Is That a Banana in Your Pocket or Are You Just Pleased to See Me?

bananaman If you’re not a fan of sex scenes in your romance novels, then you might want to look away now, because this is a post about the language used to describe those steamy moments. So be warned that there will be several rude words and naughty phrases from here on out.

Back in the day when I used to read (and write) fanfiction, I remember reading some truly execrable sex scenes. You know the sort – the ones where you know the author was trying to burn up the screen but ended up causing widespread hilarity. There is a fine line to tread between something being hot or being funny, and while it is certainly going to be the case that one person’s turn-on is another’s unbridled amustment , I find that there are certain words and/or phrases, or an overall ‘feel’ that is guaranteed to make me giggle rather than get hot under the collar.

I read a book recently which I really enjoyed, but in which the author kept referring to the hero’s “organ”. Now, I’m sorry, but whenever I see that expression used to describe the hero’s tackle, this is the image that pops into my head:

organgrinder

And that got me thinking about the words and euphemisms used by authors when writing sex scenes, particularly in romance novels. I would imagine that in a romance there’s also another thing to factor in when you’re walking that fine line, which is that you have to keep the romantic element of what is going on to the fore. The romance reader might want the steam, the headboard-banging and the screaming Os, but there’s a different language to be used to describe such things in romance as opposed to erotica. In the erotica I have read, I’d venture to say that the language is cruder and more to the point. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing – everything has its place, after all – and in some romance novels the prose as been so purple as to make me wonder what the hell is going on! But when it comes down to it, there are a limited number of words to describe male and female genitalia after all, as in most romances, you’re writing a sex scene that extends over several pages, you’re going to need to use a good number of them and to try not to go overboard with the repetitions. And in erotica it must be even … I was going to say “harder” (snigger)… more difficult.

And I got to thinking. What words or phrases are likely to make me squirm – in a bad way? I’m certainly no prude and can honestly say that there is very little in terms of sexual vocabulary that I find offensive. In fact, I’m hard pressed to think of anything – even the “c-“ word, which is one I never use, isn’t a problem for me when used in an erotic novel, because, as I said earlier, it’s down ‘n’ dirty and to the point. I do find it less easy to accept in the context of a romance novel, however, for the same reason – it’s too down ‘n’dirty and to the point.

In general, I find that using anatomical terms – penis, vagina etc. can make the whole thing seem rather too clinical. But then that means we need a big bag of euphemisms, and I asked my fellow reviewers here at AAR about which words make them laugh, cry or throw the book at the wall.

When it comes to describing the hero’s anatomy, it seems that “cock” is the favoured word, although in historicals, there are also a plethora of shafts, rods, pricks, lengths, bulges or just plain ol’ erections, which are thickening, turgid, swollen, burgeoning, engorged, rampant, raging or painful. (Poor fellas).

And how’s this for purple prose – “turgid tumescence”? Blythe said she read a book years ago (probably in the late 90s) where the hero had one of those. “I’m not sure on what planet this would sound sexy, but I know it’s not this one.” I think I agree with her on that.

Most of us were agreed that whether the language worked or nod all depended on context. Lynn said she thought that maybe terms like “manhood” were more likely to be found in historicals than more modern, grittier terms, and Jenna reminded me of that wonderful term, “manroot”, which seems to have gone the way of the 80s Bodice Ripper.

Blythe said: “I used to hate hate hate the word cock. But as it’s gotten more and more common in romances, I’m pretty much over it. Still I’d rather authors use dick instead, because at least in America, I think that’s what most men say. But that could just be the ones I know. Member? Manhood? Organ? No thanks.

Dabney said that in the latest novel by Jennifer Haymore, when the virginal heroine asks the hero what he calls that part of himself, he suggests several terms: rod, blade, sword, knocker, rump-splitter, prick – but settles on cock.

I have to admit to finding the rump-splitter more than a little chuckle-worthy.

I admit, I’ve never had a problem with the word “cock”, but I suspect that may be one of those transatlantic differences that exist between my side and your side of the pond, because I’m not sure that we use the word “dick” with quite the same frequency over here. Of course it means the same thing, but I think a British guy is more likely to refer to his “cock” or his “knob” and “dick” is more often used in insults like “dickhead” rather than to describe what’s in his trousers. Given my preference for reading European historicals (which are mostly set in Britain), the term “cock” seems perfectly usual to me, as I tend to think that’s the more common euphemism over here. Pat also said that it’s the term most often used in M/M romances.

And the ladies? I remember reading a fanfic years ago in which the author referred to the heroine’s “golden treasure box” – which could well take the award for the worst ever description of female anatomy!

Otherwise, there are plenty of slick folds, rosy petals, swollen flesh … and lots of musky scents down there.

rose

And where would we be without the lovely “nether lips”? (A lot better off, I suspect!) Then there’s the moist and/or welcoming heat, the tight sheaths and the snug channels; the engorged buds, hard nubs of her pleasure and the nubbins… although personally, that’s one of the times I think I’d prefer the word “clitoris” used.

And Lauren doesn’t see the need for the use of the word “moist” at all – unless one is talking about cake!

Jenna said “Words like “nubbin” and any references to flowers for female body parts don’t quite work for me. And the phrase “slick heat” always makes me think of an oil spill on asphalt!!

And it reminds Lynn of a day at the office when someone was encouraged to feel the “slick heat” – of the photocopier!

Wendy said “The worst one I can remember was from several years ago, and I can’t remember the book now – probably thankfully. The heroine had a “turbid trench”. I wasn’t sure what turbid meant, but I was pretty sure it didn’t mean what the author intended. Later I looked it up and found out it meant “muddy”. Gross!

Eeeew.

Above the waist there are those perky, taut, hard, rosy, dusky nipples that always seem to harden painfully. The other day I read a novel in which the heroine’s nipples were insolent. That was a first!

I’ve deliberately not included some of the creaky dialogue I’ve read over the years of the “oh, yes – do it to me, big boy!” variety, as I didn’t feel it was appropriate for me to identify specific writers or books, but if anyone else would care to share their favourites, I’d certainly love to read them!

I’ve also not touched on (*ahem*!) the language used in erotica, for the reasons I’ve stated above –it’s a different animal entirely and uses a different language. I wanted to stick more or less within the romance genre with my observations, and now I’m interested in your views.

So come on – own up. When is sexy just … NOT as far as you’re concerned?

– Caz Owen

Note: For more fun with euphemisms, check out the archives of the Purple Prose Parody!

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28 Responses to “Is That a Banana in Your Pocket or Are You Just Pleased to See Me?”

  1. I write erotic romance, and believe me, it’s difficult. Most of the publishers I write for don’t allow “violent” imagery, so all mentions of stabbing, swords, all that, is banned, which makes it worse.
    The one that gets me the most is there isn’t a good word for the female genitalia. I mainly use “pussy,” which I don’t really like, and I note it’s creeping into the mainstream, too. The C word is my pet hate, but it’s a perfectly good word and if that’s what my hero will be thinking, then that’s what I use (I stand aside for my characters!).
    Nothing like “cock,” which I love. And I love the f word, too. So descriptive, and so versatile. Used since Tudor times, too, as a description of the sex act, never respectable, and never out of fashion. I adore the way David Milch used the word in “Deadwood,” especially to punctuate the passages he wrote in iambic pentameter, like Al’s soliloquy. (Or didn’t you realize that there are whole episodes of “Deadwood” in Shakespearean blank verse? Took me a while!)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W2Cj5usuA-Q (bad language from the start).
    But the female bits? I’ve even resorted to “pudenda” and that ain’t good.

    • Caz says:

      Oh I believe you, Lynne. I’ve written a fair bit of smut in my time and I know how difficult it is to find the right balance. And it’s another reason to be annoyed when people who don’t read romance dismiss it as “just” something – porn for women, trash, beach reads or whatever. I think it’s far more difficult to write convincing emotions and steamy sex than rollicking, sword-wielding adventures featuring mythical creatures!

      Interestingly, what you’ve said about having to resort to “pudenda” makes me wonder if there isn’t some sort of inherent sexism in that there are so many more words to describe a man’s dangly bits than there are for the ladyparts! ;)

  2. Wendy says:

    Wonderful blog Caz! I despise the C word, myself. Don’t know why, except that I was reared on the premise that it was the worst of the no-nos. I’ve gotten used to the word cock in even the subtlest of love scenes, but the C word takes me out of the story every time.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Pouty lips. I read that one recently, can’t remember where and it bothered me. Pouty? Really? I’ve read quim in historicals and I think it has a nice ring to it. Quivering quim?

    And the erections so hard he fears they’ll split his pants or that he’ll be injured. That’s some erection!

    • Caz says:

      I’ve definitely seen “quim” used in both historicals and some erotica… I don’t mind it, I suppose, but it just looks like such a weird word!

      And the erections so hard he fears they’ll split his pants or that he’ll be injured.

      *snigger* Let’s face it – if the hero is under 21, that might be possible (although it probably wouldn’t last very long!) But surely after 30 he’d need some impressive hydraulics or scaffolding to achieve one of those ;-)

  4. RobinB says:

    Interesting topic, and for those who are following the shenanigans of certain politicians (particularly one whose last name rhymes with “teener”!), a very timely topic, too!

    I tend to read romance novels graded “warm” or hotter by AAR reviewers, but I will say that the phrase “love juices” is one that will cause me to close the book and either return it to the library or take it to the local UBS. Years ago, I read a novella by Bertrice Small (the queen of purple prose) which was one of four in an anthology by various authors. I had never read Small before, and after reading her novella, in which “love juices” appeared in every third paragraph, I never read anything else by her.

    I can live with just about anything else (I totally agree with Lynne Connelly about the f-word and “Deadwood”!), but that l.j. phrase–in the immortal words of Tony Soprano: “fugeddaboutit!”

    • Caz says:

      I will say that the phrase “love juices” is one that will cause me to close the book

      LOVE JUICES??! Bwahahahah! I probably have seen that before, but thanks for the timely reminder! :)

  5. Aida says:

    @ Caz Owen. “And how’s this for purple prose – ‘turgid tumescence’?” Once upon a time, when I was 12, I found this term arousing but not so much when I turned 30. But you have to admit, it’s an interesting alliteration :)

    “Cock” versus “dick” … well in India it’s called “lingam”. I think I have read a romance novel where the word “lingam” was used. I can’t remember who wrote it. Virginia Henley, I think (?)

    As to the female genital organ, “vagina” is just fine with me, although, yes, it can sound quite clinical. So any euphemism is okay. And you can use just about any word to describe it as long as it goes with the mood of the story. You can use “nubbin” (to refer to the clitoris, not to the vagina) and I won’t really mind.

    @Lynne Connolly. Really? “Violent imagery” is not permitted? But sex without some degree of danger is so boring! I mean “ripping her clothes off” versus “slowly removing her white blouse”, hands up, which is more erotic? I mean it’s not as if we’re advocating rape here. And our readers are intelligent, educated adults. A caveat: I started reading romance novels (the torrid ones) at 12 y/o. I’m still ok (i think) and my husband agrees (LOL). I loooove the f-word!

    @Caz. “Interestingly, what you’ve said about having to resort to “pudenda” makes me wonder if there isn’t some sort of inherent sexism in that there are so many more words to describe a man’s dangly bits than there are for the ladyparts.” Yes, me too.

    As to the C- word. Oh please, it’s “cunt”! I’m not a native English speaker, so maybe that’s why it’s less uncomfortable for me. I read a book that said something like “to feminize something is to make it sound undesirable.” Maybe that’s why we are so uncomfortable with “cunt”? Has it become like Lord Voldemort, “it-which-must-not-be-named.”?

    • Caz says:

      I know it’s weird not to use the word “cunt”. It’s just one that I don’t use in speech (and believe me, pretty much the only one!) , so I don’t write it down either. And as I said, I don’t find it unacceptable when used in the context of an erotic scene, provided it’s the right context. It’s just one of those things, as Wendy says upthread, that I consider the worst of the no-nos; I don’t know why, it just is. And while I put a warning at the top of the post that I’d be using some rude words, there are still some people for whom that particular one is more offensive than many others.

      And yes, one does have to admire the alliteration of the Turgid Tumescence :)

    • CarolineAAR says:

      Speaking of Lingam – it’s Linga in the plural, I think? I was at a Hindu temple in Cambodia, and believe me, there is nothing in the world as amazing as watching a busload of Korean tourists being led by their tour guide in standing in front of a lingam statue and singing (Yes! Singing!) “Linga linga linga, linga linga linga!” I still wonder if they’d actually been told what it was supposed to look like.

    • Blackjack1 says:

      “I read a book that said something like “to feminize something is to make it sound undesirable.””

      Yes! This is absolutely true and one of the reasons certain occupations become feminized and thus unappealing for men. It’s one of the reasons why parents no longer name boys with “androgynous” names that become popular with girls — like Taylor, Addison, Alexis, and Ashley (and many more). Once words or concepts become feminized, men avoid them for fear of being feminized themselves.

  6. Paola says:

    English is not my first language, so there are no words that I find offensive, but there’s a word that makes me always laugh, because it’s the same word in my language (Italian) and that’s ambrosia (the “love juices” in Lora Leigh’s books). I think she uses in most of her books.

  7. Yulie says:

    Turgid is awful even without references to tumescence. That word just puts me in mind of something diseased, which is the last thing you want in a sexy scene.

    I’m okay with pussy in contemps, especially in erotic romance, but I’ve come across historicals in which scenes from the (sheltered) heroine’s POV refer to her pussy, which is really jarring even if possibly historically accurate (I doubt it is).

    Finally, juices. Any references to juices is bad, not just love juices. A vagina, to quote awesome blogger AnimeJune, is not a juicer. And anyway juices bring to mind someone basting a turkey, again not the imagery I want when thinking about sex (though I’m sure rule 34 has taken care of that one).

    • Cora says:

      Well, the historically accurate term for female genitalia would be the c-word, which goes back to the times of Geoffrey Chaucer. However, since it’s taboo word in the English speaking world (and as a non-native speaker, it doesn’t bother me either and in fact I hate the p-word more), authors are reluctant to use it (and many publishers might well not allow it), so we get the silly and likely inaccurate p-word instead.

      • Caz says:

        Yes, it is the most historically accurate term, and I have no idea how it has become such an unacceptable one as it is today – I’d be fascinated to find out, though.

        The p- word is just silly. Here in the UK there was a terribly camp 70s sitcom called Are You Being Served, which was hugely popular, in which one of the lead characters frequently referred to her pet cat as her pussy. Of course, the double ententres abounded. Typical English postcard humour!

  8. Joane says:

    Aida says: ‘I’m not a native English speaker, so maybe that’s why it’s less uncomfortable for me’.
    Paola says: ‘English is not my first language, so there are no words that I find offensive.’
    Cora says: ‘…and as a non-native speaker, it doesn’t bother me either and in fact I hate the p-word more…’

    And I do agree with all of them. As my mother tongue is Spanish, there’s no English word that really irritates me or makes me uncomfortable.

    Spanish is a language with many many many f-words, and there’s not only one C-word, and a lot of euphemistic terms to name genitalia –some times I think each family creates its own term… But we seem to have the same problem about sexy words in books.

    When I translate in my mind those English words I read in a romantic novel, or when I read a Spanish-written romance novel, it’s also difficult to find something that does not sound offensive or too clinical.

    So I think that writers and readers have not a problem with language itself but with social taboo around those activities. I would like to know if more open-minded societies like Sweden or Germany have got the same problems. Any Scandinavian around here?

    • Caz says:

      That’s an interesting point, Joane. We Brits – and our US cousins, I suspect – have long been terribly conservative about such things. I wouldn’t say the C-word makes me uncomfortable – it may have done when I was younger, but not now. I think I’ve got used to NOT using it out of habit, but I do think it has a particularly nasty connotation in the English language and is often used not just as a swear word or casual insult, but to belittle women, which is another reason I don’t use it normally. But in the context of a sexy or erotic scene, I don’t have a problem with it either.

  9. Deb Stover says:

    My article was first published in 1993, and also included in one of Kathryn Falk’s books. It is still online here: http://www.debstover.com/purple.html

  10. I wrote a blog post just today about sex scenes in romances. I don’t think I’ve ever read a good one. Please correct me if I’m wrong!
    I prefer to read foreplay in books rather than the sex scene itself. This is because the sex scenes I have read are long-winded and go on forever, stumbling from one awkward description to another.
    Dialogue during sex in novels should be banned. It rarely, if ever, achieves what it set out to achieve. Derision rather than arousal is what it achieves.

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  12. Elizabeth Rolls says:

    In writing Regency set historical romances, these days I try to consider whose point of view the narrative is in at any point and tweak the language to reflect that. So if it’s the hero I might use cock, but I’d be surprised if a nicely reared upper class girl knew the word. So she might think in what appear to be more euphemistic terms simply because she doesn’t know what the damn thing is called. And most blokes do not refer to their penis, let’s face it.
    Quim works in a historical context IF the character can be considered to know the word. Again, a well-brought up young lady probably doesn’t. OTOH there is a Jo Beverley novel where the heroine has come from a somewhat shady background and the word she knows for vagina is “cunny”. She refers mentally to the hero’s genitalia as “pretty baubles”. In Loretta Chase’s Don’t Tempt Me, the heroine actually asks the hero the correct term for his penis. (He suggests membrum virile!) She has been living in a Middle Eastern harem and knows a great many flowery terms for both male and female genitalia. These certainly raised my eyebrows and got a few giggles from me, but were very much part of Zoe Octavia’s character. Which all brings me back to my opening point about considering the narrative point of view, I guess. No self-respecting contemporary bloke is going to think of his cock as his shaft. I hope! Except maybe the clergyman in an inspirational, in which case we aren’t going to be privy to the sex scene anyway.
    Just now I’m writing a story set post-Waterloo with a heroine who has been running a farm. She’s likely to think of the hero’s whatever-we-want-to-call-it as his pizzle which will probably send my long-suffering editor into fits.

  13. Kay says:

    Pizzle – pretty funny. I like it.

    • Elizabeth Rolls says:

      That’s a fairly agricultural term, so it would be appropriate for her. And I’m all for being appropriate:)
      I definitely agree with whoever commented that using words such as penis or vagina, while anatomically accurate and appropriate, can come across as clinical. A sex scene should be more than Tab A (penis) into Slot B (vagina). The scene should be about mood, emotion and hopefully character development/revelation. All these are created by language, so I think limiting a writer’s palette of words here is counter-productive. Okay, okay – I’m not that keen on the dreaded manroot!

  14. Corinna says:

    This is really off topic, but my curiosity has been highly aroused, Caz, by your mention of reading and writing fan fiction at one time. I completely understand if you can’t or don’t want to answer, but . . . did your chosen fanfic universe have anything to do with cowboys? I’ve seen the name “Caz” pop up among writers lists at a particular fandom–and the fandom I’m thinking of would certainly explain your move to writing romance! ;) Just wondering! :)