October 29, 2007

reduplication is a girl's best friend

It seems that Oprah Winfrey is not just very successful at promoting books, she can also promote words into dictionaries.

"I think vajayjay is a nice word, don’t you?”*

THIS is the story of how a silly-sounding word reached the ear of a powerful television producer, and in only seconds of air time, expanded the vocabularies — for better or worse — of legions of women.

It began on Feb. 12, 2006, when viewers of the ABC series “Grey’s Anatomy” heard the character Miranda Bailey, a pregnant doctor who had gone into labor, admonish a male intern, “Stop looking at my vajayjay.”

The line sprang from an executive producer’s need to mollify standards and practices executives who wanted the script to include fewer mentions of the word vagina. The scene, however, had the unintended effect of catapulting vajayjay (also written va-jay-jay) into mainstream speech. Fans of “Grey’s Anatomy” expressed their approval of the word on message boards and blogs. The show’s most noted fan, Oprah Winfrey, began using it on her show, effectively legitimizing it for some 46 million American viewers each week. “I think vajayjay is a nice word, don’t you?” she asked her audience.

Vajayjay found its way into electronic dictionaries like Urban Dictionary, Word Spy and Merriam-Webster’s Open Dictionary. It was uttered on the television series “30 Rock.” It was used on the Web site of “The Tyra Banks Show.” Jimmy Kimmel said it in a monologue. It has appeared in the Web publications Salon and the Huffington Post and on the blog Wonkette. [...]

The swift adoption of vajayjay is not simply about pop culture’s ability to embrace new slang. Neologisms are always percolating. What this really demonstrates, say some linguists, is that there was a vacuum in popular discourse, a need for a word for female genitalia that is not clinical, crude, coy, misogynistic or descriptive of a vagina from a man’s point of view.

“There was a need for a pet name,” said Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, and the chairman of the usage panel for the American Heritage Dictionary, “a name that women can use in a familiar way among themselves.” [...]

Another view was offered by John H. McWhorter, a linguist and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, who pointed out that the women associated with introducing the word — Ms. Winfrey, the Miranda Bailey character on “Grey’s Anatomy” — are middle-age African-Americans. “The reason that vajayjay has caught on, I think, is because there is a black — Southern especially — naming tradition, which is to have names like Ray Ray and Boo Boo and things like that,” Dr. McWhorter said. “It sounds warm and familiar and it almost makes the vagina feel like a little cartoon character with eyes that walks around.” [...]

As Joel McHale, the host of “The Soup,” put it: “It’s not derogatory. It’s not ‘You’re being such a vajayjay right now.’ It’s kind of a sweet thing." “Vajayjay,” he said, “is like your good buddy.”

* For the record, no, I don't think it's such a nice word, not for grown-ups anyway. Reduplication often has a decidedly childlike ring about it (boo boo, wee-wee), and I can't see how this would be charming or desirable in this case.

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