O Corpora!

Plagiarism, Hardcore and Softcore

Vagina vs. Vulva







Thomas M. Paikeday


Respectfully Dedicated
my colleagues
in Britain and the U.S.
who have no
notion of
female genitals


If you are looking for the thrill of reading about some lesbian congress, you are looking at the wrong article. This one is the popular version of an in-depth study of the two words (Va and Vu for short) originally prepared for presentation to the annual convention of a learned society of lexicographers, linguists, and dialectologists. On second thoughts, because of its enduring value, it is being issued in print.

The paper discusses the confusion that reigns among lexicographers and literati about Va as distinguished from Vu. It argues that Vu has not so far been given its rightful place in the sun.

A mistaken notion of Vu that the less literate among us seem to have is that it is a classy automobile with a 160-horsepower engine that the Swedes have put on the market for North Americans to drive around with a bumper sticker reading "My other car's also a Volva." Here's a supporting citation: "Husband-and-Wife Sex Counselors Noam and Beryl Chernick of London, Ont., forsake lecture notes to get their message across with skits and corny one liners that would make Henny Youngman wince -- and not from modesty. Sample: 'A vulva is not a car made in Sweden'." (Time, Canadian edition, June 10, 1974, p. 10).

Vu is really the more respectable term for your C-word, not any cockamamie four-letter word, mind you, but the one as in "Shut up, you silly C-word!"

In the no-nonsense language of the Random House Webster's College Dictionary, Vu is "the external female genitalia" -- what the doc refers to when he gets professional and says something like, "Ma'am, your problem seems to be pseudoleukoplakic vulvitis," or whatever.

Dorland's Medical Dictionary is more explicit than the Webster.

According to Dorland, Vu embraces "the labia majora, labia minora, mons pubis, clitoris, perineum, and vestibule of the vagina," the point being that when you plumb the depths of Vu, you pass all those checkpoints, go past even the vestibule leading to Va. That is how vast the domain of Vu is.

This should leave no room for doubt that Vu is the external part and an organ in its own right. Va, on the other hand, is something strictly internal that normally only physicians bother to look at or examine. Vu is what people flock to see at strip joints and such places.

And now about the confusion we are trying to clear up.

I first became aware of the confusion while browsing through a new and rather innovative dictionary prepared by a team of lexicographers at the University of Birmingham, England: The Collins COBUILD English Language Dictionary (London and Glasgow, 1987).

What is innovative about this dictionary is that its definitions are couched in a kind of pedagogical language with a magisterial ring to them. It's somewhat like Big Brother talking to you: why I like to refer to the work of my COBUILD friends lovingly as "The Collected Teachings of the Lexicographers of Birmingham."

The blurb on the book's cover says the dictionary is meant for "helping learners with real English" [underlining COBUILD's; read "learners" as "foreign learners"]. Some Big-Brotherism is therefore understandable.

The definition that gave me a jolt and set me thinking about Vu and Va reads thus: "A cunt is a very rude word that refers to a woman's vagina." I can understand the rudeness of expressions like "Shut up, you silly C-word!" and of compound words galore like c. cap, c. curtain, c. face, c. hair, c. lapper, c. pensioner, c. struck, you name it (with a few hyphens thrown in for good measure).

But the question is, Are our rudies, for all they care, talking Va or Vu when they use the C-word? Isn't COBUILD leading foreign learners of English on a merry chase around the female genitals instead of telling them what's what?

There is internal evidence in COBUILD to show that whoever drafted the definition of Va was probably giving the finger to the definer of the first part. COBUILD's definition of the C-word is clearly contradicted by its Va definition which reads: "A woman's vagina is the passage that connects her outer sex organs to her womb."

Now, what is so rude about referring to the passage leading to the womb, a foreign learner might ask. Most cultures practically worship the womb.

It is probably the same definer who rams the point home with an equally good definition of Vu: "The vulva is the outer part of a woman's sexual organ." But our foreign learner may never find the Vu entry.

This confusing definition of the C-word in an authoritative dictionary like COBUILD bothered me; I needed a second opinion. So I turned to a specialist, Richard A. Spears' Slang and Euphemism (New York, 1981). And what do I find there?

Here is how the Spears entry starts: "cunt (also c*nt, c**nt, c***, ****, ----) 1. the female genitals, specifically the vagina."

Now, this makes matters only worse because Spears compounds the confusion with its definition of Va (itself unimpeachable though) which runs thus: "the sheath of flesh in the female which receives the penis." "Sheath," as everyone knows, means something long and deep, not something relatively flat and purselike which is what your C-word is.

The two definitions in the above dictionaries continued to bother me, because a dictionary of everyday English, whether for the use of natives or for foreigners, for laymen or for specialists, is supposed to reflect the meanings of words as sanctified by use.

As Horace of old said in his Ars Poetica, "If usage wills it so, to whom belongs / The rule and law, the government of tongues." Technical dictionaries may give expert advice to a lexicographer, but they can't lay down the definition of a word as used in current English. Only lexicographical evidence and the testimony of qualified informants can do this.

And how do lexicographers go about gathering such evidence?

In the days of Samuel Johnson (and even today in some old-fashioned houses like Merriam-Webster Inc.) readers would pore over books and periodicals, mark or copy out passages illustrating uses of specific words, and file them on 3" x 5" or 4" x 6" cards. Definers, in their turn, would study this file of citations and try to extract the common thread of meaning running through them. Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary is based on 13 million such citations.

But the state-of-the-art method of gathering lexicographical evidence is by recourse to computerized databases that contain billions of words of well-edited English drawn from books and periodicals published around the world.

Thus, if you are studying a relatively new expression like bench strength (not yet entered in the major dictionaries, including the new 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary, 1989), you have to have citations illustrating the use of the term from a variety of sources and spread out over many years, as the following:

1980 June 1. Murray Chass, The New York Times, Sect. 5, p. 1: The Yankees have shown this season the kind of bench strength required by a team with championship aspirations.

1991 Jan. 16. Linda Hossie, The (Toronto) Globe and Mail, p. A13: If the fighting does go on that long, the U.S. war effort will come under considerable strain because of a lack of "bench strength," said Martin Shadwick of the Centre for International Strategic Studies at York University.

Based on such evidence, bench strength could be defined as "strength or power in reserve." This would cover both the literal and metaphorical senses of the expression.

But the task of defining Vu and distinguishing it from Va is not that simple.

When I checked the 1985 editions of the Toronto Globe and Mail (the main component of my "DBase85" which can generate almost 20 million citations from electronic databases and manual files, mostly from the media) I couldn't find even a single use of Vu, whether by laymen or by experts, probably because the copy-editors had changed any Vu's they encountered to Va. Then I checked a more learned and wide-ranging study called the Brown Corpus, published by Brown University Press in 1967 as Computational Analysis of Present-Day American English. Again, no luck. But we know Vu exists, not only in the flesh and in spirit but also in black and white.

The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, has citations attesting its use from 1548 on, as in Thomas Vicary's A Profitable Treatise of the Anatomie of Man's Body. (In those days, of course, women's bodies really belonged to men, who used to keep their Vu's locked up with chastity belts when not in use).

But we are talking modern English, not Elizabethan.

Curiously enough, the word for Vu's male counterpart, penis, is very much in evidence in current English. My DBase85 yields 55 citations; Va and its derivatives score a respectable 67. Even a statistical study of the vocabulary of elementary school books (Word Frequency Book by John B. Carroll et al., New York, 1971) shows one occurrence each of vagina and penis out of a total of five million words analysed. Fair enough.

In fact, most children seem to be sort of fixated on the penis, even if they are sometimes innocent of what it means. Like the precocious 6-year-old Mary in the movie "Three Men and a Little Lady." Mary casually asks her "honorary" fathers when they are about to order lunch at a restaurant, with the waitress poised with pad and pencil in hand, whether they have a penis.

But Vu is a different ball game altogether.

The confusion that reigns in the Vu-Va world is shown by the following Va citations I retrieved from the Globe and Mail database.

1985 Jan. 10, p. E5. Carole Corbeil: [Clause VI of the Indianapolis anti-porn ordinance states that you fall foul of the law when] "women's body parts -- including but not limited to vaginas, breasts and buttocks -- are exhibited such that women are reduced to those parts."

Surely, Vu is meant here, not Va which is normally not visible to the naked eye; you need a rigid tool or similar equipment to get at it. The next citation makes this abundantly clear.

1985 Jan. 19, p. P10. Ian Brown: Dr. Morgantaler begins to move the curette gently in and out of Debbie's vagina, rotating it softly back and forth.

But even medical writers seem to have their Va and Vu somewhat mixed up. The following citation is from an M.D.'s syndicated column on consumer medicine. The mixup should probably be blamed either on the copy-editors or on the physician himself trying to talk down to the general public.

1985 Feb. 28, p. CL6, [Dr.] W. Gifford-Jones: The New England Journal of Medicine recently reported a similar situation, only in this case the patient was a woman with infectious mononucleosis who had developed an ulcer on the lips of the vagina.

A vagina with lips? Any medical dictionary will tell you the lips (or labia, in medical jargon) belong to Vu, not Va. Even children know that the lipped organ is the visible one used by those not endowed with the more powerful penis, although a mirror is needed to make a Vu fully visible to its possessor, as in the following:

1985 June 29, p. E16, Sandra Martin: Another bizarre and unconsciously funny book is A Kid's First Book About Sex by Joani Blank and Marcia Quackenbush.... For example, to make boys and girls comfortable with their sex parts, the authors have drawn four different-looking penises and vaginas and asked the children to draw their own and then compare pictures -- girls are advised to use mirrors.

Perhaps a fifth citation is in order to give a more representative sample of the 67 pieces of evidence I have on hand for Va. This one could be the clincher.

1985 May 11, p. P17, Agence France-Presse: OPERATION ON HIMSELF LEAVES DANIEL DANIELLE [heading] / She said the sex change took place in two stages. In the first stage, she consumed feminine sex hormones and then under a local anesthetic removed her male organ. In the second stage, she attached an artificial vagina she had bought in the Netherlands.

By now, the gentle reader may be leaning to the opinion that the learned writer is losing his case and Va is actually used in everyday English to refer to both Va and Vu. Only context may be able to tell us whether a speaker or writer has the internal or the external organ on the brain.

This may be "real" English according to COBUILD, but it is certainly very confusing to foreign learners groping about in the word maze formed by Va, Vu, and a plethora of single and compound C-words.

So the question remains: Does Vu, as such, exist only in moth-eaten medical texts and dictionaries? The preponderance of the evidence, in fact, seems to point that way.

If so, lexicographers should have added another definition to their Va entries to cover Vu. Thus, the Webster Collegiate which defines Va as "a canal in a female mammal that leads from the uterus to the external orifice of the genital canal" should have added, "also, the orifice itself."

The wordy Webster definition reads as though there are two canals and that Vu doesn't exist. (Maybe it got circumcised!) Their "external orifice," according to Dorland, is actually at the labia minora. In the popular understanding, this would be an internal orifice. All that you have externally are the labia majora which, as in Dorland, belong to Vu, not Va.

None of the leading British and North American dictionaries I checked includes Vu as another meaning of Va. A dictionary of record such as the new Oxford English Dictionary goes to great lengths to explain the mythical, fanciful, and quite scary "vagina with teeth." Which is as it should be. But the omission of the Vu sense of Va is surely lexicography without teeth, lexicography that is not quite down-to-earth.

However that may be, dictionary meanings apart, this lexicographer wishes to record a dissenting opinion as far as usage goes. Lexicographical evidence is one thing (that is what dictionaries are built on), but one's personal style or choice of vocabulary is a different matter.

I have never had any use for the C-word used by the vulgar masses. But if a foreign learner of English asks me what it means, I will say Vu and not Va; a lexicographer has to be explicit and to the point. If I'm provoked on this question by a so-called native speaker, I might even say "Shut up, you silly Vu!" I believe in calling a spade a spade. I also believe in abbreviations.

And I can do this on good lexicographical authority. The New Dictionary of American Slang (New York, 1986) edited by my friend Robert C. Chapman, Ph.D., says: "cunt 1 n. The vulva." Period.

[A popular version of this article was published in Copy Editor, Oct.-Nov. 1998, titled A Female Trouble / Vagina is frequently misused for vulva.]


If you doubt that the "vagina" vs. "vulva" distinction has any relevance, let
me tell you about my survey of undergraduate sophomore-level women in a large
state university in the Midwest.

I had distributed a questionnaire to be answered anonymously asking, inter
alia, what they or their family members or friends called their genitals. I
was astounded to find that most young women only refer to their private parts
as "down there", which seemingly could cause problems of communication in
medical settings.

I applaud Tom Paikaday for addressing these problems of precision, as he notes
that for many adult woment "vagina" means vulva and/or vagina. And I
especially applaud him for doing so with humor, which does not trivialize
women and which is all too sadly lacking in academic writing, making us look
like a dreary lot, which we are not!.

Robert S. Wachal
Professor Emeritus
Department of Linguistics
University of Iowa
Iowa City, Iowa


Go To Top Of Page

© 2002, Thomas M. Paikeday