There’s a thread on one of the JAFF sites about anatomical names and how to refer to them in Regency times versus modern times, and what is and isn’t tasteful in a book and in real life. It is a hilarious and interesting topic, and while I was brainstorming for this blog post, it reminded me of something funny that happened with my work.
I teach English as a foreign language. What that looks like state-side is trekking to a local factory where I sit in the conference room with the foreign executives and teach them for a few hours twice a week.
Part of this job is helping them acclimate to the culture. Last year, I had one student in particular who was very funny, total class clown type. To understand and deliver humor in a foreign language is a huge achievement, so he was a fairly advanced student.
One day he was talking about a project he had been working on with his American coworkers. He referred to a woman he worked with as his “member”. I stopped and asked him to repeat what he’d said and he told me, “I told my member to be ready at five o’clock.”
Obviously, I kept a straight face and was very professional, but I did find it necessary to tell him that the word he was looking for was “team member” or “coworker”, not member by itself. On its own, it was a risqué term and should not be used in an office setting. At his confused look, I told him it was another word for penis.
Blank stare. And not just from him. Also from the man sharing his lesson. Great.
So I tried to explain what a penis was in language they would understand and without blushing or resorting to crude hand gestures. It was made more awkward by the fact that these men are my age, only two years older than me, and both single and in and out of romantic entanglements. I didn’t want them to misconstrue teaching for flirting – a peer is always hardest to teach, for me anyway.
I said it was a body part.
They had one and I did not.
More confused looks.
I made a triangle with my hands and pointed to my lap. That did the trick.
Once he understood what it was I was talking about, I told him “member” was a term for that body part and not something he should call people.
He didn’t believe me.
Fast forward two weeks and he had just returned from a business trip to Canada. As he came into the conference room, he bowed down and apologized in true class clown fashion, repeatedly touching his forehead to the ground and saying he would never doubt me again.
Apparently, in Toronto he had used the term “member” with a group of men there, and when they had finished laughing, they told him it was another word for male anatomy and to stop saying it, especially to the women in the office, before someone got offended.
Seeing this was a problem that clearly needed to be addressed for the sake of everyone’s dignity, I proceeded to make a handwritten list of all the slang words I could think of for penis. I wrote WORDS FOR PENIS in big black letters across the top and made them each a copy, making them promise to keep the papers inside their desks and not to advertise that I wrote the list. The Americans in the office would have a little too much fun with that.
The list included, but was not limited to,
pee pee pipe
lolly doodle (my personal favorite)
pen (as in ink pot and)
To be fair, I also included words for breasts on the back.
What made matters worse was that the next day, I had a meeting with one of my adult literacy students at McDonald’s (the library conference room was unavailable). I was reaching in to my tote bag to get a book and when I pulled it out, a paper with bold letters at the top stuck straight up out of my bag like a dirty little flag proclaiming my odd lexical proclivities.
My fifty-eight-year-old student said nothing, but he did look at me with raised brows and what I swore was laughter behind his eyes. I quickly stuck it back in my bag and moved on, hoping no one else in the busy restaurant had seen it, then disposed of it as soon as I got home.
And people think teaching English is boring.
Here’s a fun link if you want to see more historical terms for both male and female body parts. Don’t read while drinking if you want the screen to stay dry.