January
8th 2010
The D-word

Posted under: bad language, Gender, women's history

Charles Estienne, 1545

Douche!  (Variants:  douchebag, douchenozzle).

It’s funny, right?  Calling someone–usually a man–a douche is funny, because it associates him with an unpleasant process, and it implies a weakness and/or stupidity that d!ck doesn’t.  (D!ck is still an insult, but because of its association with male genitalia, there’s a recognition of power in calling someone a d!ck that the other d-word doesn’t have.)  This is an insult that appears to have gained popularity in the past five or ten years, with people who are younger than me (20s and 30s, from what I can tell).

I don’t like it and I don’t use the word because it appears to me to get its insulting kick from its association with ladyparts, which we all know are nasty, smelly, leaky, and disgusting.  That’s what douching is for, right?  To attempt to manage or correct all of that nasty, smelly, leaking, disgusting mess.  Am I right, or is there a feminist, non self-loathing understanding or interpretation of douche that I haven’t yet grasped?  (Are we at the point where douche is insulting not because of its association with fixing ladyparts, but because of the insultit offers to women’s ladyparts?  I’d like to think so, but I’m skeptical.  The ungendered version of this kind of insult would be calling someone an “enema,” I guess.  I once heard someone called a “ground glass enema,” which painted a pretty vivid portrait of how irritating ze was.) 

All of you youngsters, and oldsters and lexicographers, please fill me in on this.

36 Comments »

36 Responses to “The D-word”

  1. Feminist Avatar on 08 Jan 2010 at 10:33 am #

    Not being American, I don’t use the word douche, but when I hear (or more often read) it I envision something irrititating that will potentially upset the chemistry of my vagina (and so worth avoiding).

  2. thefrogprincess on 08 Jan 2010 at 10:40 am #

    I don’t think there’s a feminist understanding that you’ve missed but I’m also not convinced the men who use the word really know what it means (or some of the women for that matter). You never know what people are doing in their bathrooms but for some reason I feel like those products aren’t used quite as much in my generation. I could be completely wrong. That doesn’t excuse the use of the term because certainly its initial use started as you describe but I wonder if it’s like the word “retarded”, a word people use a lot without serious consideration of what it means.

  3. Vance Maverick on 08 Jan 2010 at 11:09 am #

    The word was current at my northeastern university in the early ’80s, generally in the “bag” form. However, I only heard it among men (and indeed, applied to men). I don’t think most of us knew in detail what the real thing was for — only, as HA says, its association with the weak & swampy other. So I second your interpretation (and your rejection of the term), but wonder if the “recency illusion” is in play.

    (Or my college cohort, full of future wordmongers such as Fareed Zakaria and Naomi Wolf, may have been ahead of the trend, if only in the sense of inflicting its verbal fads on the culture at large — we were joking about “political correctness” quite a few years before it was shouted from every reactionary soapbox.)

  4. Dr. Crazy on 08 Jan 2010 at 11:24 am #

    I’ve got to say, I’ve always taken the term “douche-bag” or “douche” to be roughly equivalent to “a$$hole” or “jerk-off” (noun form) in its usage, and thus have never really responded to it as sexist language. Whereas I think that terms like b-tch, c-nt, and, p-$$y most definitely are derogatory to women (though I’ll admit freely that I use those as well, for my cursing knows no boundaries), I’m not sure about “douche.” Perhaps this is because, as the frog princess says, fewer women today seem to douche than historically? (I know every doctor I’ve ever had has cautioned against douching, and I wonder whether, if women just aren’t doing it, if that is one reason why the term is deemed acceptable by many women?)

  5. Tim Lacy on 08 Jan 2010 at 11:28 am #

    I’ve always thought of dick and d-bag as equal opportunity put-downs. I have noticed that few women earn the “dick” appellation. But I do know a woman friend who uses the term frequently to describe jerk-off males. Because she accepts the feminist label, it seems that using male-female oriented put-downs is, indeed, an equal opportunity endeavor. But maybe I’m just engaging in a two-wrongs-make-a-right deal? – TL

  6. Vance Maverick on 08 Jan 2010 at 11:32 am #

    I believe the movie South Pacific contains the line, “Now that’s what I call a female jerk!” (Am I remembering this right?) Making one wonder whether the scriptwriters never thought about possible etymologies of the word, or perhaps did so, and assumed women were innocent.

  7. Feminist Avatar on 08 Jan 2010 at 12:02 pm #

    It is true though that most women of my age group (late twenties) associate douching as something bad for women, along with its association with the vagina (if they even know what it’s original meaning is – I think I was at uni before I heard the term in a non-insult context). So to hear it as an insult, isn’t really the same as, say, cunt, which is a part of your body. In this sense, it’s meaning is slight detached from the female body, even as it’s given meaning by it, and it’s negative association comes from both contexts. (Which is why I mentally reclaim it- and I have also has this discussion on reclaiming it as a feminist term on other feminist blogs).

    On an historical sidenote, I read recently douching was used in previous generations as a form of contraception by women, before more effective means were introduced or at least widely accessible, which might explain its decline in popularity.

  8. perpetua on 08 Jan 2010 at 12:14 pm #

    My response to the term is largely the same as Dr. Crazy’s. I’ve used the term and associate with things like jerk off, etc. While douching is clearly a female-only activity, it’s one that I’ve always viewed as unnecessary, unpleasant, possibly dangerous, and itself a bit offensive (selling women a product to take the grossness out of their ladyparts. my ladyparts are just fine, thank you.) So for me the association is less about women’s bodies per se, and more about the product.

    (urban legend at my high school – late 80s early 90s – had many girls using douching as a form of birth control. Turns out it’s super ineffective, if we can judge by the corresponding number of teen pregnancies. I always assumed their use of this as birth control was a sign of the poverty of sex ed at my school.)

  9. Historiann on 08 Jan 2010 at 12:26 pm #

    Interesting point about the waning popularity of douches. I have zero familarity with them myself, and they’ve never been a topic of discussion among any of my friends. (I think they stopped advertising on TV in the 1980s or early 1990s–then again, I haven’t watched daytime TV since then, so what the heck do I know?)

    I see the difference that Dr. Crazy and Feminist Avatar are making between body parts and accessories, but I’m not persuaded that there’s that much distance between appliances inserted into ladyparts and the ladyparts themselves. There’s a long history in the English language of anything associated with ladyparts being used as an insult. For example, in my period, a dangerous idea or wrong religious idea is referred to occasionally as a “menstrous cloth,” that is, an ulimate sign of filth and corruption because of its association with all of those nasty, smelly, leaky, permeable, dangerous ladyparts.

    I think it’s interesting to consider whether familiarity with douching is necessary to say that the term “douche” is essentially sexist or self-loathing (on the part of women who use the term.) After all, I threw the word “bitch” around a LOT as a teenager without giving a lot of thought to dog breeding or the different standards applied to judging male and female behavior among humans. We can perpetuate sexist language and frames without necessarily being conscious of them, I think.

    After all: why “douche” (or menstruous cloth) instead of enema, Band-Aid, Ace bandage, or clyster pipe (an archaic term for enema), or any other reference to a bodily appliance that is soiled when used as intended?

  10. Deborah on 08 Jan 2010 at 12:54 pm #

    Yes, “We can perpetuate sexist language and frames without necessarily being conscious of them.”

    My first memory of the term “douche” was in combination with the term “dick,” as in “dickless douchebag,” an insult hurled at my poor little brother, 7 or 8 at the time (I was 9 or 10), by two slightly older neighborhood preteens, sisters, whom I desperately wanted to befriend. They let me hang out with them but didn’t like my brother tagging along. The combination of the two terms supports Historiann’s point about the different connotations of “dick” and “douche,” but while I think all of us kids got the “dickless” part, none of us knew what “douche” meant. I suspect the girls picked up the phrase from their parents (mother?), who were in the midst of a divorce and always fighting. I don’t use the term “douche” because it reminds me of this memory. I felt bad afterwards for not sticking up for my brother, but he did finally stop tagging along.

  11. nicolec on 08 Jan 2010 at 1:02 pm #

    From Shakesville under the link “Inside Shakesville” (and I totally agree and further use the word quite often)

    “Why do you use douchebag? Isn’t that sexist?

    Actually, douching was a terribly anti-woman practice designed to make women feel ashamed about their natural body odor. Repeated douching can wash away the lining of the uterus, making it not just pointless but dangerous. So, when one needs a word to describe, say, our pointless and dangerous former president, one would be hard-pressed to find a better word than douchebag.”

  12. Sisyphus on 08 Jan 2010 at 1:05 pm #

    I think I picked up the term originally from (was it Blackadder?) a skit mocking Looord and Lady Douuuuchebag, with the aforementioned pair in wigs, panniers, satin knee breeches and the like, and so the term was as much about class and vulgarity as it was about body humor.

    In my high school health class I was taught “back in the bad old 70s they told women to use douches or feminine cleaners all the time and it gave everybody yeast infections, so don’t put anything up there that might change your PH!”

    Since I totally think UC President Yudoff is giving our school the equivalent of a yeast infection, I kinda like it as a term of abuse, although I love the term “clyster pipe” and now I want to bring that back into use as an insult.

  13. Rad Readr on 08 Jan 2010 at 1:33 pm #

    Sisyphus, thank you for introducing Yudoff into this string!!

    The D-term with a bag circulated in my house recently when my wife used it to in reference to the esteemed senator from Connecticut. My 10-year-old son was then repeating L. is a D-B. And I explained that it’s not a polite word and he shouldn’t use it. If he looks over my shoulder next time I am at Historiann he will get some explanation as to what it means. It’s bad enough that I already had to explain ED because of the commercials during football games.

  14. Comrade PhysioProf on 08 Jan 2010 at 1:34 pm #

    I started using it and its variants–including one that I myself coined: douchecornet–after seeing it used so effectively by Melissa McE and Amanda M. I understood from their use that it was not a misogynist insult.

  15. Historiann on 08 Jan 2010 at 1:49 pm #

    Well, everyone has to make hir own call on this one. I’m still not persuaded. Again, the thing that makes it “ick!” is the association with female genitalia. I appreciate that some want to appropriate “douche” to feminist ends, but I’m just not convinced.

    Let’s work on promoting “clyster” or “clister pipe.” I think it also works as just “clister,” which even if you don’t know what it means precisely sounds kind of yukky because it rhymes with “blister.”

    Hillarious story from Rad about his 10-year old running around screaming “douchebag.” It reminds me of a story from a friend of mine, who also had to explain “ED” to her 10-year old sons. They were running around in public screaming, at the top of their lungs, the “Viva Viagra” song (which goes to the tune of “Viva Las Vegas,” for those of you not in the know.) She was mortified at having to insist that they stop singing it, and having to explain exactly why.

    Even with a son, that’s not a conversation I’d want to have with a child.

  16. Bing on 08 Jan 2010 at 2:14 pm #

    I was wondering why people were not talking about menstrual effluvia, and it occurred to me I might not know exactly how people are using said product. So I looked it up. I swear I thought it was associated only with menstruation, not just run-of-the-mill hoo-hoo odor. I associated the douche associated with menstrual… ejecta (that makes it sound too volcanic, but you get the idea). Therefore, I considered a douche-person (sort of informally) as something purged or purgeworthy, to use a word that irritates my spell check.

    Of course, I have an unhealthy fear of ALL bodily functions.

    I shall henceforth use “colostomy,” as in, “That loser is a narcissistic colostomy bag” (that is, a sack of $h!t in love with himself).

    HJ

  17. Historiann on 08 Jan 2010 at 2:23 pm #

    Bing–I don’t know about using “cobag” or “colostomy bag” as an insult. You can do what you want, but it will probably piss off people concerned with disability issues! There’s almost no insult you can use that’s pure. (I don’t think there’s a pro-$hit or $hit rights lobby, so maybe that one’s OK, gender-neutral, guaranteed not to offend anyone except the insulted person, which is the point of using an insult.)

    I’ve never used a douche, but my impression was that it was for contraception (misguidedly, as perpetua indicates above), and that it was sold to some for general “hygiene,” not for cleaning up during or after menstruation. After all, menstruation means stuff’s all coming out anyway, with the help of the amazing force of gravity.

  18. cgeye on 08 Jan 2010 at 3:24 pm #

    Hold on there, Hannah — douching is not a gender-bound activity when it’s used to cleanse the anal tract.

    Douching is apparently less invasive than an enema, which is less intense than a colonic. In any case, the fact that douches can be used by men brings up the homophobic aspect of “douche” as an insult….

  19. Tea on 08 Jan 2010 at 3:44 pm #

    just putting it out there: my own (mid-20s) feminist interpretation of “douche” (which i use, frequently).
    Douching, used to convince women that our ladyparts are dirty, smelly, or squicky (“squicky” being the medical term, ahem), is bad for women. It messes up one’s natural flora and disrupts the vulva’s self-cleansing mechanisms. It implies that in order to be a healthy lady one needs extra medical attention because otherwise one’s parts will stink up the room.
    I therefore use “douche” or “douchbag” to mean exactly that: something that is bad for women. “he is being such a douche” = he is the equivalent of a patriarchy-produced yeast infection.

    While i feel historiann on the douche-is-gross-cuz-vag-is-gross connotation, i do prefer my interpretation.

  20. Clio Bluestocking on 08 Jan 2010 at 3:57 pm #

    Sisyphus — I should be ashamed that I know this — the Lord and Lady Douchebag skit was from an early Saturday Night Live, with Buck Henry as the Lord and Gilda Radner as the Lady. She wanted her salad with just “a little bit of vinegar and water.” Really, I should be ashamed that I know that.

    When I first heard the term used as an insult, I wondered, “why?” and “do they even know what a douch is?” and “is this directed at women?” (for the same reason as Historiann describes). I don’t use it because it just sounds silly and it’s difficult to insult someone if you are laughing at your own language. If I used it, I would use it as Tea describes: to refer to a person of either gender who stepped in to fix something and then made a big, irritating mess. Much like douches do in causing yeast infections.

  21. Historiann on 08 Jan 2010 at 4:04 pm #

    This skit? It’s a weird play on names that have become assigned to everyday items. It’s pretty funny when the Douchebags arrive at the party. (Esp. for something 35+ years old!)

    Cg.eye–the notion of a male douche never, ever occured to me!

  22. Comrade PhysioProf on 08 Jan 2010 at 4:29 pm #

    Let’s work on promoting “clyster” or “clister pipe.” I think it also works as just “clister,” which even if you don’t know what it means precisely sounds kind of yukky because it rhymes with “blister.”

    I’m totally down with that, you fucking clystercornet!

  23. mandor on 08 Jan 2010 at 6:35 pm #

    I find douche (-bag, turbo-, mega-, douchoisie, douché, etc) incredibly useful in reference to dudes who are particularly toxic to women. Maybe it’s because I was raised to know that douching was bad for me that I’m totally ok with using it as an insult.

    Do they still round up the 6th grad girls to show them “Julie’s Story” in preparation for menstruation? If so, that is the time to also give them a little presentation on how there is absolutely no medically-based reason for them to douche. It blows my mind that there are people who might think it’s not detrimental to, and in no way a good thing for, one’s health.

    I would never use colostomy bag as an insult because a. they’re medically necessary and b. no big thing (I used to help someone change hir’s).

    And finally: http://www.mum.org/Lysol28.jpg

  24. Clio Bluestocking on 08 Jan 2010 at 6:53 pm #

    Historiann, YES, THAT skit! I was never ever allowed to see Buck Henry episodes, and saw that one on a “best of” special — I must have been 11 or 12. No one would explain to me what a douchebag was, even when the commercials came on. Finally, my grandmother told me that it was “for ladies to clean out their nastiness down there.” Ah, the precise language used to inform girls of natural processes!

  25. wini on 08 Jan 2010 at 8:16 pm #

    On another internet forum this week (password protected, so no point in linking it), there was a long discussion amongst a group of 20 somethings about the origins of the term douchebag. Almost none of the males knew that it had any other meaning than the insult. This came about because an older woman (in her 60s) had castigated one of them at work for using the term scumbag, saying it meant a used condom. Apparently scumbag DOES refer to a used condom. Who knew? From there it turned to douchebag, and there was a pretty strict gender divide, all of the girls knew what it referred to, and almost none of the guys.

    I don’t use the term myself, but I think I might start after reading this comments thread.

  26. quixote on 08 Jan 2010 at 9:00 pm #

    Grizzled veteran here. To me the term sounds anti-woman. Yes, people are used to it. Yes, it’s used all the time. Yes, everybody’s innocent and just uses words with punch.

    I don’t buy it. Even the people who haven’t got a clue what it means, know it has something to do with ickiness and female genitalia and “swamp” (as someone brilliantly said upthread). As Historiann said, “We can perpetuate sexist language and frames without necessarily being conscious of them.”

    (Actually, I think we can only perpetuate them unconsciously. In the light of day, they reflect mainly on the speaker.)

    Nor do I buy “reclaiming” words or “this is what I mean by it.” That only works if the new meaning actually takes over. Who even remembers that “gay” meant “happy/delighted/joyful” a few decades ago? Scumbag has been reclaimed. (I didn’t know it meant used condom!) If douche (or, for that matter, fu<k) had been reclaimed they would cease having useful vileness. Nobody says, "Oh, get laid."

  27. quixote on 08 Jan 2010 at 9:02 pm #

    Or, for that matter, “He’s such a mouthwash.”

  28. Frustrated Full Professo on 08 Jan 2010 at 10:07 pm #

    It was one of the revelations of my young life when I was about 9 or 10 when a friend explained “scumbag” to me, in the sense that Wini explained, and said that you could find them in the Hudson river. And I am old enough to have been advised to use a douche along with a diaphragm…

    I sometimes feel like my grandmother, but I try not to use sexual insults in general, just because in a funny way, even when women use them, I think it contributes to the oversexualization of everything in our society…

  29. historymaven on 08 Jan 2010 at 10:32 pm #

    Back in the 1950s Lysol was advertised as a douche. “Summer’s Eve” of the 1970s seems so gentle in comparison.

    I seem to be in a county where no used the term “d–bag”–at least not within my earshot. Then again, I gave a lot of male and female friends a lessen in linguistics when they used the term “wuss” without knowing its origin.

  30. cgeye on 09 Jan 2010 at 2:28 am #

    What is its origin?

  31. Sweet Sue on 09 Jan 2010 at 6:57 am #

    The origin of wuss is pussy.
    I find douche and douchebag offensive.
    Whatever happened to good old “shithead?”

  32. Historiann on 09 Jan 2010 at 8:21 am #

    I don’t think I learned about the origins of “scumbag” until I was in my 20s. Yeccchhh. I remember having a junior high school gym teacher who regularly used the term “wuss.” Unpleasant, especially because P.E. was not my best class as it was.

    I’m with Frustrated Full Professor: sexualized insults no. But as Sweet Sue suggests: what’s wrong with the occasional Barnyard Epithet?

  33. FrauTech on 09 Jan 2010 at 6:25 pm #

    Crap. Now what word am I going to use. Shithead is too borderline actual curseword, and asshole just seems too run of the mill and ineffective. I never thought about it being offensive in a sexist way. But now I see it, and I’ll have to find a substitute.

  34. Moria on 10 Jan 2010 at 7:31 am #

    The way I see it: douches are bad for vaginas. The myth that vaginas need to be cleaned up with smelly chemicals is a myth of patriarchal commercialism. Now, if douches are bad for vaginas, well! So are many men. When I call a guy (or, much more rarely, when I call a woman a douche), what I am saying is, in part, “You are an instrument of the patriarchy that I reject,” as well as, implicitly, “My vagina can clean itself all on its own, thanks! Yay for that!”

  35. Sisyphus on 10 Jan 2010 at 7:09 pm #

    I had no clue that scumbag actually referred to anything! (And likewise, when I finally realized that “lousy” had a literal origin in the louse-infested trenches of WWI, I thought, “yeah, but if nobody actually knows the word’s history and nobody cares, does it still really have the original meaning?”)

    Oh, and I had a teacher in 9th grade who always yelled at us and gave us detention when we said something “sucks.” “That sucks” is a nasty, disgusting phrase and you are referring to a particularly dirty and disgusting sexual act when you use it, she’d say. I had had noooo clue; I used (and still use it) as a synonym for “that’s sorta bad,” or “that’s mildly irritating, too bad.”

    So now I use the phrase “that sucks a$$” when I really want to get across that same sense of disgust and put new life in some old slang. Of course, that just gets back to the homophobic side —- really, what insults do I have left? I’m just going with douchebag! (and thanks for the link, Clio and Historiann! Never be ashamed to remember Gilda Radner!)

  36. Historiann on 10 Jan 2010 at 10:04 pm #

    Sisyphus, I think “lousy” has a much, much longer history of referring to actual louse infestation before trench warfare. My understanding is that the 17th and 18th centuries were full of them, chronically, everywhere.