In the spring of 1990, linguistics professor Deborah Cameron was teaching a class on gender and language at the College of William & Mary, when a student confessed that he and his roommates had compiled a list of more than 100 synonyms for the “male member.” After another student echoed that they had created a similar list, Cameron decided a formal study on all the euphemisms used for dicks was in order.
In a matter of just 30 minutes, study participants were able to compile a total of 144, including such gems as “sweaty cigar,” “love horn” and “pussy pleaser.” There was also obviously a lot more where those came from, but Cameron writes, “The investigator felt that this was an arbitrary cut-off point. Many more terms could have been produced, but they would have been variations on already-established themes.”
And yet, despite all of those other euphemisms, it’s clear they started off with the best one: “member.” A member isn’t just any old dong, but a downright dignified phallus deserving of respect on its name. A member is a penis with a vintage jacket. A member is a penis that belongs to a country club. A member is a penis with a sense of community.
It’s an age-old euphemism, too. According to Grant Barrett, lexicographer and co-host of the A Way with Words podcast, member “dates back to as early as 1300.” It’s derived from the Latin word membrum, which translates to “limb,” and refers to “a part of the body, either the human body or a body of people,” explains Barrett.
In other words, “member” was the original baby-arm — an extra appendage associated with manhood but with more prestige than a third leg. Or as Barrett puts it, “It’s the kind of talk you’d be less likely to hear in a locker room or pub, but more likely to hear in a professional setting or read in a bit more elevated prose, such as courtroom documents, medical descriptions or sociological texts.”
While “member” may directly translate to limb, Cameron’s list of 144 euphemisms suggests that its use might also have something to do with our tendency to personify a penis as a person, or even as our friend. Some other examples are “the Commissioner,” “King Carnal,” “Kimosabe,” “the Mayor,” or quite simply, “buddy.” To that end, a different list of penis euphemisms compiled by Stanford University featured “Lil’ Buddy” and “Lil’ Friend.”
As for the state of “member” today, Barrett notes that it’s alive and well in romance novels and erotica. He suspects that the rise of digital thesauruses, “which make it easier to practice elegant variation, where people look up other words to say the same thing so that they don’t keep using the same word,” have a lot to do with this, though he hasn’t confirmed his suspicion with any formal research.
When you consider that “member” connotes both “limb” and “friendship,” it’s not a question of why we call penises members, but why we’d ever think there could be a more perfect word. I think it’s high time we go Members Only.