A linguist unpacks the English language’s squirmy repertoire of vagina slang.
“Call it sushi. Another woman's sushi."
Ten points for anyone who can clock this iconic TV quote, immortalizing just one of hundreds of vagina euphemisms that English-speaking society has concocted to avoid uttering the actual word. (For the answer, you’ll just have to keep reading.)
Hundreds of slang terms for one single body part might seem excessive (after all, how many euphemisms can you think of for, say, your earlobe?), but considering the innate taboo of human genitalia, it makes sense that we’d come up with so many nicknames, metaphors, and slang terms for it, and presumably people have been doing so since our ancestors first opened their mouths and started chatting.
There exists an actual record of this: In 2013, a British slang lexicographer named Jonathon Green published the single most exhaustive catalog of euphemisms for the vagina ever assembled. Green and his team of researchers unsheathed hundreds of vagina terms dating back centuries — ranging from classics like “beaver” and “snatch box” to the more flamboyant “carnal mantrap,” “ringerangeroo,” “mossy doughnut,” and “dry-mouthed widow” — before organizing them on a nifty NSFW timeline.
Whether it’s out of shame, humor, sexiness, or a combination of the three, we English speakers will take any excuse to avoid referring to vulvas and vaginas by their most straightforward labels… and evidently, we always have. Even the very first “private part” terms we learn as children are euphemistic: pet names like “hoo hoo,” “gi-gi,” and “tootie” were some of the code words I heard growing up in the ‘90s, in addition to dessert and botanical-themed terms like “flower,” “cookie,” and “honey pot.” Though doctors agree that using accurate genitalia terms “helps children develop a healthy, more positive body image,” and countless articles have been published over the past 25 years encouraging parents not to be so squeamish, puritanism and patriarchy run deep, and terms like “vagina,” “vulva,” and “labia” are still not quite normalized (in fact, children sometimes get in trouble for using direct language like this at school).
With the emergence of pop culture and the internet, even more vagina euphemisms have exploded onto our vocabularies. Sex and the City gave us “sushi” (10 points for everyone); Superbad popularized the ever-so-blunt “VADGE”; Borat put the exotic and vaguely edible-sounding “vagine” on the map. Just a cursory search of vagina slang in the Urban Thesaurus produced so many cringe-inducing vagina nicknames (from “whisker biscuit” to “lady cave” to “velvet buzzsaw”??), merely scrolling through them rendered me cross-eyed. Earlier this year, a TikTok went viral for describing the difference between women who have “innies” and “outies” (the latter referring to vulvas with inner labia that extend past the outer labia). The video’s 20-something speaker commented on how she’d always felt ashamed of having an “outie,” growing up with unflattering, fast food-themed genitalia slang like “burger,” “beef sandwich,” and “meat wallet.” “Every panini is beautiful,” she told the lens, cheekily, adding, “I’ve only ever had compliments on my lil Arby’s roast beef.”
Now, when Green compiled his genitalia slang timeline, it wasn’t just for giggles — he was aiming to identify what our history of vagina terms might reveal about our cultural attitudes toward bodies and sex in general. Perhaps the starkest pattern he spotted was how consistent, and how perturbing, the themes of our genitalia euphemisms have remained over the decades. As Green told the press shortly after his study was published, “The penis is often going to be some kind of weapon, the vagina some kind of narrow passage [“butcher knife,” “sword,” “pocket rocket,” etc.], intercourse some way of saying ‘man hits woman.’”
In 2019, I published a book about sex, gender, and language called Wordslut, and during my research, I spoke about the relationship between genitalia slang and feminism with Lal Zimman, a sociocultural linguist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Overall it’s really clear that the way we talk about genitals is a super concentrated representation of how we think about sex and gender,” Zimman told me. “The research that people have done on heteronormative gender naming really shows that our worst cultural values are reflected in the ways we talk about genitals. Like penises are always weapons that exist for penetrating, sex is always violence, and women and vaginas are passive and absence, just a place to put a penis.”
The language used to describe vaginas in TV shows and movies plays a profound role in reinforcing these “values.” Actually, one of my favorite feminist language stories to tell (we all need one, don’t we?), detailing the origins of the term “vajayjay,” takes place on the set of the hit T.V. series Grey’s Anatomy. According to an interview with the show’s creator, the legendary Shonda Rhimes, it was about 15 years ago when an early episode featured the word “penis” 32 times in its script. That’s a lot of penises, but since this was a show about anatomy and all, nobody flinched. Then, in the same episode, the writers tried to work “vagina” into the text just twice. Again, this was a medical show about human bodies. But suddenly, network higher-ups were squirming. The word “vagina,” as it happened, made the (mostly male) TV overlords nervous.
It was around this time when Shonda Rhimes heard an assistant use the word “vajayjay” on set, and to deal with the whole “vagina” drama, this cutesy alternative was written onto the show. Instantly, America fell in love with it. Soon, everyone had worked “vajayjay” into their vocabularies: gynecologists, Oprah Winfrey, and (I’m displeased to report) my own high school health class teacher.
Some of why people appreciated “vajayjay” was that, unlike so many other vagina slang terms, this one was female-invented and felt like it belonged to women. Plus, the sound of the word was friendlier than “vagina” (and certainly friendlier than “twat” and similarly vulgar alternatives). That repetition of “jay-jay” is reminiscent of baby language, like “goo-goo ga-ga.” It made it sound cuter and more welcoming —“it” being both the word itself and the general concept of female sexuality, which has a long history of censorship, linguistic and otherwise.
At the same time, not everyone was totally on board with precious, adorable “vajayjay” (Rhimes herself was salty that they had to come up with it in the first place). After all, why must the idea of female sexuality only be palatable when it’s branded as cute? Not to mention, technically, the vagina is just the part of the vulva connecting the uterus to the outside world — the canal itself. The “place to put a penis.” Nicknames from “vajayjay” to “sushi” to “vadge” certainly sound catchy for television, but ultimately, even innocent-seeming slang terms for the vulva can perpetuate taboo, shame, straight-up confusion, and problematic misinformation about gender and genitalia.
How we talk about our bodies is a deeply personal choice that we often take for granted, and the truth is that if one decides that “vajayjay” or “honey pot” don’t really represent sex or their bodies as they experience them, then they don’t have to use this terminology just because taught us to. Our language can be as personal and customizable as our bodies themselves, and we can come up with our own entirely new terms if we so desire. A few years ago, I asked a bunch of my female friends if they could rename their equipment anything they wanted, what would it be? Their responses ranged from silly to saucy, my favorites including “galaxy” (vulvas are intricate and otherworldly, after all) and “VCVC,” which stands for the delightfully comprehensive phrase vaginal-cliteral-vulval complex.
Of course, one cannot expect the complete, overnight dissolution of our existing vocabulary of problematic vagina slang. But I’m into the idea of inviting women and genderqueer folks to name their bodies on their own terms, regardless of what TV shows, porn, or even doctors tell them to say. For example, if you’ve always secretly hated the slippery phono-symbolism and feline implications of the word “pussy,” maybe try coming up with a word that sounds bolder and stronger. Have fun with it. (Tumblr has long since provided safer spaces for queer folks in particular to experiment with and share inclusive genitalia slang.) We could start by using our words of choice just with sexual partners, then move on to using them with our friends, then bring them to the internet, and eventually, who knows? Maybe, little by little, the intention behind them will sink in, until one day, we won’t feel cringed-out by vagina euphemisms (or our bodies in general) at all.