Terms for the Penis Among American College Students

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In 1990, linguist Deborah Cameron was teaching a class on language and gender when a male student mentioned that he and his roommates had once had a contest to see how many terms they could name for the "male member." Then a female student mentioned that she and her friends had done the same thing. In the paper Cameron subsequently published ("Naming of Parts: Gender, culture, and terms for the penis among American college students"), she said her "interest was piqued by this exchange. I wondered why college students apparently consider the activity of listing penis terms interesting and enjoyable. I also wondered what an analysis of the terms themselves might tell us about American English and…American culture." And so, she and her students did a study. As one does.

They had two groups of students, one male, one female, come up with as many terms as they could. What they learned was that while there are many, many (oh so many) penis terms in American English, they can be categorized according to a very few basic metaphors. But, unsurprisingly, men and women have different takes on those metaphors.

Because it's National Thesaurus Day (it exists!), let's take a look at some of the terms.

It's a person

Dick, Peter, Johnson, Mr. Happy. Some of these names suggested an intimate friendliness, but for the male group, most of those in the personification category carried a sense of authority (his Excellency, your Majesty, the commissioner) or referenced powerful characters in myths, legends, and comics (Ghengis Khan, Cyclops, The Hulk, The Purple Avenger). The personal names from the female list were all of the intimate friendliness type but for one: Eisenhower.

It's an animal

For the males, basically a dangerous beast like King Kong, The Dragon, Cujo, snake, cobra or anaconda, but sometimes just fun like hairy hound of hedonism. The only animal terms on the women's list were animal length and visions of horses.

It's a tool

For the males there were references to shape (pipe, hose), but mostly to action (screwdriver, jackhammer, drill). The females only had tool.

It's a weapon

Love pistol, passion rifle, pink torpedo, stealth bomber, and other references to the instruments of war were only on the male list, but the female list did overlap with the male list in terms which were variations on a helmet-wearing soldier.

It's food

There was meat spear, which could fit in either the food or weapon category, but also Wiener, Vienna sausage, tube steak, and noodle. Only the female list had biscuit. The male group found this category "the most demeaning and disgusting."

"Romancing the bone"

Only the female list had terms in this category associated with romance novels: throbbing manhood, swelling passion, growing desire.

There were other miscellaneous terms that couldn't be so easily categorized, from sweaty cigar to tallywacker to special purpose. But the majority of terms recapitulated typical cultural associations of masculinity: dominance, violence, dangerousness, and occasionally ridiculousness. Cameron didn't interpret this as necessarily bad news. She sees that the male group is not "simply reproducing myths and stereotypes" but "also recognizing them as myths and stereotypes; and to a significant extent, they are laughing at them." What she does find disheartening, though, is that the metaphors available to young people when they play this naming game "are so limited" and "predictable." The women reject a lot of the offensive metaphors, but "their list offers no real alternatives."

Has this changed since 1990? Do we have better metaphors today? Is it a good idea to invite comments on this? Or will I be sorry I ever brought this up?

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January 18, 2013 - 12:10am
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