The history of menstruation language

The way we talk about our periods hasn't always been the same. Here's how our language around menstruation has evolved over time. 

Linguistic experts Lucy Trowbridge, and Taylor Hermerding, from the language learning app Babbel offer insight into the linguistic stigma surrounding periods and menstruation for Menstrual Hygiene Day (28th May):

If we look back through history, menstrual cycles have been stigmatised as an inconvenient "time of the month" that shouldn’t be spoken about while in polite company. Throughout the 20th century, the phrases and euphemisms used to describe menstruation, such as "sanitary products" and "feminine hygiene", have often implied that there is something unclean or dirty about periods. Many generations were taught that having a period is something that shouldn’t be discussed, or that periods are something about which to be ashamed.

menstruation products

In some cultures, even today, periods are considered so unclean that women are exiled during menstruation, a practice known in Nepal as chhaupadi, for example. This is now illegal in the country, however, it’s believed that many people still act on the practice. In the West, periods have become less stigmatised over time, but there’s still work to be done in ending the taboo entirely. The key is to have more open discussions about periods and menstrual hygiene, as well as actually saying the words "period" or "menstruation" instead of euphemisms, which in turn empowers those who menstruate and removes the shame from the subject.

"This kind of avoidance of discussing periods openly is called the 'euphemism treadmill'"

To try and circumnavigate the perceived embarrassment that comes with periods, many languages and cultures use euphemisms. For example, "Aunt Flo" was popularised in the 1950s, built from the word "Aunt" and the given name "Flo" (short for Florence), a pun that alludes to the flow of blood a person experiences on their period. An example of the term in use, as defined by Oxford Languages Dictionary (which provides the definition search results for Google) is: "The embarrassment of being caught off guard by a surprise visit from Aunt Flo". The reason for the sentiment that this visit is something to be ashamed about is clear.

"Older examples of euphemisms for periods can be traced back to the middle ages"

This kind of avoidance of discussing periods openly is called the "euphemism treadmill". This was a term first coined by linguist Steven Pinker to describe the cyclic changing of words we use to refer to cultural taboos over time. Older examples of euphemisms for periods can be traced back to the middle ages, with medical texts referring to the period as "bringing on the flowers", possibly due to the stereotypical association of femininity with flowers. Just following World War II, "Flying Baker", was coined as a term to refer to periods by men. It has nothing to do with actual baking, but is a reference to the naval alphabet, in which the letter "B" uses a red flag and denotes "keep off" and "beware".

girl holds a calendar marked with the days of her period

The sayings we use to represent the act of menstruation today, like "surfing the crimson wave" (made famous by the 1995 film Clueless) or "shark week" (a more recent euphemism), are actually no more or less positive than the terms people utilised in the distant past, like "courses" (from the Tudor period in England) or "on the rag" (a controversial choice of words that is thought to have been first used in the late 1800s). These new, more "socially appropriate" terms still end up creating negative associations with menstruation, because they continue to frame it as something people should be ashamed of talking about openly.

The problem is not that the words themselves are bad or dirty, but that society’s attitude toward periods and menstruation has remained largely unchanged. As long as we are needing to come up with new, "polite" words to talk about menstruation, rather than just saying the word itself, the treadmill will continue, until our underlying attitude about those who menstruate actually changes. By reclaiming the actual words "period" and "menstruation", such as in a simple sentence like: "I’m on my period" or "I’m menstruating", without hesitation or dressed up by a euphemism, we can unashamedly refer to this natural process that affects roughly half the world’s population.

 

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