THE BLOG
05/19/2016 09:39 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Importance of Word Choice

by guest blogger Katharine Ashe, best-selling author of historical romance novels

Penis.

(I do have a point here.)

Sometimes when I'm grading a student's paper and I find a misused word, I circle it and write "Word Choice."

There is, of course, a lot more to choosing the right word than dictionary definitions. Especially when it comes to sex.

I write historical romance novels that include sexually explicit love scenes. Nevertheless, the first time I said aloud to a group of people the words for male genitalia was not at a reading of one of my novels. Standing at a podium at my university, I enunciated "penis" to my students. Not a single lash in the room twitched. The topic of the course, after all, was sexuality in the Middle Ages.

Penis was not the last word that semester. Among many sexual matters of interest to medieval people, I lectured about attitudes toward female orgasms (often applauded by medieval writers), ejaculation (also applauded, unless inspired by a succubus in a monk's dream, but forgiven since it wasn't really the monk's fault), anal sex (absolutely not applauded), inter-femoral sex (also not okay), oral sex (not mentioned much at all), and mechanical phalluses (the only indicators that medieval legal courts were aware women were having sex without men, and only problematic because by using dildos women were pretending to be men, a.k.a. better than they were).

Occasionally, like us, medieval people used euphemisms. The great thinkers of the era were sticklers for logic, and they reified Nature. Despite believing that the animal world operated strictly according to God's laws of Nature, and observing same-sex sex among animals, when it came to the human animal they called same-sex sex "the unnatural act." In doing so they compromised the logic of their entire system of thought.

Pre-modern folks used other words to describe sex that are also familiar to us, for instance, the f-word, possibly as early as the 1300s. It was also used in the early nineteenth century, the period in which my books are set (as were dock, grind, hump, knock, tup, and my favorite, rantum scantum). Yet historical romance authors today who dare using the f-word report that readers strongly dislike it.

This is curious. It's fairly common, after all, for heroes in contemporary romances to express their desire for the heroine--to the heroine--with the f-word. Perhaps readers perceive it as mild dirty-talk, acceptable because it reveals how desperately turned on the hero is that he'll let fly words he'd usually only use with his guy pals.

In my historical novels I never use the p-word because people of the era didn't. (They used other words; the best by far is "sugar stick".) But occasionally, when necessary, I use other anachronistic words.

So why the discomfort with the p-word and the f-word?

I don't think it's because we're hypocrites. It's because the words we use matter. In a big way. And the more important the issue--sex, race, etc.--the more they matter. Words have power far beyond their definitions. Speaking recently about her book Girls and Sex, Peggy Orenstein reported that one of the teenagers she interviewed groaned in frustration over terminology: "When you're talking about girls and sex, the opposite of slut is prude, both of which are negative, so what are you supposed to do?"

Just as in the Middle Ages, when used as identifiers of culturally constructed notions of sexuality, words today can control and limit us.

They can certainly limit creativity. I teach romance writers' workshops, including a lesson on "Words to Automatically Delete from Your Manuscript." Here's my shortlist.
  • Heaving bosom
  • Feminine cave
  • (Her) inner muscles
  • (Her) hot/slick/wet/damp/tight sheath
  • (His) member (throbbing or not)
  • Pebbled nipple (Who wants to suck on pebbles, for pity's sake?)
  • Turgid (anything)
Why are these auto-cuts? Three reasons:
  1. They're silly.
  2. Any word or phrase found in a handbook of words and phrases for novelists should be dropped into the garbage disposal and ground to a poi-like paste. I am not anti-writing handbooks; Stephen King's On Writing is one of my favorite books ever, Alex Sokoloff's screenwriter"s tips for novelists is fabuloso, and Chuck Wendig of terribleminds.com is my Yoda. I decided this only after I started seeking publication and a friend gave me a book: a romance writer's guide to words and phrases. Unpublished as yet, I sat on my office floor with that book in my lap and sobbed like Wesley in the Pit of Despair when Count Rugen turns off the machine and asks him "How to you feel?" I was pretty sure I didn't start writing fiction because I wanted to use a handbook of words and phrases. (Five years later I re-discovered the book buried in a pile and did a ritual burning of it to cleanse the Evil from my domicile. Typically I deplore book burnings. NOT THAT TIME.)
  3. Language is beautiful. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. Language is so amazing that I can use the same word four times in a row simply because it expresses my feelings. Like Michelangelo's statue of David, language can blow your mind. Better yet, like Caravaggio's duo The Crucifixion of Saint Peter and The Conversion of Saint Paul, language is multi-colored, bright and deeply shadowed, complex and rich, magnificent in its infiniteness, and it always means much, much more than what's obviously there.
Recently I read this on Twitter: "There is no such thing as non-consensual sex. There is sex and there is rape."

Mind. Blown.

This semester I learned a new word from a student in my course on the romance novel. We'd just read Kathleen Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower, widely considered the first genre historical romance. At the beginning, the so-called hero believes the heroine is a prostitute, and although she fights and objects (he thinks it's sex play), he rapes her. After he discovers that she was in fact a virginal farm girl in the wrong place at the wrong time, he rapes her again. Near the end of the book, while they're married but after a lengthy hiatus from sex, he decides he must rape her again.

My student used the word "rapey" to describe this book. I asked her not to. I said that what happens in the story is actually rape, so to use an adjective that suggests it's rape-like is to lessen the horror of it.

Words are powerful. Words used to describe sex are especially powerful, because sex is important to us--so important that sometimes we can't bear to talk about it without trying to trick ourselves into thinking we're not.

Katharine Ashe is the USA Today bestselling author of eighteen historical romances and a professor of History and Religious Studies at Duke University. Find her at KatharineAshe.com.

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