Where does the word vagina come from?

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The word ‘vagina’, and the concept of what one is, has caused plenty of controversy throughout history. Even in the 21st century, it’s a body part that continues to perplex both men and women and there are lots of things we still don’t know or understand about this feature of the female body. 

Many people mistakenly think that the vagina refers to the female genitals as a whole, however the outer part of the female anatomy is actually the vulva. The vulva includes the urethra, the clitoris, the labia and the vaginal opening. The actual vagina is the part of a woman that you can’t see - it’s the scientific name for the canal that links the uterus to the outside of the body. This has previously caused confusion in both men and women. 

When The Guardian published a tweet to an article titled ‘Me and my vulva’, one man received backlash when he replied to the tweet, claiming, “The correct word is vagina”. Many women responded to say that vulva was indeed the correct word and that he should check his facts before posting false information.

 

Where does ‘vagina’ come from?

The word ‘vagina’ is a Latin word that translates to ‘sheath’ or ‘scabbard’. It was used to describe these items until it began to be applied to describe the female anatomy. Vagina was not the first word used to describe a woman’s private parts. In fact, it wasn’t used until around the 17th century, whereas other words were employed much earlier than this. Some even date back 800 years to the 13th century.

For many hundreds of years, it was thought that men and women had the same sexual organs, but that a woman’s was simply facing inward instead of outward. Galen, a Greek physician in the 2nd century, wrote the following to help readers understand the difference between the male and female body: “Think first, please, of the man’s turned in and extending inward...If this should happen, the scrotum would necessarily take the place of the uteri.” 

Essentially, he’s stating that if a man’s penis and testicles were turned upwards inside a woman, the scrotum would be the uterus and the penis would be the vagina. This theory continued to be popular until around the 1500s, when anatomists were able to get a better look at the female body and produce drawings of the reproductive system.

This confusion and wonder about the female vagina could be what made it such a secretive and even shameful body part. 

 

Why is ‘vagina’ so controversial?

The reason that the vagina is so controversial is because society has made it so. Since 1230, people have been using other words and descriptions to describe the vagina and vulva, from ‘Venus’s honeypot’, which was popular in the 1700s, to ‘bacon sandwich’, a term coined in the 20th century. Nowadays, you might have heard ‘vajayjay’ or ‘hoo-hah’. It could be this avoidance of the scientific words that make them so controversial and unheard in everyday life. According to a psychology professor at Harvard, Steven Pinker, there are over 1,200 words in the English language alone to describe this female organ.

Unfortunately, it seems that the word ‘vagina’ is still taboo. Dr Jen Gunter, a gynaecologist, recently published a book entitled ‘The Vagina Bible’. However, the publisher was banned from using ‘vagina’ to promote the book on social media. In America, a parenting company was banned from using the word in their billboards to advertise postpartum products. In 2010, a menstrual products advert was banned by multiple television networks for using ‘vagina’. The company changed the phrase to ‘down there’ and the advert was still rejected. In a book by Naomi Wolf, ‘Vagina: A New Biography’, iTunes listed the book in their library with the word blanked out by asterisks, making the title ‘V****a: A New Biography’. 

We tried to address these issues and asked random members of the public how they felt about the word ‘vagina’. You can watch the video and find out more about our campaign here. We want people to be able to speak more openly about the vagina and not be ashamed about it. We also surveyed over 2,000 women to find out more about what they thought of the vagina. 41 per cent of respondents wouldn’t feel comfortable speaking to a professional about a vaginal problem and a further 19 per cent wouldn’t talk to a friend or family member either.

Vaginal health problems are very common. Around 1 in 3 women will experience BV at some point in their lives, though many might not recognise the symptoms. We hope that, by being more open about vaginal health, we can make women feel more comfortable about their own bodies.