For a show that ended 12 years ago people really do talk about Friends constantly, don’t they? At the moment it’s the supposed reunion happening sometime in 2016, even though it’s the actors and not the characters coming back together. Last year, it was the anniversary. The year before, E4’s decision not to endlessly run it. There’s always something. I’m guilty of it, too. It’s my background noise show; my way of not engaging in the world around me, or my own thoughts. Watching it is like wearing that hoodie you got when you left secondary school. It’s familiar, easy. Unchallenging.

Unfortunately, during a recent low key re-watch of Season 1, something caught my attention that was more troubling than “they definitely removed that beam in the apartment for later seasons”. It was The One With The Boobies, where we encounter Joey’s father, his taxidermist mistress, and this group of pals’ fascination with each other’s junk. The joke, and the crux of the episode, is about seeing each other’s genitals, the live audience screaming, Monica being unable to say penis, the audience screaming. Ad nauseam.

I couldn’t work out why they couldn’t say vagina or penis, but first Phoebe and then Rachel adamantly say ‘breasts’, not boobs, to try and de-sexualise the fact Chandler saw them. The closest they get to the groin is ‘pee-pee’, or the ambiguous ‘down there’. There is an obvious answer to this: any explicit reference to sex and the organs involved is too explicitly evocative of it, and therefore too dangerous. The biological terms are too explicit as they leaves no room for ambiguity or playfulness: a penis is inescapably a penis. However, the slang terms, in this context, are much more young and playful and sexy without being about sex.  As a friend of mine puts it, “breasts are what mums have; boobs are what my boyfriend likes”. So it makes sense, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Why are roundabout references to genitalia acceptable but direct ones not? What exactly is it that’s so evocative about the words themselves, and why do people baulk from them on the television? Is it for the “sake of the children”?

This episode is old, I know this. Things have changed significantly since then. There has been a 69% increase in the use of profanities on TV since 2010, but they are all to do with the words ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’. Although words like vagina and penis are also increasingly present, according to Slate and the FCC, ‘as long as a word isn’t used to titillate and doesn’t describe sex or excretory acts in explicit detail, it is not considered “indecent.”’ This is demonstrated by the fact that, in 2014, you could say ‘dick’ on Comedy Central but Amy Schumer had to battle with them to say ‘pussy’. I don’t rate Schumer, but she raised a valid point about the way we talk about sex on TV. As the impact of ‘fuck’ lessens, what we consider to be indecent or explicit is zeroing in on the genitalia. Melissa Mohr wrote an entire book called Holy Sh*t about how our profanities refer either to the things we revere or worship, or the things we consider most base: the ‘holy’ and the ‘shit’. As Mohr notes, “Curse words tend to based on whatever societies find most taboo, and most scary, and most interesting. When they lose power, it’s just those taboos getting weaker, and new ones coming in to replace them.” This is less a result of a more lenient approach to language than a shift in what is deemed detrimental to society and therefore worthy of censorship. The big dogs of violence and religion aside, it always comes back to sex.

Is it the concept? It can’t be. Returning to that Friends episode, the 22 minute long show wouldn’t be structured entirely around seeing and saying “the sex words” if it were the concept of sex itself that was taboo. There are shows with entire plots that run on the fact the Man and Woman have locked eyes, making sex is implicit in every single scene. Sex is a part of life, and it has become an integral part of how media sells their stories and make them “relatable” on a human level: sex sells. But this only works when it is inferred. That’s why it’s so funny that Chandler calls nipples “nipular areas”: sex is present, but talking about it frankly is too sincere, too base. That kind of sincerity between men and women about sex, on TV, does not happen because, as we all know, Straight Men And Women Cannot Be Friends. Heteronormativity is exhausting.

So, it must be the words themselves. The explication is far worse than the implication.

There are three main bodily areas of censorship: the vulva, the penis and the breasts. This is not only because they are inherently sexualised but because they begat the slang that now needs censoring, The ‘naughty’ words. Although the censorship of the latter is a particular source of contention that has been tackled in its own way through online campaigns like #freethenipple, these are based on censored images, not language.

The way these words have evolved linguistically is not arbitrary, and how they are formed says a lot about how we use them now, even as those connections get lost. The roots of both the biological and the slang terms are tied into  sexist and cissexist historical narratives: the overarching assumption that your gender is determined by your genitalia, and the consequent assumptions about masculinity/femininity is the cornerstone of this kind of language. Vagina stems from the Latin for ‘sheath’, but the neutral penis has no incriminating back story, and whilst breast has its roots in ‘swelling’, the much more common ‘booby’ seems to originate in the Latin ‘puppa’, or little girl. Interestingly, the lesser used but more accurate ‘vulva’ comes from the Latin for ‘womb’ and, though inaccurate, this is a literal link between the word and its meaning.

The slang terms also follow the same pattern: the ‘female’ words are derogatory, whilst the ‘male’[1], although loaded with the implications of masculinity[2], are more playful. This is exemplified best by contrasting the word dick with the word pussy. Dick has been traced to 19th century British soldiers, but no more than that is known; pussy, however, probably comes from the Old Norse ‘puss’ which means pocket or pouch. The fact that female genitalia are named in relation to the male feels like yet another example of the notion that “Men are human, women are women.”

rachel boobies

Looking at the etymology helps us understand how the taboos surrounding the terms have formed and developed, but it still doesn’t fully address why people feel they can’t say the words. This is where phonaesthetics comes in. Phonaesthetics is the study of the inherent pleasantness or unpleasantness of words, sounds and phrases. In other words, it’s the explanation of why so many people, the author included, feel so weird about the word ‘moist’.

Think about the words we use and the way they sound: willy, wiener; cock, dick, prick; cunt, snatch, slit, gash; boobies, hooters, knockers, tits. Each set of words have a similar pattern of consonants that evoke a particular image. Willy and wiener, arguably the most ridiculous words for penis, have high vowels and a consonant that can only be described as silly sounding; dick, prick, and cock have the punctuated monosyllable with the brevity of single consonant sound. Crisper sounds, ‘pointier’ words are loaded with greater vulgarity because of their brevity, their weight, and the way they feel with the way you say them. Tits pack a greater linguistic punch than breasts, which are not only associated with the biological function but also sound weightier, perhaps due to the way the consonants shift from the front to the back of the mouth, rounding out the word. I can’t not associate the word with lactating. In turn, the ‘male’ words are way neater sounding than cunt, snatch, gash, slit: they all have the sharp consonants but low front, middle or back vowels, and the combination of the n and t in ‘cunt’ combines a lazy, forward moving consonant with an abrupt stop. This makes it more base, more abrasive. This is known as the boula/kiki effect, harshness of certain consonant in producing a spiky visual connection, while the relative softness of the bo- creating curves in the mouth and mind.

This gives substance to the hazy idea that the biological female words[3] are distinctly more gross than their male counterparts, and this extends to slang terminology. Tits, boobs, pussy: they make the vagina and breasts much more approachable, jollier, bouncier. The weight of words like breasts, vagina, and the more general genitalia seem distinctly more disgusting than penis. This theory carries out of explicitly sexist parlance: ‘balls’ is used way more than testicles; vulva, a word with very smooth consonants, is significantly less common than vagina. The words we use for women either remove them entirely from biology, or are rooted in being etymological misogyny. Male words, on the other hand, move freer within the world of phonaesthetics and etymology; they’re funny or explanatory. Thanks, language.

There is no ‘neutral’, non-sexist way in which to describe genitalia that isn’t also deeply unsexy in the conventional sense. People prefer ‘tits’, ‘cock’ and ‘pussy’ to their more biologically accurate counterparts because they are divorced from the physical functionality of the body. And more sexy, I guess. But the way we talk about sex can’t be divorced from our biological function, nor from the slang we use. Nor will we ever have a kind of neutral language that can identify genitalia without carrying the implicit sexism and cissexism, a topic for an entire essay in itself. But talking about sex explicitly can be as creative and joyful as the act itself. Apart from anything else, it’s so boring that men and women can’t talk frankly about sex on TV without it being a storyline. It doesn’t need to be cloaked in mystery or shame. As my #1 gal Miranda says in Sex and the City: “What’s the big mystery? It’s my clitoris, not the Sphinx!”

[1] I do not mean to say that all people who are men have penises, or all who are women have vaginas, I am instead using the language as it has been created and used historically to demonstrate the linguistics and phonaesthetics that create meaning for these words.

[2] Of course, the assumption of the gender traits ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ to genitalia, and the related assumptions of strength and weakness, are a whole other reason why there are problems with the words we use. However, unfortunately, word count prohibits this being fully explored here.

[3] Again, I am using female here to indicate sexual organs that are conventionally gendered female.