The genie is out of the bottle. 118 words in and for the first time we have a word that could be deemed ‘a bit rude’. Yes, we’ve had sausage. Yes, we’ve had pencil. But I’m not talking schoolboy euphemisms here, I’m talking about a word that you might well hear eminent medics use (when they’re not out drinking) to describe the male genital appendage.
As well as giving us a double entendre that never flops – the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (smirk) – member appears in all sorts of varied and seemingly unconnected applications: crossmember, member state, dismember, remember. But how, apart from the obvious, did a word for the male sex organ also come to mean a Parliamentarian? And if dismember means to remove the arms and legs, why doesn’t remember mean to put them on again?
Member entered the English language as long ago as the late 13th century, introduced by the French, who talked about little else in those days. ‘Membre’ this. ‘Membre’ that. ‘Do you remembre the 21st night of Septembre?’ They were constantly at it.
The French ‘membre’ came from the Latin ‘membrum’, which the Romans used to mean a limb or any organ of the body. From the same source we get ‘membrane’, originally a skin covering the parts of the body, now any sort of thin covering or barrier.
But ‘membrum’ could also mean a part of a body, as in a body of people or countries or a set of components. In car manufacture, a crossmember is a key component of the chassis. A person who joined a group or body became a member of that group, hence Member of Parliament.
In the anatomical sense we have come to use ‘member’ to mean any of the parts that protrude, but even then we rarely hear it used other than when those parts are cut off. Sadly, remember doesn’t mean to put the parts back on again (nor, apparently, to recall where you put them or who ordered you to cut them off in the first place), because remember has a different root – the Latin ‘memor’ (mindful). Interestingly, remember and remind come from different sources too, the latter being of Germanic origin.
But tell your doctor you want him to look at your member and he or she will assume you mean the male sexual protuberance, rather than your local MP. Such misunderstandings are rare. The fact that this specific meaning of ‘member’ has held its own, so to speak, is all to do with the unpopularity of the word ‘penis’. While other members took on their own names, such as ‘arms’ and ‘legs’, ‘penis’ was left out in the cold, shrinking from common usage, always remaining a rather prim word, used by the sort of people who say ‘correct’ instead of ‘right’.
Meanwhile, the architects of our mother tongue have come up with numerous popular synonyms for the male member. See how many you can think of; 21 is a good score (not including Boris, Donald or Piers). Yet we have, for some reason, failed to do the same for the female counterpart. Whatever we call it, it seems to be wrong. In fact, there couldn’t be less agreement on the subject if we’d had a referendum on it. So it might be useful to bear in mind that the multipurpose ‘member’ originally referred to that particular body part too. There are worse things you can call it.
Which brings us back to the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip.
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