Celebrity Names Blog

Beyond Willy, Dick and Peter: Naming Private Parts with a Celebrity Twist

Beyond Willy, Dick and Peter: Naming Private Parts with a Celebrity Twist
"Ralph"? /Creative Commons cimorenegal

It's a name issue every parent has to face: what are you going to call junior's genitals? Will you choose the matter-of-fact "vagina and penis"? The politely euphemistic "private parts" or "bits"? The adorable "cupcake" and "lily"? The hilarious "wing wang" and "whoopsie"? 

Usually, these are private conversations. But every so often this issue rises in the pop culture zeitgeist, and once again, it's open season on the discussion of the many names one can call a wiener. Today, thanks to writer Nicholson Baker, we have some interesting new entries into the lexicon of genitalia nomenclature. Welcome Malcolm Gladwell.

A Goofy Name

Malcolm Gladwell is of course the famous cultural critic, known for being the successful author of The Tipping Point and Blink, as well as for his distinctive hair.

Baker is a well-regarded literary writer, as the 6-page profile in the New York Times Magazine attests, but his books are unconventional. (He once wrote an entire novel that takes place in a father's head as he gives his baby a bottle.) Baker's new book, House of Holes, features a goofy erotic fantasy world. Not surprisingly, his euphemisms are also kind of goofy. But the hands-down reviewer favorite is Baker's choice of Malcolm Gladwell, as in: "He angled out his Malcolm Gladwell."

The fictional penis with the greatest, er, name recognition

Of course, giving a penis a person name isn't exactly new. (Think Willy, Johnson, etc.) Nor is putting such a name in a book. In his controversial 1928 novel Lady Chatterley's Lover, D.H. Lawrence introduced us to 'John Thomas' and 'Lady Jane.'

One fictional penis is even said to have affected baby names. In 1975, Judy Blume published Forever..., a sexually-explicit tale of teenage love that remains popular today. The famously-named penis in the case was Ralph, as in this scene: Katherine . . . I'd like you to meet Ralph . . . Ralph, this is Katherine. She's a very good friend of mine."

Ralph the penis became a kind of celebrity, to the extent, according to Blume, that her book "ruined" the name Ralph for any would-be baby namers. (Not to worry, Judy Blume! Ralph was already on its way out!) 

The latest writer to replace a 'penis' with a celebrity name

Baker isn't the first literary guy to replace "penis" with a famous name to famous effect, but by choosing a celebrity name, he's got a new angle. The only other fictional privates bearing celebrity names we can think of are those in Gore Vidal's 1974 novel Myron, in which the title character has recently undergone a female-to-male sex change operation. The doctor "fashioned a generous 'rehnquist' for the new Myron, [but] did not provide him with a set of 'powells'." (Time Magazine 1974).

To protest the Supreme Court's conservative ruling on pornography, author Vidal replaced the "dirty words" in his tale with the names of the Supreme Court justices. Thus, Vidal showed that names for private parts could be political, as well as funny. (The girl-part counterpart to the rehnquist? The whizzer white.)

A happy reference

Unlike Vidal's dour justices, Baker's Malcolm Gladwell is a pretty happy reference. He's a popular author of well-liked books. His distinctive look and style do make him ripe for parody. But he's not exactly threatening. You might call Malcolm Gladwell a kinder, gentler euphemism. 

In fact, in a world hostile to euphemism, Baker reminds us just how much fun euphemisms can be. For some reviewers, his book is plotless, pointless and silly. For others, the fun is precisely in all the different names Baker comes up with to describe everyday things.  A review on Slate called the technique "ebullient, evolving slang that itself becomes the subject of the book."

Of course, Baker is writing erotic literature, not reminding a three-year-old to wipe, so perhaps the name situations seem far afield. But in a way, they are not. The choices you make about names for things set a tone, and may even send larger messages than you intend. Plus, such names can be fun, and funny.

Do you use "person" names or other silly references for private parts with your children? And do you think this will ruin the name Malcolm... forever



Please do not add links to your comments. Thank you.

August 11, 2011 7:33 PM
By Allison (not verified)

I have no idea who Malcolm Gladwell is and I doubt many people I know will ever hear that name as a slang for a private part.

Yes, the names Dick and Willie are forever phallic in my book, but Peter is not.

In my house - a penis is a penis. Female parts are the vulva...because that is what the outer region is called. The vagina is inner opening.

August 11, 2011 10:50 PM
By Alex (not verified)

A most enjoyable post, although I too don't know Malcolm Gladwell, although I did know Ralph. John Thomas and Lady Jane brought back some memories of a wonderful book.
Thank you.

August 12, 2011 12:08 AM
By Zoe (not verified)

I know it's not really the point, but recently early childhood educators and psychologists have been recommended just calling them a penis and vagina so as to remove the sense of shame associated with private parts.

August 12, 2011 5:16 AM
By bree olson (not verified)

This is an interesting and funny post which target a less talked about issue. I do know about the common name such as Will-Willy, Dick, Johnson but Peter and Ralph is new to me. Anyway, certainly a good read.

August 12, 2011 6:19 AM
By Emily (not verified)

I just call it penis for my son, just feel like it should be matter of fact. We don't have a girl yet so haven't gotten there yet- but probably we'll just say vagina. This partially comes from me having doctor & nurse parents who always taught the correct terminology as well.

The people names thing made me think of the movie "How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days" when she names his penis "Princess Sophia". After reading this, it makes we wonder what the process was like for the screenwriters trying to come up with the right name that would be fittingly emasculating!

August 12, 2011 11:14 AM
By mk (not verified)

I am familiar with both Malcolm Gladwell and Nicholson Baker, but I highly doubt this will ruin Malcolm as a name.

I think it's important to teach children the proper names of all body parts. So no, I would not use funny names with kids if I had them.

August 12, 2011 8:16 PM
By Mom (not verified)

I absolutely love this post. Telling children the correct names for body parts, or anything else, is the right thing to do. But, as an adult if you want to have "person" names for your "privates" that could be a fun thing!!! :)

August 13, 2011 6:15 PM
By <3 sgc <3 (not verified)

I was of two minds about what word to call my daughter's privates, until speaking with my friend who is mommy to a 3-year-old. She told me that she will teach her daughter the right words for body parts, but not until her daughter will be old enough to not repeat them out loud whenever she wants. This avoids her little one shrieking "my vagina is itchy!" in front of the minister, a party full of people, etc. I thought that was a good idea!

August 16, 2011 12:12 PM
By Kira (not verified)

I completely agree with sgc! For my daughter, we're sticking with the all-inclusive "privates" until she learns more about social behavior ... although she has herself called the vagina her "baby hole." That said, I agree that teaching accurate names is good ... and I will. Soon.

August 16, 2011 12:51 PM
By Lil Pete's Mama (not verified)

With a son named Peter (9), we got creative and have called his private parts "crackers" since he was about 2. He even calls them his crackers now. However occasionally he will call them his palm tree and coconuts. Too funny.

August 16, 2011 3:22 PM
By Elizabeth (not verified)

I will never forget my little brother and the next-door-neighbor's kid having a loud outdoor argument to the tune of "IT'S A PENIS!" "NO IT'S NOT, IT'S A DINGLE!"

August 17, 2011 3:51 AM
By Anonymous (not verified)

My little brother calls his a jimmy. It started because my mother called it a jimmy riddle and he shortened it to jimmy. I think were gonna need to change that soon though, he's seven now and he can't keep calling it that forever! It's good in that he doesn't shout out a word that people will recognise. He once went to the toilet at school and because he was taking a long time, his teacher went to see if he was okay and he said "yeah, my jimmy wouldn't work but it's okay now!" but it's awkward in that if we meet a person called Jimmy, he can't contain how hilarious it is, and starts laughing. He has no idea about the real word, and I think he thinks that everyone calls it the same as him. He was once playing with a friend, and as the friend was climbing over a metal fence he hurt himself and said "ow my penis!" my little brother looks at me and asks me what he said, I can't explain everything right at that moment, so I say "dunno" and my brother says "I think he was talking about peanuts!"

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