Lexicon Valley

What Boobs, Jugs, and Hooters Say About Phonetics

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing.

Following on my initial observations on the phonology of cuss words, and connecting to Iva’s recent post on cooters and hooters, I’d like to spend some time looking at some phonaesthetic clusters in words relating to private parts and emissions.

What the fuck are phonaesthetic clusters? Phonaesthetics is that somewhat fuzzy and sketchy area of linguistics that looks at the impressionistic, expressive relationship between sounds and meaning. It’s generally accepted among linguists that the relation between the sound and sense of a word is arbitrary, except in the case of imitative words like bang and chirp (and even then there’s a lot of arbitrariness). However, linguistic researchers have for decades noticed associations between certain sounds and certain properties: We tend to assume that something with an “i” or “ee” vowel is smaller or higher than something with an “u” or “oo” vowel, for instance.


Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

And sometimes we notice a set of words that aren’t etymologically related that have the same or similar sounds and refer to the same or similar things, such as words starting with sn related to the nose, or with gl related to light. It’s as though there’s a gravitational effect: We tend to choose words that fit the pattern, and sometimes we even shift the sound of a word to match.

So that’s phonaesthetics: a sound-feeling relationship. Now look at these sets of synonyms:

  1. boobs, hooters; gazongas, jugs; knockers; tits
  2. poontang, cooter, coochie; twat, snatch, gash, box; cunt, slit; ying-yang
  3. cock, prick, dick, pecker; dong, wang, schlong, ding-dong; Johnson, John Thomas; willy, wiener
  4. spunk, cum, jism, semen

Words with “oo” vowel sounds imply huge and looming, but they also imply round and hollow (your mouth is rounded and hollowed when you say them, after all). The “g” and “ng” sounds can also work with that, because they’re at the back of your mouth. So one presentation of breasts is boobs, hooters, gazongas, and jugs, emphasizing roundness and size; likewise, poontang, cooter, and coochie seem to focus on the hollow roundness of the vagina. Maybe ying-yang (obviously altered from yin-yang) fits in there too.

But maybe not. In the other hand (sorry, on the other hand), dong, wang, schlong, and ding-dong can’t be emphasizing hollowness, since they’re referring to a man-rod. They seem to be drawing on a different association of the “ng”: they recall long, hanging, and swinging. Yes, a given sound can have one kind of association in one context and another in another. And of course it’s all very impressionistic. We probably have a similar effect operating with Johnson and John Thomas. Meanwhile, the sillier, wigglier words for the male member are willy and wiener, with their “w” sounds and high front vowels.

But then there are the sharp, crisp, pointy words. They may seem more vulgar, too: I think most people would say tits is ruder than boobs or even hooters. No doubt this is at least in part because it matches the general pattern of swearwords. But let’s look at the aspects emphasized here. To my mind, at least, tits points more to the tips, the nipples; it is a more erect word. Unsurprisingly, we get a similar sound pattern in cock, prick, dick, and pecker.

But what do we make of twat, snatch, gash, box, cunt, and slit? Let’s stop and take a look at those sounds. We still have the crisp stop consonants. But the vowels are not the high front ones spelled with e and i, except in slit, which differs in having that slippery or slicing sl as in slot. All the others have low front, middle, or back vowels. They’re more flat or even roundish than pointy. But they are harsh and, in some cases—with the “sh” kinds of fricatives—messy.

Likewise, with knockers we have something that has the hard “k” sounds but at the same time a rounder vowel. It’s obviously a literal reference, too, to the knocking together, but bear in mind we don’t see them called bangers or colliders or swingers, and only rarely do we see them called bumpers. We choose one word over another from a set of suitable semisynonyms for impressionistic reasons, and those certainly can draw on associations with the sounds.

That leaves us with spunk, cum, jism, semen. These don’t refer to a body part, of course, but they do have something salient: the presence of nasal consonants after the vowels. Would you expect that in words for a viscous fluid ejected at high speed? Jizz, shortened from jism, seems more in line with that. It’s hard to say that these sounds are imitative or symbolic of any quality. Perhaps this cluster just came out of nowhere as an anomaly. But perhaps there’s something of gum and jam and gunk in it, something close and sticky and moist. I think it does give a clue to how we tend to think of the stuff. We could always call it squirt, but we rarely do.

Likewise, we tend not to call tits slappers, cocks Jeremies, or cunts pickle jars. We could, but they haven’t caught on, and I suspect the sound has something to do with it: We just don’t have an image of the thing that matches the sounds.