Jan Freeman has a post about this baffling passage from a Wall Street Journal piece on anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon:

The Yanomamö, like anthropology subjects everywhere, regarded the note-scribbling scholar as a choice target for practical jokes. Only after months of effort did Mr. Chagnon learn that his informants had been deliberately feeding him bogus names. Naturally, he found out in the most humiliating way possible: Telling a group of men something about a headman’s wife, he unknowingly referred to her by a capillo-vaginal epithet.

To find out what that epithet was, you’ll have to visit the linked post; I’ll bet you won’t be able to guess. And sheesh, I thought the NY Times was bad. (Thanks, Paul!)


  1. rootlesscosmo says

    Gotta be cunthair, doesn’t it? (Which I always thought of as a unit of measurement, not a term of abuse.)

  2. I guessed cunthair as well, not that far off. Expressions like “capillo-vaginal epithet” make me glad the WSJ uses euphemisms to be honest.

  3. Although you could argue that “hairy cunt” would itself be the euphemism if it protected our eyes from seeing a phrase like “capillo-vaginal epithet”.

  4. I still think they should have written something like “hair you-know-where epithet”.

  5. Paul (other Paul) says

    May I put another point of view ? I believe there are still very many newspaper and magazine readers who find it unpleasant to see four-letter words in print in general publications.
    I wince when I see them in for example the Financial Times. My reaction would be the same in the WSJ, and as the latter is noted as being right-wing, I think it would apply very much to its readers. You may call me a wowser or a prude but it is simply a reaction bred-in by my upbringing. And, I suggest, that of at least a good percentage of the population, as well as the expanding older generations.
    The expression “capillo-vaginal epithet” might not be ideal, but to me, and I gather to Vanya too – I hope I am not misinterpreting his comment – it is better than the original word.
    An newspaper article is not an academic paper, in which the actual word should be used, but which has a small and informed audience.

  6. My immediate interpretation of “capillo-vaginal epithet” was the Spanish “pendejo,” which unlike the English expressions offered, is a very common word.

  7. At least he didn’t refer to her as ba’ hair: that really would have been a faux pas.

  8. I’m with Paul (other Paul) on this one. Time and place for everything from low to high. But then, I’m also not down with sleeveless wedding dresses in church or going tieless in expensive restaurants.
    Added to which, the general sense of the euphemism itself wasn’t that hard to figure, and doing so flatters the readers who could. The rest could go dig (as Freeman did), which is also no bad thing.

  9. Hey, coming up with these circumlocutions ain’t easy. See my LL post about my own experiences at the Times.

  10. Well, it’s not as if Fanny Hare is a completely impossible name …

  11. Well, it’s not as if Fanny Hare is a completely impossible name …

  12. Nor is Carrie Hunt (tee-hee). Speaking of Napoleon Chagnon, there was a conference honoring his retirement a few years ago, and my anthropologist friends were divided as to whether to call it NapFest or ChagFest (depending I suppose on their expectations).

  13. (Argh. Hat, can you spare an end tag? Sorry ’bout that.)

  14. Trond Engen says

    Paul & BWA:
    What makes it laughable is not so much the choice not to print certain words as the lengths they go to to ensure that readers get it anyway. “… an obscene word” would’ve been unremarkable.

  15. Why couldn’t they just have reported it as “hirsute quim”? Who could be offended by that?

  16. YES! Trond’s right.

  17. Trond Engen says

    Thanks! Oh, wait… Why so surprised?

  18. Not surprised that you’re right, surprised that such a good point had been overlooked.
    Quem, quam and quim are the acc. sing. of quis.

  19. Is “ChagFest” supposed to have a French ch in keeping with “Chagnon”?

  20. marie-lucie says

    I think that Chagnon must be of Louisiana Acadian origin. No one else names a child Napoleon. According to Wiki, he was born in Michigan and his name is pronounced /ˈʃæɡnən/ SHAG-nən. So it has a French ch, but not a French gn which is closer to ny in canyon (and identical to Spanish ñ in cañon, the original of canyon). (However, many people in France do use ny instead of ñ).

  21. Luckily they don’t censor words like country, continue, contaminate, etc.

  22. “(However, many people in France do use ny instead of (However, many people in France do use ny instead of ñ).”
    How I miss Jack Lang! He would have insisted on “cagnon”.
    And by the way, is there any cognate of ‘cañar’ or ‘cañada’ in French, something along the lines of ‘chaigner’ maybe, that means to constrict or squeeze?

  23. I just watched Steve Coogan on the BBC Entertainment TV channel doing a song in the style of My Fair Lady, called “Everbody’s A bit Of A Cunt Sometimes”, with four dancers spelling out C-U-N-T written on opened black umbrellas. So I can’t believe the proportion of the British population that’s offended by the word cunt can be huge, these days.

  24. J.W. Brewer says

    AmEng and BrEng taboos are different, and the WSJ is edited with an assumed AmEng audience, so BBC data is not all that directly relevant. (Although I know someone who works on the European edition of the WSJ edited out of London and Brussels; i wonder if he has any anecdotes about gaffes created because they ran a particular turn of phrase which was much more taboo in BrEng than AmEng.)

  25. “AmEng and BrEng taboos are different,”
    “Shag”. I remember a British exchange officer back in the 80s being flabbergasted that there was popular dance in North Carolina called the “shag”. Just amazed.
    And I remember later another British oficer being non-plussed looking at a map of Ft. Hunter-Ligget, in California, wondering at a hill named Something-or-other Knob.

  26. particular turn of phrase which was much more taboo in BrEng than AmEng
    Fanny pack.

  27. And then there was the example of the British girl who requested an early wake-up call with the request
    “Knock me up in the morning, please.”

  28. JW, I was really talking to Paul and the Brits.

  29. “Shag”. I remember a British exchange officer back in the 80s being flabbergasted
    Jim, Shag for a rug and for rolling tobacco would have been well-known in Britain. I think the name shag for a layered haircut was only used in the US (was it named after the rug?).

  30. AJP, I think the haircut and the rug were named after the visual effect of shagginess, which etymologically has to do with beards. In fact it’s even a doublet, both ‘sahg’ and ‘skeg’, that thing that hangs down like an adipose fin on a surfboard. Of course you will recognize the etymon from Norwegian.
    This was a dance and can’t quite get any kind of image of a dance that has to do with shagginess.

  31. And skjegg is beard, in norsk.

  32. Presumably the tobacco is also named for the visual effect of shagginess. I find that I always imagined shag tobacco as being a particularly coarse sort of loose tobacco, because of its name, but apparently I’m wrong.
    Wikipedia says that it’s named after shag carpets, but that can’t be right: Sherlock Holmes was smoking shag before shag carpets.

  33. a hill named Something-or-other Knob
    Not to mention the source of endless amusement to visiting Brits that is San Francisco’s Tendernob district.

  34. J.W. Brewer says

    Perhaps the legendary (in certain obscure but intense cultist circles) all-girl rock band the Shaggs ( would not have been so named had they been British rather than American?

  35. “sahg”
    is it beard too? cz beard in my language is sahal

  36. in buriad it’s even sahag, maa maybe it’s merely coincidence of course

  37. Paul (other Paul) says

    AJP: I only just saw your comment about the BBC Entertainment Channel. It’s only available in the UK on the Internet and is not broadcast to air. I watch quite a bit of BBC on the Internet and had never heard of it before. How the BBC feels it can broadcast a piece like you described throughout Europe, albeit on cable channels, is beyond me. I can assure you that had it been broadcast on air in the UK, there would have been a considerable ruckus. The c word is still not widely acceptable in public use in the UK, outside some trendy London circles, in my opinion.
    OK, I’m of a different generation. But no one I know uses it in conversation (and that’s what broadcasting is). Nor do any young people of my acquaintance when with older people.
    The f word still causes some complaints on air, even when used after the so-called watershed at 9 pm when the littler kids are deemed to have gone to bed. But it is used.

  38. Here is the BBC’s “Steve Coogan live” piece, by the way – not that it’s terribly good, the rest of the show was much better, it’s just that it uses the word “cunt” quite a lot based, apparently, on Coogan’s reputation for being one. The idea that it’s only for showing in other countries seems a bit peculiar in the circumstances. I’m fairly sure this was first broadcast in the UK.

  39. David Marjanović says

    Aaah, the four Fs of [animal] biology: feeding, fleeing, fighting, and reproducing… 🙂

    I’m also not down with sleeveless wedding dresses in church

    *pretending to be able to raise one eyebrow* Fascinating.

  40. Other fours: find ’em, feel ’em, f*** ’em, and forget ’em; frisch, fromm, fröhlich, frei; head, heart, hands, health.

  41. Oh, wow. For those who don’t know, the third is the origin of the name of the 4-H Clubs. I didn’t know about the second one until I looked it up just now, but it is or was also the motto of a youth organization. The first is an unpleasant adolescent gag that I had mercifully almost forgotten. (At a certain point in life, certain boys used to think it was funny to say “wanna join the 4-F Club?”)

  42. Off-topic (I’ve been away on the farm for a week):
    Thanks for the intro to Gray’s Dante and Logue’s Homer.
    I appreciated the reference to Butler’s Authoress. I’ve been a fan for a couple of decades. In fact, I took my nom d’internet from it.

  43. Empty: The logo of the German organization, the Turnverein, is (or was) four F’s: a turned F followed by an inverted F as the upper half, and a reversed F followed by a regular F as the lower half, the whole forming a three-barred cross with the top and bottom bars shorter than the middle bar.

  44. “Not to mention the source of endless amusement to visiting Brits that is San Francisco’s Tendernob district.”
    How did I forget “Nob Hill”? The Tenderloin is bad enough, but Nob Hill must provoke a lot of helpless blushing.
    is it beard too? cz beard in my language is sahal”
    Sigh…no, Read, that’s just my keyboard dyslexia kicking in.

  45. well, J, you know now how to say beard in my language and buriad

  46. Thanks, Read. The other word I know is “airag”. Maybe some day I will actually get to try it. It sounds like heaven.

  47. I wouldn’t call it heaven, more of an acquired taste. Depends on what flavours you’re used to.
    In Inner Mongolia they don’t call it airag. I’m not totally sure what they do call it; Wiktionary says tsegee.

  48. The common cormorant or shag
    Lays eggs inside a paper bag
    The reason you will see no doubt
    It is to keep the lightning out
    But what these unobservant birds
    Have never noticed is that herds
    Of wandering bears may come with buns
    And steal the bags to hold the crumbs.

  49. Trond Engen says

    The common cormorant or shag
    Heh. I didn’t know shag in that meaning. Is there any way to derive that from a loan of Norwegian skarv, apparently related to a lot of words for real and metaphorical trash, including Eng. shark.

  50. According to Wikipedia, “‘Shag’ refers to the bird’s crest, which the British forms of the Great Cormorant lack.”

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