This is the story of how a silly-sounding word reached the ear of a powerful television producer, and in only seconds of airtime, expanded the vocabularies 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 Soup, which highlights wacky television and celebrity moments on E! Entertainment Television, broadcast bits called Oprah's Vajayjay. One featured a clip from The Oprah Winfrey Show at the Miraval resort in Tucson in which Winfrey, attached to a wire and wearing a harness around the lower half of her body, swings through the air and announces, "My vajayjay is paining me."
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."
Acceptance of the word, however, also reignites an old argument, one most forcefully made by Eve Ensler in The Vagina Monologues. Over a decade ago, Ensler wrote that "what we don't say becomes a secret, and secrets often create shame and fear and myths." Vagina, her widely performed series of monologues declared, is too often an "invisible word," one "that stirs up anxiety, awkwardness, contempt and disgust."
Carol Livoti, a New York obstetrician and gynecologist and an author of Vaginas: An Owner's Manual, said "vajayjay" and other euphemisms and slang offend her and can render women incapable of explaining their symptoms to health professionals. "I think it's terrible," Livoti said. "It's time to start calling anatomical organs by their anatomical name. We should be proud of our bodies."
In a voice-mail message left for a reporter, Gloria Steinem said she hopes the women using "vajayjay" are doing so because they think it is more descriptive than "vagina," not because they are squeamish.