Naming our Nudity

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.)

Yoga anatomical study. Model: Qamar Bradford. (source)

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 bottombackside, 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.

Yoga anatomical study. Model: Luba Shumeyko. (source)

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.

15 thoughts on “Naming our Nudity”

  1. I’m surprised that you didn’t comment on the unfortunate use of the word “junk” to describe external genitals, especially male ones. To me it feels derogatory and demeaning, but a comprehensive discussion of popular names for body parts should acknowledge it. For example, “She was offended by your loose-fitting shorts because she could see your junk.”

    1. Thanks for your comment, Rich. Yeah, I don’t like that word either. So much so that I did not even think of it – my purpose here was not to create a list of derogatory terms for the sex organs, but rather to focus on word choice for promoting body respect and acceptance. This post is not “a comprehensive discussion of popular names for body parts.”

  2. “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.”

    In my opinion this is genius.

    Your created word choice is fitting for pronunciation by humans of all ages. It reminds me of grammatical gender use in language. (masculine–feminine–neuter) In the form of Spanish gender, vulva would be tola, penis would be tolo. Lack of genitals or ambiguous or unspecified genitalia could be termed ‘tolay’ or ‘tolie’. Plurals would simply add ‘s’.

    One advantage to constructed language is the ability to create a sensible and regular structure with fewer rules and exceptions.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Tom. Right, made-up languages can be fun! (I had in mind the Spanish -a and -o endings but went for something different.) It’s interesting that Esperanto, perhaps the classic example of an invented language that actually has become the native language of some people, lists “peniso” and “vulva” for these terms – observing the masc/fem endings but still using the different Latin or Greek roots.

  3. Another excellent and thought-provoking blog – thanks.

    It’s certainly the case that excessive use of a particular word can unsettle the reader – one of those issues which isn’t always obvious, but can push writing up or down the quality scale. It WILL be picked up by a good copy editor!

    Yet sometimes the choice of words is limited or even non-existent, even for everyday terms. For example, in regard to books in a bookshop (somethign I’m writing about at the moment), there are no good synonyms for “bookshop”, and those for “book” are mostly clumsy (eg “volume”), too restrictive (eg “paperback”) or inappropriate for this use (eg “manuscript”). (Yes, I cheated and used Word’s inbuilt Thesaurus.)

    Recently, the British naturist Nick Mayhew-Smith published a two-part article in _Naturist Life_ magazine, a significant part of which was devoted to what one might call “naming of parts” (acknowledgement – Henry Reed). We had an interesting email chat over the distinction or otherwise between “buttocks” and “bottom”. (Unashamed plug, with no commercial interest to declare: )

    Personally, I never use the word “vagina” in regard to any external body-part, usually using either “pubes” or “vulva” (and if the reader doesn’t know what “vulva” means they can go look it up!) Further up the body, I sometimes use “aureola” rather than “nipple”, since that denotes the full extent of the area to which Facebook and other prudes object to in various sets of censorship rules.

    In that context, a British Naturism forum recently offered a link to an amusing short video:

    or

    I think toli and tola are lovely words, and it would be great if they could become common. For that to happen, there needs to be a reason for this to occur in the non-naturist world, and I’m not sure of what it might be. We can hope?

    Finally, does anybody have a synonym for “textile” (in its sense of someone/somewhere who/which isn’t naturist). Writer Adam Mars-Jones once brilliantly used it for a particular sort of non-naturist, defined in his short story _Summer Lightning_ as: “someone who doesn’t exist except as a succession of costumes”. While “textile” is useful shorthand within naturism, it’s unhelpful in material aimed at a general audience.

    1. Thanks for this comment, Tim, and the references to other sources I know can be helpful to all of us. I’m certainly going to look up the article by Mayhew-Smith. The link to the video you mention didn’t transpose onto the comment somehow – is there a title, or a URL that can be copied and pasted?

      I understand your point about common words that have no synonym, or no good one, anyway. It’s one of those challenges that can lead to the creative use of pronouns and innovative syntax, all in the name of avoiding repetition!

      The “succession of costumes” definition is clever indeed, and reminds me of more than one acquaintance… I wish there were something more than a term in opposition, such as the dressed and the undressed, the nude and the non-nude, the covered and the uncovered. There’s room for neologism here, too – perhaps the use of “textile” can become more widespread, or we invent a better term (see comments below…)

        1. Tim, thanks for the links!

          (1) I have added the Naturist Life magazine to the “Publications and Associations” page of the Bay Area Naturists.
          I tried to include the link here but got “ERROR: Your comment appears to be spam.”

          (2) I think the video is hilarious! I will be showing it to as many friends as I can!

      1. OK – sorry about that. I used standard carat delimiters on each URL, to avoid problems with line-breaks etc, not realising this would be taken by the blogging server as “comment”, so was completely ignored!

        This second attempt without the carats was initially blocked as “spam”.

        Third attempt – copy the textstrings below and replace DOT with . to get the URL

        For Naturist Life magazine (Googling this tends to deliver many sites, including porn), go to

        naturist-life-magazineDOTcoDOTuk

        For the video, go to

        collegehumorDOTcom/video/7035832

        (It is also on YouTube, but this is the original source.)

        A brilliant reductio ad absurdum?

        An offering in similar vein, based on the British beach convention of the “towel tango”:

        muteseriesDOTcom/films/dress_codeDOTphp

        (Also on Vimeo)

        Enjoy!

        1. Thanks for adding these links – they work now, at least for me. The video is hilarious; someone had a great comic idea imagining pixelation as a disease.
          The exact Naturist Life article you mention may take some digging to find, but I will look for it!

  4. In response to Tim, the proper antonym of “nudist” is “vestist”. Derived from the Latin verb vestire (to dress), the word vestist refers to someone who compulsively wears clothes at all times, even when not necessary. For example, “You’d better pack a bathing suit in case we go to a vestist beach.”

    I deprecate the word “textile” for this purpose. A textile is simply fabric, and it is the wrong word to describe vestism. Even nudists use textiles (towels, sheets, blankets).

    1. Now that’s an interesting word! I had never heard of it – thanks for the reference, Rich! I don’t know if it’s all that widely known or used, but it makes sense. If it’s not much used, well, maybe it’s time to explore the potential for making that a more common term…

    2. Interesting suggestion!

      Unlike “textile”, it works in a situation such as describing a clothing-optional beach:

      “This beach attracts a mixture of nudists and vestists.”

  5. Well, I don’t think “vestist” is in Webster’s or OED yet, because only a handful of nudists have been using it so far, but then again, by increasing popular usage is how we get the dictionaries to enter the word. Since it had a unique definition which nicely fills a void in the English language, I encourage all naturists to use it in preference to the wrong word “textile.”

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