Why can’t we call a woman, a woman?

Searching for a name at an early age…

There is a problem with the word ‘woman’. I am in my late thirties and, although I am racking my brains, I can’t actually recall being referred to as a woman. Ten years ago I would be called a girl, and now it is usually lady. Just today, a woman said to their child who was standing in my way, “move out of the way for the lady.”

I find myself doing the same. I feel awkward in referring to my peers as women, even though it is difficult to decide on a suitable alternative, when ‘girls’ is surely too babyish and ‘ladies’ sounds like a toilet or a day at Ascot. We were in a restaurant recently and I wanted my daughter to ask for her own juice. The waitress stood there expectantly, and I said, “tell the nice lady what you want.” Nice lady? At the last minute, saying ‘woman’ sounded all wrong, ‘waitress’ too menial and using the name on her badge too familiar. ‘Lady’ seemed to be the most polite term, but what is wrong with ‘woman’?

The French have a neat solution, calling their women ‘Mademoiselle’ – an elegant and graceful word (has anyone not grinned inside after being referred to as Mademoiselle?) – until they are married or noticeably over the age of thirty, and then ‘Madame’ – which has gravitas and dignity – thereafter. But in English, ‘Miss’ is outdated and ‘Mrs’ too much like ‘her indoors.’

Even the French word for woman – une femme – is not half as loaded as its English counterpart. ‘Woman’ sounds like a statement of gender: a police report, medical description (‘a 39 year old woman presenting with the following symptoms…’) or Carrie from Sex and the City affirming ‘I. AM. A. WO-MAN.’

It is natural to write the word ‘woman,’ but can you say it?

If there are problems with ‘woman,’ far worse is the lack of suitable names for a woman’s ‘bits.’ ‘Vagina’ is medical, cringe-inducing and unpopular, ‘fanny’ is old-fashioned and associated with Enid Blyton, not to mention it is what North Americans call their bottom (a bum-bag is a ‘fanny-pack’ in the US). Then there are the babyish names: ‘Foo-foo,’ ‘Woo-woo,’ and the unparalleled ‘Rudy Judy,’ that may work for the three-year old girl but not one ten years older. And it is rarely acceptable just to point or to pull a face and say “down there.”

A quick Google search on the issue highlights a webpage boasting ‘238 words for a vagina.’ 238, really? Surely that is more than the eskimos have for snow. But we don’t build our houses out of vaginas and nor do we melt them to make water. So why are we so obsessed with naming them? The answer may be that most of the 238 names were thought up by men. The vagina list includes names associated with semi-aquatic rodents, shellfish and Mexican food which conjure up fairly disgusting imagery and I doubt were invented by women to describe their own body parts: ‘beaver,’ ‘clam’ or ‘taco’ anyone? But I could be wrong.

In a desperate bid to to come up with an inoffensive moniker that wouldn’t cause undue embarrassment if our little ones shouted it across Sainsbury’s (which of course they do, all the time), we turn to euphemisms. My husband (only when absolutely necessary) will refer vaguely to our daughter’s ‘bits and pieces,’ which could equally be used to describe the contents of a toolbox. When a friend’s daughter asked recently where babies come out, she told her that they come out of your ‘front-bottom’. “I didn’t know what else to call it”, she whispered. And nor do any of us.

No doubt due to my hesitation to refer to her vagina at all, my four-year old daughter has christened hers, her ‘bo bo’. “Boys have willies and girls have bo-bos,” is what she tells me when taking a bath with her brothers. My failure has led to my child being forced to invent names for her body parts. Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say.

Is this a big social problem? Well, no, not really, but it is irritating, particularly since the difference for men in all this, is that there are fewer negative connotations. A ‘willy’ is so harmless that it is acceptable as a first name for a boy (I doubt there are many girl babies born these days with the name ‘Fanny’) and slang names for penis tend to denote strength and power (‘manhood,’ oh purleeease) or harmless comedy (‘mini [insert man’s name here]’). Admittedly, ‘dick’ has become a bit ridiculous and is now interchangeable with ‘idiot’ but it is not half as bad as ‘gaping axe wound.’ Why can’t vaginas have a non-sexual name as inoffensive and universally used as ‘willy’? One that doesn’t make you blush and cross your legs when you hear it?

Equally, we can refer to a man as a ‘man’ or a ‘guy’ without hesitating and worrying that we are saying the wrong thing. Women need to have a ‘guy’ equivalent: there are many alternatives to the word ‘woman,’ but most of them you wouldn’t want to be called. Perhaps ‘woman’ is the best option after all.

So, I have made a pact with myself to use the word ‘woman’ more regularly, rather than ‘girl’ or ‘lady,’ in the hope that I get used to it and no-one is mortally offended when I call them a woman. They certainly shouldn’t be. We will see. As to the vagina issue, I will let my young daughter lead the way: for our family, ‘bo-bo’ it is.

Cuddle Fairy
This Mum's Life


34 thoughts on “Why can’t we call a woman, a woman?

  1. This is so brilliant. I have thought ALL of these things. Quite frequently. Lady is ridiculous! But woman sounds all wrong, argh. And the girl bits thing, grrr. Where’s the female willy word indeed?! Loved this post. Kimberly x

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I too have thought about all of these things. My favourite word for female genitalia is: ‘Quim’, but probably a bit too comedic for young children. We’ve resorted to ‘Noo Noo’ in our household but as my daughter gets older I really just try to say ‘Vagina’ without smirking.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Reminds me of a friend of mine in our teens having a complaint made against here whilst working in Waitrose because she referred to someone as ‘Woman” rather than “Lady’! #bloggerclubuk


  4. This isn’t something that has crossed my mind until now, but you are right. I never use the word ‘woman’ often opting for ‘lady’, but why? I need to sort this too! Thanks so much for linking up at #KCACOLS, hope you come back again next Sunday xx

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Do you know what, I have NEVER noticed this bizarre twist of the English language. You are so right though…woman does sound so harsh, why is that? I’m going to be trying to squeeze in a few W-bombs tomorrow and see how it goes off…
    Loving your work, thanks for sharing with #coolmumclub x

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I get what you mean it’s all a bit over the top isn’t it. Why can’t we just call things what they are! However I can’t imagine saying ‘tell the MAN what you want’ either. I would have probably just said ‘tell her what you want or tell the waiter/waitress what you want’ but oh it’ so confusing. Thanks for the interesting read!

    Amina xx | http://www.AliandHer.com


    1. Thanks Amina. Yes, it should be straightforward but somehow it isn’t. I do think that ‘woman’ is less acceptable than ‘man’ – it seems to have negative connotations attached to it which is daft! Thanks for reading. Tabitha x


  7. So funny! I remember at my old job I answered the phone to someone and said something along the lines of “Just hold the line for a moment Madam.” She HIT. THE. ROOF. and gave me an earful about calling her madam.
    What should I have called her then? Lady? Woman? Mrs? Where is the correct word (I always thought it was madam, but there we go!)


  8. I referred to a man as a guy once and he blew up on me! Haha, oh dear. You are so right though, I think saying ‘woman’ can come across as a bit rude. God knows why though. I hate being called ‘lady’, but maybe that’s ana ge thing.


    Liked by 1 person

  9. Funnily enough I use the word woman more than lady, but that may be down to my profession as I’m a nurse so we use it all the time! #bigpinklink

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I hadnt really realised that I never really say woman until I read this post. I guess I hadnt really thought of why before either, but a lot of what youve said here rings true for me too. As for the other naming convention dillema, we call it minky over here which actually makes me laugh to see it written. My older nieces and nephews called it that and when it came to telling our little one what to call it, I couldnt think of anything else so followed the family convention and now its stuck. I heard another blogger refer to it as twinkle with her little one recently and actually much prefer that! Great post, thanks for sharing it on #MarvMondays. Emily

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Seriously 238 words – that’s crazy. I’m bringing up my kids to use the correct words, vagina and penis so we don’t get all silly. Time to grow up and be a woman! #MarvMondays


  12. I really enjoyed reading this post – very interesting and much food for thought. It’s true it seems almost rude to call somebody “woman” even though it shouldn’t be so. Sometimes things are so ingrained that you don’t even think about it. Thanks for pointing it out! #bigpinklink

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I’d never really thought about this before I read this post. I always say ‘lady’ rather than ‘woman’!
    We don’t have a very original name in our house. Just ‘bits and pieces’!!



  14. Spent a lot of time teaching the difference between words used to describe men/women (Eng Lang AL). Gender asymmetry and semantic derogation. Still no solutions, however!!


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