Sexual Etymology: Penis and Vagina

by Jason Stotts

In this week’s edition of Sexual Etymology, we’re going to look at the origins of the words “penis” and “vagina.” I think you might be somewhat surprised at what we find.

Vagina: (n.) passage from the uterus to the vulva.  1682, New Latin, from Latin vagina (sheath, scabbard) perhaps cognate with Lithuanian vozti (cover with something hollow), and Latvian vast (put a cover on), from Indo-European *wag- (sheath).

So, the origins of our word “vagina” is from “sheath.”  Given the origins of vagina, you might expect that the origins of the word “penis” would be “sword.”  Well, let’s see.

Penis: (n) 1676, borrowed perhaps through French penis (penis), or directly from Latin penis (penis), earlier *pesnis (tail).  The Latin word is cognate with Greek peos and Sanskrit pasas (penis).

So, the origins of our word penis is from later Latin, where it had the same meaning, but it grew out of the idea of “tail.”  So, if you were expecting the poetic metaphor of “sword and sheath,” then you are probably a little disappointed.

It is interesting how the idea of a tail could come to mean penis (as we know it), since there are certainly animals with both a tail and a penis.  Vagina is also interesting because a sheath is something you store a sword in when you’re not using it in order to keep it (and you) safe.  This is at least a little dissimilar from a vagina.

At least with this set of words, there is no negativity associated with the words.  Whether this is because the words have been considered “clinical” and therefore they don’t take on the connotative baggage that mutates them or perhaps it is because they predate the christian hatred of the body and sexuality, it’s hard to say.  Nevertheless, we should certainly continue to utilize these words.

Suggestions are still welcome, on the docket are:
– hymen
– fellatio
– orgasm
– coitus
– fetish
– paraphilia
– homosexuality
– heterosexuality
– sodomy
– erotic
– procreation

1 Response to “Sexual Etymology: Penis and Vagina”


  1. Anonymous

    do you have any sense of what words for vagina the romans (as well as anyone before the 17th century) used?