Society and Menstruation: How Euphemisms Hurt Women

Imagine the scenario: a group high school girls are chatting by the bathrooms, when one girl complains, “Ugh, I am menstruating today.” Most likely, this statement seems jarring. The scenario would almost certainly feel more comfortable if the girl instead said, “Ugh, it’s that time of the month.” For an event that occurs as frequently as once a month, menstruation is severely euphemized. The unending list of euphemisms that shroud the apparently repulsive, technical word, “menstruation,” signifies that the subject is socially shameful and embarrassing. Before 1975, several studies attempted to compile dictionaries of the euphemisms for menstruation. Natalie F. Joffe published The Vernacular of Menstruation in 1948, in which she applied international euphemisms to present the compelling correlation between linguistic and cultural behavior. Within her assembled inventory of 90 “polite synonyms,” Joffe highlighted the pessimistic phrase, “the curse,” as the most popular euphemism for menstruation in the mid-twentieth century. A quarter of a century later, Virgina Ernster sought to build upon Joffe’s work by analyzing menstrual euphemisms by usage categories of gender, time, and individual interpretation. In 1975, she published an article entitled “American Menstrual Expression.” Ernster stated her aim was to tie her findings into the “current theory on the role of social factors in the occurrence of menstrual distress.” By the end of her paper, Ernster concludes, like her predecessor Joffe, that euphemisms reinforce cultural perceptions – especially negative perceptions of women and the natural process of menstruation.

Ernster gathered 128 euphemisms in sum: 97 from women and 31 from men. She found a noticeable division between the expressions used by the different genders. Over fifty percent of the male-provided responses were variants of the phrase, “on the rag.” This claimed a meager six percent of female contributions, and the women who shared it stated they learned it from men. This phrase was occasionally abbreviated to “OTR.” A handful of men in the study defined “OTR” as a demeaning term used by men to insult other men for being irritable or angry. One male participant also noted that it functioned as a label for a girl perceived as ugly. For a menstrual euphemism to be directly applied to derogatory slang corroborates the argument from Joffe and Ernster that negative linguistic behavior reinforces negative attitudes. Other references from males in Ernster’s study include: “too wet to plow,” “manhole cover,” and “riding the cotton pony.” The first and the last evoke traditional American male roles – farmers and cowboys. Hence, alluding to manly stereotypes affords a safely masculine means of discussing an otherwise dangerously feminine term. The euphemism “manhole cover” indiscreetly suggests the notion that sexual interaction is out of bounds during menstruation. One male informant explained that some men receive the insult “OTR” because “they cannot have sexual access to her, hence, they are upset.” Understanding the foundations of male expressions for menses comes down to timing. Men reported learning all of these euphemisms in their late teens from their male friends. This coincides with the stage that men become sexually active. Therefore, the language they use for menstruation derives largely from their sexual experiences. Women, on the other hand, reported that they began garnering a repertoire of euphemisms at the time of menarche. This time is vastly different than sexual initiation for men, and thus the language they use is painted with vastly different hues. The leading variety of euphemisms reported by women in the study referred to a female visitor: “visit

Understanding the foundations of male expressions for menses comes down to timing. Men reported learning all of these euphemisms in their late teens from their male friends. This coincides with the stage that men become sexually active. Therefore, the language they use for menstruation derives largely from their sexual experiences. Women, on the other hand, reported that they began garnering a repertoire of euphemisms at the time of menarche. This time is vastly different than sexual initiation for men, and thus the language they use is painted with vastly different hues. The leading variety of euphemisms reported by women in the study referred to a female visitor: “visit

The leading variety of euphemisms reported by women in the study referred to a female visitor: “visit from my aunt,” “I’ve got my friend,” “Aunt Tilly is here,” etc. Many girls use this type of expression to distance themselves from the event of menstruation. The runner-up category had reference to pain, illness or distress: “falling off the roof,” “I’ve got the misery,” “bride’s barf,” “a weeping womb,” etc. One female participant’s interpretation of this sort of euphemism explained that along with the obvious connections with pain and blood, “falling off the roof is an unusual thing to do, and the menstrual period is also an ‘off time.’” The third most popular euphemism had reference to cotton or the material used during menstruation: “mouse mattresses,” “ride the white horse,” etc. Just as men’s expressions tended to reflect their experiences with menstruation, women’s practical experiences with having to manage menstruation with hygiene products likewise play into their language. As a whole, the euphemisms bore overwhelmingly negative tones. Euphemisms obviously shape expectations for men and women. They act as self-fulfilling prophecies; negative labels promote the behavior they propose, which reinforces the negative perceptions and causes greater marginalization.

Much has changed since 1975. I have never heard “OTR” to describe either a menstruating female or irritable man. But, I have heard “PMS” used indiscriminately to jokingly describe any person who is irritable, angry, or crying. In fact, it seems that this usage is remarkably more popular than using it to denote its actual definition. Thus, while the lexicon itself has changed, the persistence of euphemisms in the discussion of menstruation demonstrates that Americans still feel the need to dodge the word. One male colleague responded to my question of how he might speak about menstruation to a friend by saying that “period” is too blunt, and “menstruation” was totally off the table. His preferred terminology was the polite phrase, “It’s her time of the month.” Open source threads like Reddit, while far from a reliable secondary source, perhaps offer the best primary evidence of current euphemisms. Some of the most up-voted (or most supported by the community) posts identified “the red scare” as their favorite way to inform friends or partners that they are menstruating. This is particularly striking because of the historical connection between female activists and the Russian Revolution in the 1920’s.  In her article “Suffragettes and Soviets: Feminists and the Spector of Revolutionary Russia,” Historian Julia Mickenberg explains that in the 1920s, antifeminists tied “a full-blown Red Scare that characterized the feminist agenda as subversive and unpatriotic, and their efforts later bore fruit.” Users also contributed many variants of the phrase, “the communists are here.” American culture owns a deeply ingrained fear and abhorrence

Open source threads like Reddit, while far from a reliable secondary source, perhaps offer the best primary evidence of current euphemisms. Some of the most up-voted (or most supported by the community) posts identified “the red scare” as their favorite way to inform friends or partners that they are menstruating. This is particularly striking because of the historical connection between female activists and the Russian Revolution in the 1920’s.  Historian Julia Mickenberg explains that in the 1920s, antifeminists galvanized “a full-blown Red Scare that characterized the feminist agenda as subversive and unpatriotic, and their efforts later bore fruit.” Users also contributed many variants of the phrase, “the communists are here.” American culture owns a deeply ingrained fear and abhorrence for communism, therefore, linguistically tying this “dirty word” to menstruation reveals a similar fear of the female cycle. Another highly up-voted post stated they refer to their menses as “shark week.” The obvious pop culture reference is meant to be comical, but other levels of this phrase deepen its meaning. For instance, there is an old fear that if a menstruating woman swims in the ocean, she will attract sharks. More practically though, “shark week” conjures up images of violent creatures and bloody scenes – two of the most prominent cultural perceptions of menstruation. The “red scare” and “shark week,” two common euphemisms for our generation, continue the trend of slang saturated with negative cultural perceptions of menstruation, and encourage women to fulfill those expectations of hysterical, emotionally volatile beings. This relationship suggests that positive language would feed into more positive experiences. Maybe the way to accomplish this is using the actual word: menstruation.

commies

 

Sources:

Ernster, Virginia. “American Menstrual Expressions.” Sex Roles no. 1 (March 1975): 3-13.

Joffe, N. F. “The Vernacular of Menstruation.” Word, no. 4 (1948): 181-186.

 

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One thought on “Society and Menstruation: How Euphemisms Hurt Women

  1. I saw so much of this throughout my research on menstruation. Kotex always refers in their ads to the “time of the month,” and in an educational video, “Molly Grows Up,” she refers to menstruation as “the curse.” Her mother asks her why and says it sounds old fashioned, but Molly questions by saying it is a curse because it’s so inconvenient, and her mother just lets it go. This is one of the issues that we as a society should speak up about and use the terms “period” or “menstruation;” however, an article I read from 2016 had one woman explain that she’s considered radical for her openness on the topic. It will require a large cultural shift to make the changes to our language so that euphemisms stop plaguing this natural process.

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