The smeg effect



I hope so. Smegma isn’t a very common word, perhaps partly because so many of us are circumcised. But what it names (a cheeselike secretion that accumulates under the foreskin and around the clitoris – it’s also called dick cheese) is disgusting and prurient.

The disgust is something that gets worn off with repeated use, however; words lose their vividness as they become fixed idioms. Here, compare these two:

Fuck your mother.

Lick your mother’s pussy lips.

Strictly speaking, the second one shouldn’t be any more offensive than the first. But it’s not a cliché form, so it’s much more vivid. A person might wave off the first one, but might redo your dentition after the second.

Smegma likewise maintains its vividness by being infrequently used. I’m sure it also helps that it has some phonaesthetics on its side. The sm onset may make you think of smear (which, by the way, it’s related to way back in Proto-Indo-European) or smell or smelt, or perhaps of Captain Hook’s sidekick Smee or Tolkien’s Smeagol (Gollum’s real name) and Smaug (the dragon), and maybe less of something smooth or lip-smacking like s’mores. It’s hard to say what effect may come from the sound of magma or fainter hints of muggy, gummy, amalgam, and dogma. But it’s hard not to speculate whether the tactility of the lips coming together twice with the /m/ sounds might have some proprioceptive hint of those skin folds in the genital areas where smegma accumulates.

Is smegma a vulgarity? A profanity? A dirty word? I just looked in the indexes of five books on vulgarity and taboo language, and it wasn’t in any of them. Dictionaries don’t flag it as offensive or taboo. It comes from Greek (for ‘soap’) via Latin, after all! Our Latinate vocabulary is clinical! Vagina, penis, feces? Big deal. But when you’re faced with something that we really just do not talk about, it still has some effect.

Here, try swapping smegma for shit in common expressions.

Get this shit off my lawn!
Get this smegma off my lawn!

Well, that’s just bullshit.
Well, that’s just bull smegma.

You’re a real piece of shit, you know that?
You’re a real piece of smegma, you know that?

It may be less officially vulgar, but ewww.

But it can lose its effect fairly quickly too. The truncated form of smegmasmeg (no relation to Smalterie Metallurgiche Emiliane Guastalia) – was used in the comedy sci-fi series Red Dwarf as a handy televisable expletive. Some industrious soul collected every single utterance of smeg on the show in one video. Watch it, and tell me whether it hasn’t had its edges worn off by the end:

And so it is. Marx said that all great world-historic facts and personages appear twice, first as tragedy, then as farce. In language, all metaphors show up first as vivid images, and then as hackneyed references that bring no image to mind anymore. With vulgar imagery, let us call it the smeg effect: All disgusting images appear first as smegma, then later as smeg, smeg, smeg, smeg.

Thanks to Nancy Friedman and Stan Carey for useful information, without which this article would have been a mere smear of smegma.

20 thoughts on “The smeg effect

  1. brandinex February 20, 2015 / 6:38 am


    Red Dwarf

    I dig ur “Strong Language”

    Mix in sum world catch phrases
    (We’ll need a fresh mix of languages)

    And u rewrite the dictionary word-soldier


  2. Roderick February 20, 2015 / 12:04 pm

    What do you make of a manufacturer of retro fridges being called Smeg?


  3. Adrian Morgan February 20, 2015 / 12:59 pm

    It’s a safe bet that the majority of readers who have encountered the word “smeg” at all have encountered it in the context of _Red Dwarf_, the British comedy series, where it and the derivative “smeghead” are the go-to swear words in the fictional future culture.

    I’m sure one of these days _Stronglang_ will do a post on fictional swear words, because various authors have invented swear words and/or other interjections in order to add colour to the society they’ve created. Made-up swear words are an easy thing to put into a character’s mouth without burdening the reader, because it’s so easy for the reader to identify from context what it is.

    (I’m kind of surprised _Stronglang_ hasn’t done that post already.)


    • Stan Carey February 21, 2015 / 12:56 pm

      Adrian: Yes, one of these days we will. It’s a subject we’ve discussed within the group, and there’s certainly no shortage of material. You can expect a post on it eventually.


      • Ted Powell February 22, 2015 / 2:42 am

        Don’t forget “tanj” from the Niven universe (There Ain’t No Justice).


  4. John Kelly February 20, 2015 / 1:34 pm

    You had me at “cheese-like.”

    For whatever it’s worth, I’ve always had a tendency to pronounce [smɛgmə] as [ʃmɛgmə], in part because it’s not an uncommon phonemic change but also in part because I always thought the word was Yiddish in origin.


  5. Nancy Friedman February 20, 2015 / 5:52 pm

    There’s an adjectival form, smegmatic, which I intend to start using immediately.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. sprytely50 February 20, 2015 / 7:15 pm

    Reminds me of an Allen Ginsberg film about the word “Fuck”.


  7. koehlerjoni February 20, 2015 / 11:34 pm

    I think this term the same way I did about the ice cream truck when my kids were little- I didn’t want them to know it existed. I can just hear a bunch of 12 year olds running around the playground calling each other smegs now.


  8. chris February 23, 2015 / 7:30 am

    I have always liked the word. Years ago we played a word game that involved thinking up fake car model names.
    My winner – The Mitsubishi Smegma, it rolls off the tongue.


  9. Jaye Bergamini February 25, 2015 / 8:59 pm

    Horse people know the word smegma well. We peel it off our stallions and geldings each time we groom, if the horse is relaxed and drops his penis. So what is an unknown word for most is common place in the barn. No finer way to gross a non-horsey person out than to stick your hand in the sheath and start flicking chunks away.

    Liked by 1 person

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