–it’s the current-day word for “sheath.” I like your idea of using “yoni.”

    I’m reading The Red Tent right now and I’m surprised by how familiar and comfortable the women were with their bodies. Part of me squirms to think of it–especially when I think of hearing the book read aloud or having a guy read it, but another part thinks, “Wow, that would be so nice.” Of course, the subjugation of the women isn’t awesome in any way.

  7. Miri says:

    I love this post, this idea, and that word–yoni. I went back and forth for a while, because MJK and CatherineWO bring up good points. But in the end I think I’m all for it. I’m a student of the English language and I think there’s no reason why we should continue to accept a word that is degrading down to its roots.

    In fact, just like the name itself, the awkwardness and discomfort surrounding the word vagina were “given” to us by men, and by centuries of brainwashing to believe that sexuality was simply unacceptable for women. Maybe that attitude is actually part of the definition of the word–maybe we can’t get rid of the “ewww gross” attitude until we get rid of the name.

    • Corktree says:

      Yes! I do think there is a sociological and psychological connection to why the word feels less than positive to us in general, and why we may benefit more from shedding it’s use than trying to make ourselves comfortable with it. To me, that’s like trying to make myself comfortable with what it represents, and I don’t like that idea at all.

    • Malisha B says:

      I have two comments but I will preface them by saying that I am neither a Mormon nor a feminist. But I thoroughly enjoy this blog.

      But if my understanding of the word “yoni” is correct, “origin of life” could that word be just as insulting to women that choose not to or cannot have children. It seems that you would be changing female genitalia from a “tool of man” to a “tool of child-bearing”. Still problematic.

      And two, is it so bad that “vagina” indicates a connectedness with males? (aside from LGBT concerns since that seems to be absent from this post anyway). Males and females are connected, and I believe created to be connected in these ways. So perhaps we should change the name of the penis to better reflect its incompleteness without a female aspect.

      Just a thought….

  8. alex w. says:

    A friend of mine is going to college (in Utah) to be a FACS teacher. Health education is included in what she learns how to teach (in addition to sewing, cooking, interior design, budgeting, etc.). On one of the first days of learning about teaching sex ed, the professor had the entire class repeat “vagina” and “penis” loudly because they needed to be comfortable saying it when they’re teaching students. I’m glad her professor recognized the problem of being embarrassed to say these words and incorporated it into the class.

    • Mike H. says:

      The woman teaching a La Maze class we went to before the birth of our first child had all of us there, husbands and wives, say “vagina”, and told us “see, no one ran over to wash our mouths out”. This was in Provo.

      But, as a male, so, I’m afraid if I say “penis”, it will come off as bragging about sexual prowess, even if it’s not about that.

  9. TopHat says:

    I’m a stickler about the difference between a vulva and a vagina, so we’ve taught our daughter “vulva” since that’s what she can see. Now I’m a little afraid to look up the etymology of vulva.

    • Corktree says:

      Actually, the primary word that seems to come up for yoni in definition IS vulva. I do think it would be nice to differentiate between the two, but first things first 😉 And as far as I found, vulva has strange etymology. “Wrapper” is one interpretation, and it comes from a verb that means to “to turn, twist, roll, revolve”. Hmm.

    • Mike H. says:

      Our daughter never did ask about that area of her body, so this didn’t come up until I first told her about birth & sex when she was 8. We did use the correct name of penis from the start with our sons, no dodging that one with euphemisms, like so many do.

      Though, the post TopHat had some weeks ago at her blog had a short video that taught me a some new euphemisms for vagina. 😉

  10. Whatever the word might be changed to, what is to keep the new word from being devolved into a “cutesy” word some people use, like “hoo-ha”, “Va-jay-jay”, etc.?

    Also, is it possible for a word to break free of its entymology?

    • Corktree says:

      Yes, I think it’s both possible that using “yoni” would just become a source of humor, and for a word to break free of its etymology. But yoni is an actual word for something, and hoo-ha and va-jay-jay are made up replacements for people who are uncomfortable. Maybe that would make a difference, but I think the key is the discomfort. Clearly, vagina isn’t yet free from bias and judgement and association with various preconceived ideas that are both cultural, sociological, biological, and psychological. So, even though people don’t know its roots, doesn’t mean they don’t conflate it with negative ideas about female sexuality.

      I don’t know, it just represents something larger to me. I know “yoni” isn’t a perfect solution.

  11. veritasliberat says:

    Vagina vagina vagina.

  12. spunky says:

    “But even more than that, yoni is the “origin of life” in Hindu Tantric philosophy, and also referred to as the “divine mother of all”. Isn’t that a lovely image?”

    I think this is too problematic; after all- transexuals (natural or surgical) can’t give life with an imperfect or man-made “yoni”, and women with fertility issues could be further degraded by the lack of life their “yoni” offers. I think the term “yoni” is fine for midwifery, but outside of that– I prefer having a vagina so my sex isn’t further defined on my ability (or not) to give life (birth)- which again, is only possible if a man is involved.

    I see nothing wrong with an empty (disarmed) scabbard/vagina which can be used for just plain fun and joy, but there are heavy psychological issues involved in a dysfunctional (infertile) yoni when it’s name and origin are defined in something that is not possible for all females.

    • Corktree says:

      I understand where you’re coming from Spunky and I’m sorry if I came across as insensitive. However, I should have clarified that the term in Hinduism was not simply referring to the origin of fetal life, but to the Divine Female as the creator of all life, and therefore hopefully more applicable to all women. But I totally get that this would not always come across clearly or be comforting. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

      • spunky says:

        I dunno. Again the transgender/naturally imperfect body thing. “all women”– why do we need a mortal/physical body part that defines us as female, especially in an age rife with natural and surgically-created body parts? The Missing Vagina monologue is very telling in the way that the medical/physical mind sees what is female, in contrast to what one feels about themselves. So– defining the divine feminine in terms of a physical “life giving” attribute distances me from the cause. Can’t we just be divine and female without giving life through a traditioanl symbolic body part, regardless of the name?

    • amelia says:

      I’m with Spunky on this one, too. One of the things I hate the very most about LDS rhetoric about women is the conflation of “woman” with “mother.” I understand and appreciate the potential connection to the divine feminine, but even there the divine feminine is represented in terms of motherhood to some extent. I get it. The divine feminine is a mother and a creator of life. Women often are mothers. But I really, really bridle at “woman” being reduced to “mother” or “birthing.” And I think a term like “yoni,” with the definitions you give here, would lend itself far too easily to reducing “woman” to “mother” or “birthing.” I am a woman. I have a vagina. I have not given life and may never do so. I still have a vagina. And I for one don’t think that “mother” is the only important characteristic of the divine feminine. I’d rather keep a flawed term like vagina which (as I point out below) does not actually necessarily mean that women exist to serve men and which also does not necessarily conflate “woman” with “mother” or “birth.” Especially given that the word “vagina” has been in common usage long enough to have escaped the potential negative associations of its original etymology you mention here. The other problems–the snickering, the funny or cutesy nicknames, etc.–those have little to do with the word itself and much, much more to do with larger issues that can be addressed in more productive ways (after all, what’s to keep these negative attitudes and behaviors from transitioning to the new word? I’m unconvinced that a new name would actually do a whole lot to eradicate these negative ways of thinking about women/women’s sexuality).

  13. Rebecca J says:

    What do you think of the word ‘yoni’ as a replacement?

    I think it sounds pretentious, unless you’re planning to switch to Sanskrit for all your other language needs as well. In English it’s a vagina, and calling it a something else isn’t going to change what anyone thinks about it.

    • Corktree says:

      Yes, but English is already made up of words and combinations of words from many other languages. And vagina itself is latin based. And I believe it is debatable that changing what we call something won’t change what people think about it. There is well documented power in naming things and in using names that mean something to us and help us to acknowledge reality. Maybe for some, that power comes from calling it a vagina (as clearly demonstrated in the Vagina Monologues) but maybe for others, they would be able to own and access the power that comes from calling it something else, and maybe we really would see more respectful and less inhibited dialogue concerning female sexuality.

      • spunky says:

        Since you mentioned it– how ’bout the Missing Vagina Monologue for women who don’t have vaginas?

      • Rebecca J says:

        If I thought that anyone connected the word “vagina” with “scabbard” or “sheath,” perhaps I’d feel differently. I think people are uncomfortable with “vagina” because either a) it’s too “clinical” or b) it refers to something they’re uncomfortable talking about. Yoni, at this point, is just another euphemism. Maybe if enough people use it over the next several hundred years, it will become something else. But if we’re going to have less inhibited and more respectful dialogue concerning female sexuality, we’ll have to come up with comfier alternatives to some other words as well.

      • Corktree says:

        All valid points. I agree that it would start out as little more than a euphemism and probably isn’t enough to change current attitudes about female sexuality, but it doesn’t make me feel better about it.

      • Miri says:

        I’ll admit, this is what held me up in the first place–I would hate using a word that others are using as just another cutesy euphemism.

  14. EM says:

    I’m very comfortable with the word “vagina”; I’ve said the word right from the beginning with my kids, so there’s no uncomfortable feelings or giggles. Just be glad you’re not from the Province of Saskatchewan, Canada, where it’s capital is Regina – I love saying it, because it makes some people take a second “what did you say?”

  15. nat kelly says:

    Yoni! I like it!

    I don’t see it catching on, because the term vagina has become political in its own right — think Vagina Monologues. It is a term that has been owned by the feminist movement. I had never heard of its etymological origins, and agree 100% that its total bullshit.

    I like yoni. If that bandwagon gets started, I’ll be on it.

  16. Chibby says:

    The biggest problems I have with names for female anatomy are that slang names are used as insults and put downs, and that the whole is referred to by the name of a part. A vulva is so much more than the vagina, and calling it the vagina is like calling the entire mouth a tongue…
    I like the symbolism in yoni, but is does seem to me to be just another euphemism, and perhaps even infantalizing, just another ‘pet’ name.

    • Corktree says:

      Agreed. I’m starting to wonder if it wouldn’t be more productive to just start using “vulva” more (since you’re right, it’s usually more accurate anyway). Plus, people would still generally understand what’s being talked about and it has the added benefit of not having such a negative etymological history.

      And yes, the fact that slang for female anatomy is used derogatorily is a sign of another aspect of the problem.

  17. Ben says:

    Since when did men invent and then teach women language? Who says these are the names men came up with and women passively accepted? Any sources to back up that assertion?

    Moreover, the etymology of a word does not define a word; most words today have wandered from their original etymology, some nearer, some farther. Words are defined by their usage in context, which is why dictionaries have to have new definitions added and old ones drop out as the language shifts.

    • amelia says:

      I agree with Ben on this one. How do we know the word “vagina” was foisted upon us by men in some act of men subjugating and dominating women? I just don’t really buy that. I understand that modern western medicine has been dominated by men, but I’m not convinced that this means the term “vagina” was the notion of men and represents misogyny and violence against women, or that it represents women’s sex organs as existing only in the service of men/male sex organs. Frankly, it’s quite descriptive to conceive of a vagina as something that sheaths a penis. That’s exactly what it does in the act of heterosexual intercourse. I don’t think the metaphor of sword and sheath has to necessarily imply that women exist only in service of men or to “cover” male egos. It can also imply that the union of female and male leads to peace and/or life, rather than destruction and death. After all, a sheathed sword no longer wreaks havoc. I’m not advocating this particular interpretation, nor suggesting it’s a dominant one; I’m simply pointing out that there are alternative interpretations that are not violent or destructive or which do not imply female subjection to men.

      I understand the attraction of proposing new terms and of changing language to create greater gender equity. However, I’m also a believer in acknowledging the world we live in and making it work when we can (and I think we can more often than not). I think our energies would be better focused on helping people become comfortable with women as sexual creatures, with women’s sexual organs and naming them as they are currently know, than on trying to establish another name for a vagina and one which (let’s face it) sounds rather cutesy and new-agey and would be almost certainly misappropriated as just another euphemism. This kind of proposal strikes me as a kind of escapist construction of a fantastic alternate reality which is so impractical as to effectively render itself impotent. I see more power in working within the existing structures to make them less flawed. Especially when the potentially disturbing original etymology is essentially invisible to the vast majority of English language speakers.

    • kmillecam says:

      I don’t know why we can’t agree on the fact that since vagina comes from a Latin word from when men were almost solely in the power position for choosing the framing for the language, then it’s a logical conclusion that the sheath meaning is linked to patriarchy.

      That said, I can see how Ben’s issue with etymology is valid. I hadn’t thought of that. I also like how Amelia points out that there are other interpretations of the sword/sheath image, and that perhaps my aversion to it has to do with something else that has to do with our culture and society and not the word itself. But I still just can’t get past the idea that, like Corktree’s reaction to finding out the Latin root, it’s uncomfortable to think that a vagina is defined by it’s sheathing of the male penis. I’ll think about it more and see what I can observe about my thought process on that.

      • Ben says:

        I suppose it depends on what you’re positing as a source, or what period we’re talking about.

        If we’re talking about what term the Romans used, then there’s no way to assign sexism, because language grows in organic ways.

        If we’re talking about the development of medical terminology, it’s probably somewhat connected to Latin tradition, but I’d agree that men have dominated it. However, I apparently have a higher threshhold for yelling “sexism”; I wouldn’t rely on a midwife textbook for an adequate description of terminology or usage, either in history of medical terminology or native Roman/Latin usage.
        How do you know “sheath” is being used functionally, as opposed to descriptively? Latin semantic range, like other ancient languages, often fails to overlap completely with English. From the OP, there’s no indication of evidence, just a short gloss in a textbook. IOW, I think you’re reading an awful lot in to a little bit. It may very well turn out to be true (though I suspect the necessary Latinate contextual examples would be rare), but it’s not established.

  18. veritasliberat says:

    Great post, Amelia!

  19. Left Field says:

    This topic was discussed previously here: http://www.feministmormonhousewives.org/?p=1377 , where you can read my view.

    How is “yoni” pronounced anyway? YOH-knee? YAWN-ee? Ya-KNEE?

  20. Corktree says:

    YOH-knee. Thanks for the link, it was helpful to read the arguments there as well.

    And thanks for all the respectful comments, even the ones that disagreed. It has been helpful to me to see both sides and to unpack the pros and cons of changing the term and addressing the larger issues from this angle. I think we still have a long way to go before vagina works for us in treating female sexuality positively, and I’m personally going to use vulva much more with my children (thanks for the idea Heather!) and yoni where it may be appropriate (even if it is “new age-y”). But this discussion has helped me to be less angry about this specific issue (even though I still don’t like how the word came about and still believe it has misogynistic undertones) and more focused on wanting to help women just discuss their anatomy positively at all (and help model this for men as well).

    • Corktree says:

      Also, I want to acknowledge that what seemed like a preference for “yoni” was likely coming from my own filter as a mother and positive associations with that, and I’m sorry if it came across as me thinking it was potentially better because of that. It wasn’t my intention at all and I’m grateful for the added perspective that helps me to see others more clearly and to be more inclusive.

      • kmillecam says:

        I read you in the best possible light, because I know you well. I think it’s good for mothers to realize they have mother privilege in Mormon circles, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be honest about what speaks to us. If the meaning of the word “yoni” is comforting to you, then it is.

        Perhaps we can hear more from what would be meaningful and comforting to the single folks and women who do not have children for whatever reason?

  21. Ben says:

    And lo!, here you go, from the online etymological dictionary (still not a great source, but best I can find in the moment.)

    “1680s, from L. vagina “sheath, scabbard” (pl. vaginae), from PIE *wag-ina- (cf. Lith. voziu “ro cover with a hollow thing”), from base *wag- “to break, split, bite.” Probably the ancient notion is of a sheath made from a split piece of wood (see sheath). **A modern medical word; the Latin word was not used in an anatomical sense in classical times.** “

  22. Alisa says:

    I think it’s entirely likely that vagina or sheath (Anglo Saxon English word prior to the Norman invasion) could mean a sheath or covering for a child being born. It may be totally likely that it’s the holder for the child or another word for birth canal. So it can relate to motherhood (at the offense of women who are not mothers) or to women’s sexuality as a cover or holder for penis (at the offense of women who haven’t had sex).

  23. heather says:

    the term vagina doesn’t bother me at all. one of the things i like most about my vagina is that it is a sheath for my husband’s penis. it’s a symbiotic relationship.

  24. Left Field says:

    As a professor who teaches both biology and anatomy, I think attributing violent and misogynistic images to the etymology of vagina is reading way, way too much into the word. Structures are often named based on rather fanciful descriptions of their shape or other properties. The middle ear bones, the malleus, incus, and stapes (hammer, anvil, and stirrup) are named because their shape more or less vaguely resembles those objects, not because anyone imagined some symbolism of hammers striking an anvil. Even “sword” itself is used as a description without the slightest suggestion of violent imagery. The xyphoid process (xyphos = sword in Greek) is the lower tip of the sternum, and doesn’t much resemble a sword to me, but clearly, nobody was thinking of slashing with a blade when they named it. The taxon Xiphosura (“sword-tail”) describes the shape of a horseshoe crab’s telson, but doesn’t suggest anything violent about the animal.

    A sheath of course, describes lots of things that have nothing to do with a blade. In biology, a leaf sheath is the part of the leaf that surrounds a grass stem. Several anatomical “sheaths” surround nerves and blood vessels. The prostatic sheath surrounds the prostate. The myelin sheath surrounds the axon of a nerve cell. A fascial sheath surrounds the eyeball, and a rectus sheath covers the abdominal muscles. And so on. None of these suggest anything except a covering. More to the point, men also have a “vagina” of sorts. The vaginal processes of the male embryonic peritoneum extend down the inguinal canals into the scrotal sac and form a “sheath” through which the testes descend. Around the time of birth, the vaginal process closes off, and the membrane forms a sheath around the testis known as the tunica vaginalis.

    I have a real hard time imagining anything untoward about the naming of the vagina, any more than the sheathing involved in naming the tunica vaginalis, the myelin sheath, or the prostatic sheath. It’s just a description of the shape and function of the anatomical structure. The vagina forms a sheath around either a baby or a penis, and even when empty, still is shaped like a sheath. Nor can I see anything untoward about the fact that a mammalian vagina surrounds a mammalian penis. Both are sexual organs functioning as they are supposed to, and a name recognizing that relationship seems apt. I don’t really understand the discomfort with a name that might draw attention to its sexual function. And in any case, I think the etymology is irrelevant to how and whether the word should be used today. I’m perfectly comfortable referring to gymnasts and gymnasiums despite the etymological association with nudity. I would think it a bit odd if that were used that as a reason to try to come up with a new word for gymnastics.

    And if we’re going to fret about etymologies, at least we can thank our lucky stars that humans have vaginas and tunicae vaginalis rather than a cloaca.

    • kamisaki says:

      excellent analysis.

    • Corktree says:

      I should clarify that the explanation of the origin that I read first, used Roman soldiers as an example of who first coined the term, because they “collected vaginas for their swords” and then began to use this term for their female friends “back home”. Now, admittedly, this isn’t the only way the term was probably used, or the most accurate history, but it still colors the way that I and other women that have heard this definition view and interpret it’s meaning as coming from men. So it makes it more difficult to separate the two. And as Miri above points out, for many years, female sexuality was absolutely defined by men (though this doesn’t imply we are blaming men today, don’t take it personally) and that this may be part of the reason that women are uncomfortable subconsciously with using vagina for themselves even today, sort of a leftover impression. But maybe not, it’s just part of the discussion that needs to happen to correct the problem of women (and men) still not being entirely comfortable with the word and looking at different reasons why this may be so.

      I completely agree that it’s possible the term sheath was seen as little more than an apt description of the function of a vagina to whomever wrote the first medical textbook. But that doesn’t make my initial reaction less real, and it doesn’t completely invalidate this discussion. I appreciate those that have tried to help me see the reality of the issue with kindness, but let’s not continue to get bogged down in the details that are no longer being argued.

      • Corktree says:

        And I’ve read too many accounts of war and rape victims in Africa where men used women’s vagina’s as *actual* sheaths for their swords, so I find it hard to believe that men have never connected the two in this way.

      • Question (not trying to add to the argument, just curious) – did the Romans not have a proper name for the vagina? English has lots of derogatory (or at least more offensive) words for it that leaves vagina a more clinical term.

        Aside from that, if vagina is an example of male oppression and is the reason for women being uncomfortable with the word, why are men also uncomfortable with it?

      • Corktree says:

        Good questions, and I don’t know the history well enough to answer, I admit. It only serves to point out the source of my visceral reaction, not the accuracy of the account.

        As for men’s discomfort, I don’t know either, but I suspect it’s just general discomfort with women owning their sexuality or men being uncomfortable with something they don’t understand, that is by nature very mysterious because it can’t readily be seen. Just my first thoughts, but others are welcome to share.

        (and I meant *actual* swords, not *actual* sheaths)

  25. kamisaki says:

    I do frequently get annoyed by things like this, particularly if I stew over it. However, the word has been used for a very long time, the vast majority are not linguistic experts, and I don’t see changing the word to be the issue. The real issue is the continued devaluing of women and their place in relation to men in this world. The etymology of vagina is neither here nor there. I am a labor and delivery nurse. Vaginas are my life, so to speak. I have no trouble saying the word, and my 2 young boys and my 4 year old daughter also know the correct use of the word. I would never even think of using nicknames for body parts, menstruation, etc. I find that disrespectful to the magnificent machine which is our body. However, “vagina” is what it is called. There are myriad injustices in our language. If we start nitpicking all those nuances and offensive origins, we’ll drive ourselves crazy. The only way we would be able to make our language gender-respecting and equal would be to create a whole new language entirely. Vagina is only one such word. We are evolving little by little “stewardess, actress, waitress, etc.” have all gone by the wayside. We could try to make a new word for vagina stick in society, and I certainly wouldn’t complain, but I think the word is far from the real issue surrounding vaginas and their owners, and their relation to the male counterpart in our society. And, thank God for vaginas. Without them, and their “tail” companion, I would be out of a job 😉

  26. Jenne says:

    I personally like the imagery of the vagina as a scabbard and the reminder that the female’s vagina is made as biological complement of the male penis. A reference to sex doesn’t (in my head) equate woman with giving sex or woman with giving birth. To me, it the simple observation that the vagina and penis make sex physically possible. I’m perfectly happy to separate sex from reproduction in this case but that could be because I like sex.

  27. jen says:

    I don’t like knowing the origin of the word vagina, and at the same time, I think trying to change the word isn’t helpful. I’m one of those that has struggled to even admit that I have one. For so long, I’ve believed the vagina is disgusting, and I am weaker just because there’s one of those down there…

    For me, I want to be able to claim the word vagina. I don’t want to pretend that it is anything other than what it IS. Maybe later, I’ll want to change the word… I’m just not even close to being there yet.

  28. Eleia says:

    Personally, I feel like my reproductive parts are worthy of a name better than one that means “sheath for a sword”. My vagina/yoni/whatever-you-want-to-call-it has much more significance than a place to stick a dick – which is what vagina means. It was Roman slang, from what I’ve read. It’s degrading.
    I prefer yoni, whether or not it’s specific or general, whether or not other people like it and whether or not anyone else even understands it. It’s a respectful term for a body part that gives birth to new life and deserves more respect than the word vagina offers.

  29. dle says:

    the term cunt has a much better ring and historically a powerful strong origin but degraded in society to offend most..however that being said many anatomical names have grossly inappropriate origins. perception is everything and if the vagina is capable of rendering a weapon utilized to kill useless i am ok with that.

    • dle says:

      p.s many women an are extremely offended when their sexuality is reduced to baby making machinery and additionally what should infertile women call their vagina the black hole? which i actually like for the vast possibilities and vast unknowns

  30. Joe says:

    Is this really something people are getting upset over? Just get over it and try not to be offended by little things like this that just distract from what’s really important in life. Men and Women have equally important roles in the sight of God. Try to remember that next time you find yourself giving a crap about what the world said about one of your body parts however many years ago.

  31. inicia says:

    yes in a blog about the nomenclature of body parts and the historical origin- the input should be relegated to everything but discussion and discourse of the feelings that arise from knowledge of the word’s origin . try to get with the program”you people” just don’t get it.. lol

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