Words and Silence: Language in Menstruation
Updated: Jun 17
The event, Words and Silence: Language in Menstruation, was held on the 26th February 2021 at 6:00 PM. With active participants, the discussion ranged from 'unlearning period euphemisms' to addressing the complexity of language in reinforcing taboos.
Some important concepts were introduced to the participants before we discussed the implications of language use. These concepts are detailed below:
What is Taboo?
A taboo is a rule against doing something or even saying something that goes against a particular culture/religion. Taboos do not necessarily take root in logic and sometimes can be considered unfit for some while being completely acceptable for another.
The word Taboo originates from Tongan, meaning - forbidden behaviour, forbidden because it is believed that such behaviour is dangerous to certain individuals or society. These misconceptions were referred to as mere social sanctions placed on behaviour as distasteful catering to the existing power structures within society.
What then is Menstrual Taboo?
Cultural norms and religion are often compounded by beliefs that make the biological reality of menstruation taboo. Cultural and religious infrastructure make Menstruation riddled with shame and embarrassment and also labelled impure. Myths around Menstruation have silenced menstruators for a long time, and these myths do not seem to be particular to a geographical location.
Some taboos that have taken firm hold include - not entering the kitchen, not entering religious shrines (especially in countries like India), not washing or cutting hair during Menstruation, avoiding dance and as bizarre as it may sound: drinking lemonade.
Taboos impose behavioural restrictions on menstruating women and add to the existing shame leading to the silence around Menstruation and a further spread of misconceptions.
Euphemisms and Dysphemism in Language
Language plays a huge role in creating perceptions and breaking barriers to communication. Although languages widely vary, linguistic concepts and usage remain constant pertaining to particular languages. They are ridden with culture and even taboo. Inhibitions have been an inspiration for the development of euphemisms, dysphemisms and orthophemism.
Euphemisms are innocuous words or expressions used in place of one that may be found offensive or suggest something unpleasant. Some euphemisms are intended to amuse, while others use bland, inoffensive terms for concepts that the user wishes to downplay. Some examples of euphemisms used to refer to Menstruation are -
· La Semaine ketchup - Ketchup week (French)
· Rote Tante - Red Aunt (German)
· Mar Rosso - Red Sea (Italian) and several other usages along the same lines.
The most commonly used euphemism remains 'Period'.
Dysphemisms are expressions with connotations that are derogatory either about the matter or to the audience. Dysphemism's contrast with neutral or euphemistic expressions. Dysphemism may be motivated by fear, distaste, hatred, contempt, or humor. Some examples from regional languages in India include -
· Antu (Kannada) - something that has stuck to a woman
· Riding the cotton pony (English) - referring to tampons
· Plugged up (English) - Accompanied by crass sexual implications
It is important to note that Euphemisms can easily turn into Dysphemism depending on the usage and the person who uses these terms.
Orthophemism refers to a direct or neutral expression that isn't sweet-sounding, evasive, or overly polite (like a euphemism) or harsh, blunt, or offensive (like a dysphemism). Also known as straight talk. The usage of orthophemism is generally lesser in everyday conversation. It comes under the category of 'calling a spade a spade'. Addressing Menstruation as Menstruation in a direct and formal tone puts it in this category.
Face-work and face-saving theories are an integral aspect of euphemisms and dysphemisms across the world and act as a balance between expression and language.
The Face-Work theory is described as conditions where individuals attempt to save/maintain face when interacting. There is an inherent need to maintain a sense of public image, which stems from collective cooperation and the need to maintain a sense of politeness. You strive to maintain a positive face in the light of conversations that tend towards politeness. You strive to avoid negative face by using words and phrases that actively steer you away from the embarrassment in social situations.
The Face-Saving theory is a form of negotiation in society that progresses as society progresses along with the evolution of usage of euphemisms and dysphemisms. Positive politeness is actively used to avoid discomfort by using terms of friendliness or endearment in closeness with the other individual. Jokes, group jargon and nicknames often are positive polite where there might be inherent aspects of criticism interspersed with compliments.
Negative politeness seeks to make a comment or question less intrusive as a defence for the opinion being put forth/comment being made. Using phrases such as 'if you don't mind' and indirect speech to feign acceptance in the social circle that they are a part of.
Power structures in use of language
Power relations can be sustained or broken through the use of language. As a social construct, implementation of taboo largely depends on the use of phrases from positions of cultural/social/gender/religious authority.
Some important questions were discussed during the event, and responses from participants have been summarised below -
1. What are some euphemisms and dysphemisms that you have used in the past or continue to use to express Menstruation and menarche? Where did you learn it from?
Some of the most common phrases, words or sentences that our participants said they were using include
· I am on my period
· It is that time of the month for me, so I will not be able to participate in *certain sport/activity*
· My stomach is hurting
· I am down
Most of these usages have cultural contexts learned at home or school through interactions with friends and teachers. Saying I am on my period is also a luxury for a few as they were taught not to say out loud that they were/are menstruating.
2. Do you find the use of euphemisms empowering or disempowering?
In the context of Menstruation, the use of euphemisms can be empowering or disempowering depending on usage and the user. Using euphemisms such as - are you on your period? It can simply be a question. However, with the negative connotations attached to 'jokes' and humor being used as a mechanism to downplay Menstruation, the use of euphemisms by someone who seeks to put down another will be considered a dysphemism unless otherwise particularly specified.
3. Let's discuss the cultural context around these phrases!
- Woh din (those days)
This phrase is used commonly not just in Hindi but generally while talking about Menstruation. Statements like 'during those days I don't cook' or 'during those days I am not allowed to visit a religious institution' are commonly used in Indian society. Cultural, social, religious, and caste connotations play an important role in the use of euphemisms and dysphemisms and their usage.
The periodicity of Menstruation is a recurring theme in the use of language. Generally, it ignores the discomfort or the indisposition that comes with Menstruation. Using the phrase 'those days' generally implies that certain things cannot or should not be done on those specific days!
- Olagilla (not inside)
Stemming particularly from the South Indian state of Karnataka, saying Olagilla stems from a practice of keeping menstruators outside the house during the menstrual cycle. Menstruators had to stay outside in a designated area, away from the family. While away, menstruators have special utensils and clothes which they are not supposed to share with family. This alienating practice has given rise to the use of the word and has a cultural context.
Although the practice has now weaned away, the phrase remains in use and is used socially if a menstruator is absent in a social setting and has also become an excuse for several.
- Purathu aayi (I am outside)
Also, stemming from a cultural context like the term Olagilla saying I am outside implies a practice of keeping menstruators away from the everyday. Assigning a status of 'dirty' or 'impure' to Menstruation meant that the menstruator must not mingle with their family or use household items, reinforcing the purity and pollution concept. Discrepancies in caste, religion and class practices ensure that the menstruator was kept away from general society.
- Dooram or doora (far away)
Euphemisms with specific cultural contexts are predominantly used by family and even partners/significant others. The phrase 'dooram', meaning far or far away in Telugu, receives knowing nods while used in the specific cultural context. The conversation also seems to wear away since the phrase has implied meaning. There is no reason for further elaboration as the phrase is generally understood to mean someone is menstruating. The ingrained use of language also helps combat the awkwardness. It provides an opportunity to say something without delving into the discomfort and indisposition.
A context of purity and pollution also comes into play, with Menstruation being regarded as taboo and impure. Menstruating women were designated a place outside the common living premises for the duration of their Menstruation and were made to stay far or far away. These discrepancies and practices exist in predominantly upper-caste households and have persisted through time.
4. How did popular culture like movies and television influence euphemisms?
Popular culture tends to reflect and is intentionally aimed toward beliefs and practices the audience holds. Movies and television have long held the focus of a diverse group of people. They do not step outside the cultural confines already placed, especially around themes like Menstruation.
Euphemisms have been used in popular culture not to save face but to disguise existing taboo. Participants said they used - Carrie at Prom has arrived (from the movie Carrie); paging Edward Cullen (from Twilight); The Red Wedding (from Game of Thrones); I am surfing the crimson wave (Crimson Wave by Tacocat); Keep bleeding (Bleeding Love by Leona Lewis); Here comes the flood (by Peter Gabriel).
Have there been enough representations of Menstruation in regional cinema? Have these representations been accurate?
5. What are the recurring themes in the use of euphemisms?
Recurring themes through euphemisms for Menstruation are - blood flow, the colour red, periodicity, sexual availability/unavailability, indisposition, antipathy/sympathy, notion of a visitor, menstrual protection and mythical nature and procreation.
The recurring theme of Blood is a salient feature in euphemisms, and the colour metaphor is largely used across language and culture. Common words associated with blood flow have been - massacre, lava, Niagara falls, chumming, blood bath, flowing.
However, the use of euphemisms that involve a visitor (male/female) seemingly have no reference point and can be attributed to the nuisance or inconvenience associated with the arrival of a visitor. Aunt Flow, taking the train to the red lands, little sister are commonly used visitor notions.
The colour red has been associated with terms such as Santa Claus week, Communists are here, strawberry season, code red, ketchup, jam, red scare and red fair.
Euphemisms also mask Menstruation as mysterious and sometimes also imply sexual availability/unavailability. Euphemisms such as 'closed for maintenance' or 'having the painters in' generally denote sexual availability. Mythical nature and procreation is a dominant and recurring theme in Menstruation. Some commonly used phrases include - moon cycle, werewolf week, I flowered/flowering and not pregnant.
The Periodicity of the menstrual cycle has given rise to the most commonly used terms - Period, the monthlies or that time of the month, bad week, wet seasons. These words are the most commonly used and span across most cultural and linguistic contexts.
Stomach ache, unwell, feeling that way, girl flu, feeling under the weather and illness have been used to explain the indisposition associated with Menstruation.
The curse, wrong time of the month, bad time and nuisance were recurring themes under Antipathy/Sympathy and generally associated a negative connotation to Menstruation.
Riding the cotton pony, smoking a lady cigar and on the rag/ragtime were recurrent themes under menstrual protection and are used directly in relation to the use of menstrual products.
6. What are the recurring emotions expressed through the use of dysphemisms?
Dysphemisms play on discomfort and unfavorability. It is often a way to trivialise menstruation and disregard symptoms through thinly veiled 'humor'.
Words such as 'sanitary' or 'on the rag' take dysphemistic turns as these connotations are derived from taboo and stigma. Implying a menstruator is impure through the use of recurring phrases such as 'closed off' or 'it is that time of the month' and 'why are you PMSing?' are often inappropriate and used by non-menstruators to trivialise discomfort.
Existing taboos and stigma contribute largely to the origin of dysphemisms and directly target the bleeding, pain and physical symptoms.
The use of euphemisms and dysphemisms are alternate forms of expression aimed at alleviating the tension associated with a topic, in this context, Menstruation. To avoid the taboo, stigma or awkwardness and replace them with an alternative, more neutral phrasing. However, sometimes phrases take dysphemistic turns, which re-establish existing taboos and stigma.
Using the right language can make all the difference!
Walker. L (2014). "Linguistic and Cultural Approaches to Menstruation Taboo and Euphemism" Retrieved from: https://scholarship.tricolib.brynmawr.edu/bitstream/handle/10066/12541/Walker_thesis_2014.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
Burridge. K (2017). Euphemisms and Dysphemisms. Oxford Bibliographies.