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An Alphabet of Feminism #21: U is for Uterus

2011 March 14


There are some letters in the dictionary that are more Latinate than others. In consequence, u, v and, to an extent, o are largely dominated by medical terminology (because doctors, bless ’em, love a bit of Caecilius est in horto).

In Utero

Henry VIII of England, wearing a shoulder-padded cloak, a doublet and hose, and a large codpiece protruding between his legs.

Sexy tudors. Henry VIII, after Holbein.

Uterus derives from a Latin homonym meaning ‘womb’ or ‘belly’, with reference to the proto-Indo European udero (= ‘abdomen’), and, possibly, a Slavic usage, vedro, meaning ‘bucket’. Much like the ‘bucket’ (and indeed the shape of the letter u with which the word commences), the first sense of uterus is as a vessel – ‘the organ in which the young are conceived, developed and protected till birth; the female organ of gestation; the womb’.

Much has been made of this ‘protective’ element – it has been frequently observed that the ‘fetal’ position babies adopt to fill the uterus endures into adulthood as a comforting or even instinctual reaction to anxiety, pain, distress or cold – a kind of retrospective communion with the mother’s body. This sort of thing, it seems, is not above a bit of marketing, and the uterus is often invoked as a place of calm, darkness and peace.

Opposed to this, we have the sort of ambiguity nowhere better demonstrated than through tanks. (yes, tanks). The Mark I tank, the world’s first combat tank, was renamed from ‘Big Willie’ to ‘Mother’ (…), and its successors were colloquially dubbed ‘Mother’ throughout both world wars. The reasons are obvious: the inside of a tank is small, hot and protective. Childlike, a crew could be forgiven for considering themselves invincible within it – yet once the fuel tank is hit, the men inside suffer a hideous, incestuous death, incinerated by their own machine. This sort of thing runs right the way through conceptions of the mother’s body, particularly in psychoanalysis, which is never tired of exposing the deeply conflictual nature of many mother-child relationships, and with mapping those onto the cisgendered female body – we might think particularly of Melanie Klein’s famous ‘good breast’ and ‘bad breast’. If we’re going there.

HOWEVER. BACK TO THE RENAISSANCE. In its early incarnations in English this ‘womb’ is rarely so clearly gendered (as you may remember, King Lear thinks he has one), and, true to its ambiguous etymology, early modern minds frequently considered the uterus to be a generic bodily pouch. Thus it was often conflated with the gender-neutral belly (ah, Isidore of Seville), and in this form it was thought to be proof of the body’s retentive faculties. So even when considered as a specifically reproductive organ, the thinking went, the uterus still resembles the digestive system in how long it takes to do its business, since it creates infants over a leisurely period of nine months. While I doubt it takes quite that long for your morning Alpen, digestion is certainly something of a gradual process – consider, if you will, the hangover.

Horn of Plenty

If you remember the Alphabet post on ovary (to which this is in many ways a companion), you may also remember that until the seventeenth century sex organs were considered to have analogues across the genders (penis = vagina, labia = foreskin and uterus = scrotum). Along with its reproductive and sack-like qualities – I am reminded of the beautifully named ‘Mermaid’s Purses‘ – in this model the uterus also matches the scrotum in its creative properties. After all, reproduction is six of one and half-a-dozen of the other.

But this was not just something tossed around in the Renaissance lab and subsequently ignored: the scrotum-uterus comparison actually spread into what we might consider a bizarre arena – fashion. I am, of course, talking about the codpiece, ‘a bagged appendage to the front of the breeches; often conspicuous’. This was a sartorial fave of Henry VIII (above, right), who clearly took his outfits very seriously – but I note that sexy Jonathan Rhys Meyers has avoided the sexy codpiece throughout the BBC’s Sexy Tudors. Too sexy?

Originally a modesty device to get round the, ahem, ‘shortcomings’ of the hose, this strange appendage quickly grew to a size that redefined it as a disturbing kind of hyper-masculine power-dressing. Yet the word derives from the Old English codd (+ piece), which came to mean ‘testicles’ in early Medieval times (quite possibly because of exactly this phenomenon) but originally meant simply ‘a bag, pouch or husk’. Indeed, the codpiece was frequently dubbed a belly, and, through fun with synonyms, the womb could become a cod: my good friend Thomas Laqueur highlights the Pardoner’s exclamation ‘O wombe! O bely! O stynkyng cod!’, in the Canterbury Tales, and also points out that the codpiece quickly started to resemble…(I like this bit)… ‘a finely embroidered and bejewelled horn of plenty’.

A US advert for the state of California, depicting it as a land of 'cornucopia', with a horn of plenty in the middle of it.


So it seems that, while Henry VII might not thank you for it, we could observe that this most macho of garments is in fact drawing attention to the womb-like, generative, and retentive properties of what lurks within (which, of course, it also helped protect – gender-ambiguous Russian dolls, anyone?). Indeed, glancing at a couple of examples in portraiture, a lot of these men look rather like they have an artificially constructed uterus poised over their genitalia (love how he’s pointing, just in case we miss it). Less Blackadder, more… actually, I don’t know what that is.

Bag for Life

But, of course, eventually someone had to seize on anatomical differences to posit a definition of gender, and thus it that (around 1615) the uterus started to be considered something exclusively female – as regular readers will be aware, this was a chain that began with independent naming of the organ in question and eventually reached the pitches of hysteria in the nineteenth century. There is also a strange quasi-legal term, uterine, apparently first spotted in the seventeenth century but not dictionary-cited until 1816, meaning ‘related through the mother’. Thus, ‘the property devolves to his brothers or uterine uncles’, with the body of the mother here serving a dynastic link, since all these uncles can be proved to have shared a uterus. They could even be half-brothers, since an alternative meaning for uterine is ‘having the same mother, but not the same father’. Working on a similar premise, if you are particularly toolish, and your sister has a son, you would (in pre-paternity test times) have been best off leaving your money to your nephew: his link to you is purely uterine, unlike your link to your son, who could be anyone’s spawn.

As we draw near the end of the Alphabet series, threads begin to resolve themselves. Uterus has been the final word of three (hysteria and ovary were the other two) all of which address the issue of mapping the cisgendered female body. Following the three, we have seen a model of sex and gender that does not conform with what many experience as the current status quo. Conversely, the distinction between genders does not seem to have been primarily based on the body until the nineteenth century (or even later). Thus, we have seen women turning into men with comparatively little contemporary comment, the female orgasm (and in some cases her entire sexual appetite) vanish from the everyday realities of heterosexual sex, and now, and perhaps most bizarrely, an epidemic of hyper-masculine men apparently walking around with giant uteri affixed over their genitalia. (Yes, I did just say ‘uteri’). Perhaps this is worth thinking about…

A fetus nestles inside a U

NEXT WEEK: V is for Vitriol

17 Responses leave one →
  1. Pet Jeffery permalink
    March 14, 2011

    Having read the link about women turning into men, I wonder what was going on in these cases. Were they intersex indiviuals? Were they unambiguously males (in so far as anyone is ever unambiguous) raised (for whatever reason) as females? Or is there no basis of truth in these accounts?

    • Russell permalink
      March 14, 2011

      I expect they were intersex – reactions to intersex people would have been very odd “back in the day” if experience tells me anything. Reactions to that sort of condition are often still very odd today!

      However, it’s worth noting, while I don’t claim there being any veracity in them, that one does still occasionally hear stories about people spontaneously ‘changing sex’ today. I seem to recall the story of a man in Birmingham who, in his mid-50s, found himself going through a bizarre “second puberty”. They may just be tabloid tales.

      • Pet Jeffery permalink
        March 15, 2011

        Yes, anything that subverts the cisgendered model for our species (intersex, transgenderism or whatever) seems to provoke very odd reactions.

        At the root of this, gender identity is clearly very important to people. Having conducted training sessions, I noticed a strong tendency for people to prefer to sit with strangers of their own sex. Within the sexually divided groups, people preferred to sit with people of similar skin colour. So the women sat with women, and the men with men… and the groups of women and men tended to divide into subgroups of black people and white people.

        Furthermore, having spent quite a lot of time presented as a member of a self-identified gender (rather than a biologically given sex), I have been able to make quite a lot of interesting first hand observations. Who (if anyone) chooses to sit next to one on (for example) a railway platform bench can reveal whether one is able to pass or not.

        • Pet Jeffery permalink
          March 15, 2011

          I strongly suspect that newspaper stories of people spontaneously “changing sex” are (at best) distorted and misleadingly presented. My experience has given me little respect for newspaper stories. I was once unwise enough to speak to a Sunday Telegraph reporter. What appeared in print bore little resemblance to what I’d actually said. On a later occasion, I was present when some people I knew spoke to News of the World reporters. The reporters claimed to be freelance, which seems to have been their only definite lie. Unlike the Sunday Telegraph, the News of the World didn’t just invent quotes. People had said things very much like (perhaps identical to) the quoted words. But, taken out of context, and with much matter suppressed, the News of the World quotations were grossly misleading. I think it’s wrong to refer to “tabloid tales” — the so-called quality papers certainly invent things… my limited experience suggests that the tabloids may content themselves with distortions. That said, it would be unwise to rely upon either quality lies or tabloid distortions.

  2. Russell permalink
    March 14, 2011

    With regards to the cod-piece, I wonder if it evolved as some sort of martial equipment that, in a more violent society, upper class men found it useful to wear all the time, and from there became a fashion item.

    • Pet Jeffery permalink
      March 15, 2011

      When I read that comment, I thought “I bet that’s right”. But, the more I think about it, the less I’m convinced that the codpiece has martial origins.

      I am not someone who visits historic houses, but — casting my mind back to when other people took me round such places — I don’t recall seeing suits of armour with conspicuous codpieces. Of course, when displaying the armour, the codpieces might have been removed for fear of offending visitors. In that context, a phrase to come to mind was “frightening the horses”…

      Ah — horses! Upper class men preferred to fight from horseback, didn’t they? Surely, anything much in the way of a protruding codpiece would have fitted badly with the saddlebow.

      Checking, I find that the few suits of armour to be seen on Wikipedia show no sign of codpieces.

      Of course, none of this is conclusive.

      • Miranda permalink*
        March 15, 2011

        The first time I learned what a codpiece was was aged 7 in a history class at primary school. We were looking at pictures of Henry VIII’s armour – he had a snazzy hinged number which we all giggled at.

        I’ve no idea if this was “display” armour for ceremonial peacocking rather than actual war gear, or not…

        Here it is! Found it! I’m not actually sure if it was used in battle. It’s… yeah. It’s very “present”! It doesn’t *look* very comfy for horsing about on a horse in, but you never know. Being the King in the 1500s probably means you don’t have to do much actual fighting compared to Joe Bloggs Footsoldier…

        • Pet Jeffery permalink
          March 15, 2011

          That’s interesting. Schooled in the 1950s, no teacher would have shown me or my classmates a picture of Henry VIII’s armour.

          Interesting as this is, it doesn’t resolve the question of whether the fashionable codpiece arose from armour, or whether Henry VIII’s armour followed non-military fashion.

          I have some doubt whether Henry VIII would have worn that armour in battle. “Being the King in the 1500s probably means you don’t have to do much actual fighting compared to Joe Bloggs Footsoldier…” sounds about right to me. Doing a little reading (but only a little), it seems that by Henry VIII’s time, a lot of infantrymen carried firearms (specifically the arquebus). These weapons could pierce plate armour. Consequently, armour grew heavier and more cumbersome, before (gradually) being dropped. So, for a fighting soldier in Tudor times, that armour may have been of little practical use.

        • Russell permalink
          March 16, 2011

          I seem to remember from my own primary school history lessons that Henry VIII’s lift up mechanised bit was so he could go for a wee on the battlefield. I kid thee not.

    • Hodge permalink
      March 15, 2011

      The book I read on the topic (James Laver – Costume & Fashion: A Concise History) was fairly certain that it was originally a modesty device: c1485 – ‘the main garment was still the doublet but it could be worn extremely short, so short as to demand the use of a codpiece at times.’ Wikipedia (that source of all that is reliable) argues that it arose because of the separate legs of the hose (, again demanding a modesty device (much like the drawers of the c19th, except they did not require a modesty device because of the size of the skirts). It’s quite common for something that rises out of (some kind of) necessity to reach epic look-at-me proportions: cf also the crinoline, the wig, lingerie, tracksuits – even leggings.

  3. Pet Jeffery permalink
    March 16, 2011

    This has nothing much to do with the uterus (or even the codpiece) but the opening words:

    “There are some letters in the dictionary that are more Latinate than others. In consequence, u, v and, to an extent, o are largely dominated by medical terminology…”

    reminded me of some things to which I’ve given some thought.

    There’s a mismatch between how frequently letters occur in the English language, and how frequently they occur as initial letters. O is a letter with which comparatively few English words begin, allowing a disproportionately high representation of Latinate/Medical terms. Yet, according to Poe’s “The Gold Bug” (which I do not doubt), O is the third most common letter in the English language. By contrast, B is sufficiently uncommon to count for a hefty 3 in Scrabble, but (in a library catalogue I recall surprisingly well) was second only to M as an initial letter.

    My interest in this stems partly from experience of arranging things in alphabetic order. My first job was in a library — all but the first month spent in the cataloguing department. Also, my reference to “The Gold Bug” shows some interest in cryptography. My youthful reading of Poe coincided with feeling that I had secrets to set down in a form nobody else would be able to read. (I think that reading Poe and having accumulating secrets are two things that must have coincided in a lot of people’s lives.)

    • Pet Jeffery permalink
      March 16, 2011

      My thoughts on the letter B link with my comment on this post:

      • Pet Jeffery permalink
        March 16, 2011

        Sometimes it’s strange how things tie up.

    • Russell permalink
      March 16, 2011

      No doubt there is some correlation between vowels and consonants, and initials.

      • Pet Jeffery permalink
        March 17, 2011

        You’re right. As a general thing, the English language seems reluctant to begin words with vowels… apart from the great exception of prefixes. These prefixes start, alphabetically, with a- (see Amazon) but the most frequent is probably un-. Hodge has represented the vowels with three words using prefixes (Amazon, Emancipate, Infant) and two Latinate medical terms (Ovary and Uterus). The preponderance of prefixes amongst words beginning with vowels means that the vowels take up more room in dictionaries than they are apt to do in surname-based indexes (such as the GAI, or General Author Index, of my library days).

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