Sheila Parks, author of While We Still Have Time and an ardent feminist friend of mine, called me on my use of the word douchebag today.

I’m not always a polite guy. I cuss. In my online and meatspace communication, I express myself bluntly when passionate. This word is popular among both men and women I know.

Wheatpasted art with George W. Bush waving: Adios, Douchebag!

Goodbye to an insult.

At the same time, I want to get my point across clearly, i.e. insulting only the people I intend. I try to avoid language which comes from kyriarchy — power over others — and have done my best to expunge my language of words which are racist, sexist, homphobic, ableist, classist etc. while still maintaining my ability to rant or cuss a blue streak when the need arises. On Facebook, I called out ‘racist douchebags’ who put me in the uncomfortable position of defending the winner of an already sexist institution — that is, the new Indian-American Miss America.

Which is when I heard from Sheila: douchebag, she told me, represents what the douche goes into not what it comes out of and therefore is always representative of women’s bodies. My use of this word was “misogynist to the max” she said. I edited my Facebook comment to remove the word, but continued thinking about how this language is used. I raised the issue on Twitter, sparking a lively discussion.

Some people agreed with my friend:

While others defended a usage of the word closer to what I’d intended:

My friend Kate Sheehan, the Loose Cannon Librarian, expressed her discomfort with the word then found this great article about the evolving meaning of “douchebag” from Dialect Blog. According to Ben Trawick-Smith, the use of the word as an insult goes back to WWII, but only rarely, and its use has increased dramatically in recent decades:

So douchebag seems to have been used in a vulgar context as far back as World War II or thereabouts. It’s worth noting, however, that this is the ONLY usage of the type found in 1950′s literature: all other examples of douchebag/douche bag refer to medicine or hygiene. I doubt the term was in popular currency at the time.

But it’s really the 2000s where we see ‘douchebag’ take off. Google books records the word being used 868 times, the overwhelming majority of which appear to be non-medical. This was truly the decade of the ‘douchebag.’ … So let’s put the pieces together. In 1960, when douching was a much more common practice and perhaps more prominent in the public imagination, douchebag would have had a much more disgusting connotation, and likely would have been avoided for this reason. But in the 21st-Century, at a time when many people barely remember what douching was to begin with, it might be taken as a less offensive insult.

Both Trawick-Smith and a Twitter comment agreed that part of douchebag’s appeal is how it sounds:

 ’[D]ouche’ follows the pattern of many other English profanities by being a monosyllable containing a plosive and a fricative or affricate.

The comments on the post provide an illuminating portrait of the word’s evolution in action. Susan commented,

It is an insult more because a douche bag is used by a woman to clean her vagina. To call a man (you never call a woman a douche bag) a douche is the lowest insult. Our society is very male centered right now so it makes sense that anything having to do with the lowly woman would be a great insult to a male in this macho culture. It is the same as being called a tampon or a pussy. If it is female is it derogatory. This furthers the misconception of women as ‘unclean’ or dirty, especially where menstruation is concerned. Vaginal douches are often used after menstruation. Douches are never used on any other part of the anatomy except the vagina. To cleanse the colon you use an enema not a douche.

But Emma countered:

It’s used amongst some women (myself included) to describe a man who’s useless, patriarchal, obnoxious, misogynist, and unnecessary. Like a douche itself. In that context, it has nothing to do with the feminine being inferior or unclean; it’s not like calling someone a ‘pussy.’

A well-placed swear word is proven to occupy a special place in our brains, neurologically speaking. Some might suggest that I use the word ‘dick,’ but I’ve also worked to remove that from my vocabulary. It’s not because I believe in reverse sexism — that’s a whole discussion of “power over” I’m not going to get into here, do some basic reading on feminism please — but because I’ve tried to remove sex-negative language from my vocabulary. Even though I kind of admire the woman who invented the phrase ‘go fuck yourself’ (h/t @GreenPirate_Org), I think sex and masturbation are healthy, positive influences on human lives and try to avoid slut-shaming any gender or orientation.

Similarly, while I might have meant “an antiquated, misogynist practice that hurt women,” if others will hear “a thing that’s gross because it’s associated with women’s genitals” then I’ll happily expunge it from my vocabulary in the interest of clear communication … and not being a misogynist turd.

I’m grateful to Sheila not only for “calling me on my shit” but for inadvertently illuminating a thought-provoking gray area in the evolution of language.

What insults are, or aren’t you using these days?

Photo by Jon Rawlinson released under a Creative Commons license