Saturday, February 16, 2013

Taboo avoidance at the Wall Street Journal

Today's WSJ piece on the controversial anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon includes a baffling bit of terminology:
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.
Even if you knew the meaning of capillo- ("hair"), the intended epithet might not be immediately apparent. (Me, I was led astray by thinking first of capillaries.) Luckily Google Books will show you the page with Chagnon's actual words:

Apparently the WSJ's rules for taboo avoidance allow for a cuteness factor; I don't think the New York times would find "capillo-vaginal" amusing enough (or, perhaps, obscure enough) to pass muster as printable euphemism. 


Bryan White said...

At least the Bisaasi-teri headman had a good sense of humor about it.

Anonymous said...

"Capillo-vaginal" strikes me as not only precious and gratuitously obscure, but also needlessly inaccurate. There's no need to euphemize "hairy," and surely the term Chagnon actually used refers to the external genitals, at least in this context.

Work in Progress said...

Thank you for explaining this.

empty said...

"Hairy-down-there-y" would have been both clearer and more mellifluous.