I called Professor Chris Bobel in her early morning office hours to talk about menstrual euphemisms. Bobel is a veteran in the field of sociological menstrual research; as head of the women and gender studies department at UMass Boston, she’s explored the impact of menstrual taboo for years.
“I’d love to hear your take on the impact of period euphemisms,” I said.
There was a pause.
“Well, period is a euphemism, so what exactly do you mean?” asked Bobel.
“Well,” I said, “let’s start there…”
Working full-time in menstrual health as a science researcher here at Clue, I myself am not immune to using euphemistic language unconsciously. Menstrual euphemisms, colloquialisms, and slang terms are used so pervasively that we often don’t realize when we’re using them.
We’ve amassed literally thousands of ways to allude to the cyclical shedding of the uterine lining. What the terms tend to have in common is their nondescript nature. In describing blood flow from the vagina, they tend to be altogether bloodless, and vaginaless.
When we at Clue asked our users to tell us what words they used for menstruation, we received more than 5,000 terms globally. In a previous piece, we explored the bases for this language: deeply rooted taboo around menstrual bleeding. But how do we use euphemisms today? What purpose do they serve, and what effect do they have?
A quick history
Modern menstrual euphemisms—and the taboos that drive them—are nearly ubiquitous. They take similar forms across many geographies, and almost always reflect a longstanding view of menstruation as something polluted, shameful, impure, and sometimes dangerous. This view of menstruation has sweepingly oppressive (and deadly) consequences, with significant costs to our economies, to gender equity, and to reproductive health outcomes.
But modern menstrual euphemisms come by their popularity honestly—they date back thousands of years. “Period” is rooted in the Greek words “peri” and “hodos” (periodos) meaning “around” and “way/path.” This eventually turned into the Latin “periodus” meaning “recurring cycle.” Use of the English term “period” to describe menstruation began in the early 1800s (1).
These euphemisms are found in texts spanning millennia. In seventeenth century private journals of both men and women, menstruation is described as “them” and “those” (2). The symbol of the menstruating woman (“Eve’s curse”) was widely used to define profanity (3). With the decline of what anthropologists call “magical thinking,” medical writers used clinical terms (menses, catamenia) in parallel with terms like “monthly excavation” and “natural purgations”. Lay people used euphemisms almost exclusively (2).
Biblical euphemisms of miscarriage:
“her fruit departs from her” Exodus 21:22
…and of menstrual flow:
“flowers” Leviticus 15:33, “The custom of women” Genesis 31:35, “the manner of women” Genesis 18:11
But what’s the impact of euphemisms?
For a long time, we had a Twitter alert set up for “shark week” here at Clue. The volume of uses was staggering. People post about their periods frequently, publicly, more than ever before.
“I’ve observed anecdotally, that euphemisms reflect the current age, “ Bobel said. “They get increasingly clever. Their references are timely. They keep up.”
My question was: are euphemisms inherently detrimental to how we understand menstruation? To what extent are they creating vs. reflecting bad blood?
The entire purpose of our campaign at Clue to “just say period” is based in our belief that speaking openly about the topic is a necessary path to normalize menstruation.
If you were to describe your lungs, you’d use no other word. The verb “to breathe” is used equally by clinicians and laypeople.
Euphemisms don’t typically exist for physical functions without histories of stigma, because there hasn’t been reason to subvert or lighten them. Using these descriptive words creates no emotional tension; they don’t speak to or evoke ideas of power, spiritual mystery, gender, vulgarity, and/or politics.
Our use of euphemisms, Bobel said, does more than reflect social views of menstruation. It exposes how distant we are from our own bodies. These euphemisms start in childhood and set in motion a lifetime of skirting around the body, of body illiteracy. When people don’t know their bodies, their bodies become a less likely source of power and pleasure.
And menstrual euphemisms can hinder people’s ability to talk about things when they aren’t normal. “Even amongst healthcare providers, there is discomfort in asking patients about their vulvar and genital pain, for example, and so needs go unaddressed. People stop going to their doctor because they are frustrated,” Bobel said.
But can euphemisms also be helpful?
Bobel cautions that while there is deep value in calling things by their names, it’s also critical to respect cultural and religious differences. It’s useful to meet people where they are, rather than overtly schooling, shaming, or using terms that go over people’s heads. For people with histories of trauma, and/or whose menstruation may feel like a betrayal of their gender, euphemisms can be protective.
And to change the language that doesn’t serve us?
“Asking questions instead of making statements works really well in my class,” Bobel said. “Instead of ‘don’t you think you should call something by its name,’ I might say, ‘’What do you use to describe menstruation? Why? Where did you learn it? What does it do for you?’ Pulling back from taking a stance—we should be careful about telling others what to do.”
I also asked Chris Knight, a social anthropologist and period taboo expert, if talking about periods differently could change the way the world views menstruation.
“Fundamentally, practice is primary,” he said. “If you feel like having a period is a problem, the linguistics will reflect that. I don’t at all believe that words make things negative — they reflects that things really are negative. The system we are in coercively prevents you from experiencing your cycle as empowering…It’s quite wrong to blame women, or their attitude, or use of language.”
“Fundamentally, practice is primary,”
“Changing the words or changing the attitude isn’t sufficient,” Knight added. “Somehow the whole system has to change, and that’s a big task.”