Our bodies are wondrous, and the words we use to describe them are no less fascinating. When the entire body is on view, there are numerous word choices for describing it and its parts, with important nuances that distinguish one word from another. Anyone writing in English, for example, when describing someone with no clothes on, can choose from basic words like naked, nude, or bare, but also from many other words that color the tone of the description, such as starkers, buck naked, or skyclad, etc. Then there are euphemisms, like birthday suit, as he came into the world, the suit of Adam, etc. as well as loan words or phrases such as au naturel from French. A good writer needs to be attuned to the differences in connotation among these many choices. Especially for those of us writing naturist fiction, these semantic differences are essential, because the challenge for naturist writers is to utilize terms that sound natural, not overly clinical, but that are also respectful of the body and not erotic. Maybe a particular character would say “bare-ass naked” in dialogue–which creates a tone that can be salacious, defiant, shocked, or all of those together–but some other character, or maybe the narrative voice, might say just “naked,” which is more neutral, matter-of-fact, and probably more respectful in context. (Much has been written about the differences in meaning just between “naked” and “nude,” words that are obvious synonyms but that can indeed have differing connotations.)
This same range of lexical choices applies to many body parts, most particularly the ones that textile society keeps covered (surprise, surprise – so many words for so much mystery). Synonyms in English do exist for eyes, hands, legs, hair, etc. but they’re rare and their usage is more specialized or more forced. But the writer who needs to describe the breasts, genitals, or buttocks of a character has many options. These words are perhaps the most neutral ones, in English, but not all would agree, alleging that especially genitals and buttocks are too clinical. A naturist partner of mine feels comfortable referring to her own breasts as boobs; depending on context, other women might find that term too much of an objectification, while still others would feel just as comfortable with the many, many terms that carry an even greater sexual charge. The word mammaries is overly technical; bosom is an old-fashioned term for the entire female chest, but sometimes an uninitiated writer will deploy it as if it were a synonym of breast, yielding the inadvertently comical “her bosoms.”
Here is a concrete example of this kind of linguistic conundrum, from a passage of my work in progress: I describe a man, unclothed, who has fallen and landed on a wooden floor. I can write merely that “he landed on the floor,” but if I want to specify that he landed on the part of his anatomy that we usually sit on, I can choose from bottom, backside, posterior, butt, buttocks, rump, ass, derriere, patootie, moon, glutes, nates, tail, rear, rear end, and who knows how many other terms, each of them bringing its particular connotation ranging from serious to silly, from clinical to erotic. A further complication arises because the novel takes place in the 17th century, which means that I also need to keep in mind historical authenticity regarding word usage. What I chose to write was that the character “lost his balance and fell six feet to the floor,” and then a couple sentences later, “The floor felt damp against his sore bottom.” Allen Knudsen, friend of this site and a diligent, patient, perceptive, and generous beta reader, commented, ““bottom” feels coy to me. But “ass” or “derriere” are both out of keeping with the tone of the novel. I wonder if “rump” might work?” And this… THIS… is an excellent question! In fact, it’s the question that inspired this post. What is YOUR opinion in this case?
And, there is also the basic and inevitable question of personal choice. To my ear, for example, penis is an ungainly word, but cock sounds too erotic, and all the other synonyms or euphemisms for the penis are also too silly, sexual, or insulting – or too ambiguous, like member or manhood. An essential and straightforward element of having and showing respect for our bodies is calling our wonderful parts by their names, especially for the benefit of children, instead of using ridiculous euphemisms like willie. Similarly, vulva is a perhaps unfortunate word, but it is important to use it correctly to refer to the external anatomy, and to recognize that the more common word vagina is not a synonym for the vulva but rather an internal organ. The same goes for scrotum, which is simply more accurate than testicles (internal organs) and, to my ear, better than the vulgar balls or silly nuts. A character might say, in dialogue, “balls” or “tits” or “pussy” or “dick” or many other more ribald terms… but I, without really wanting to be prescriptive, and without condemning the creative use of language in all of its particular settings, adhere to the belief that in naturist fiction the goal is for the reader to be led past those terms to greater acceptance of words like vulva and scrotum simply for what they are. I don’t even believe that these words need to be used all that often – in fact, constantly referring to characters’ nudity, or referring to their nudity with undue specificity, is juvenile and off-putting. However, when the words need to be used, I believe in using the most respectfully neutral ones.
Another option, of course, is to create new words. This is a fascinating choice for naturist fiction, probably best accommodated in a science fiction or fantasy setting. What if, in some fictional human or human-like culture, the word for vulva were toli while the word for penis were tola? The terms would differ by only one phoneme… suggesting only a small difference between genitalia. Any language is artificial (made by humans), but the use of language is a capability that comes naturally to humans. How we use language to talk and write about our bodies has far-reaching ramifications, because it affects and even makes possible our thought processes – the very ways in which we can accept and respect our bodies as our natural selves.