Is menstruation a conversational taboo in your culture? Studies show you might have fewer ways to say "period". (Lina Rigney Thörnblom, Flickr)

Menstruation by any other name: The more than 5000 ways we say 'period'

Roxy de Villiers
Know what The Hunt for Red October is? We’re not talking about the Sean Connery movie, we’re talking about your period.

Shark Week. Usenyangeni. Taking time off. People who menstruate — and those who don’t — have come up with a plethora of ways to, well, say someone’s on their period.

More than 5 000 euphemisms exist for menstruation in 190 different countries, period app  Clue found in a 2015 survey. As part of the study, the period-tracking programme asked app users a series of questions about how open they felt about discussing menstruation. About 90 000 people responded to the survey. 

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Who had the hardest time saying “menstruation”? Czechs and French people believed that more than 90% of their peers couldn’t say the “m-word”. Martinicans weren’t far behind, reporting that almost nine out of 10 people they knew wouldn’t call a period by its name. 

But why is a process as natural as breathing so heavily euphemised? 

The same study that found that regardless of whether people were in the Global North or South, overall, very few admitted to being comfortable talking about their periods to classmates, colleagues or family members — female or male. In Bangladesh, 93% said they’d refuse to mention menses to anyone in these groups, and almost the same proportion of Japanese women said the same thing. 

Some menstrual terms seem random, but many may offer a window into how cultures view periods, Clue researchers posit. 

Watch: Our Nelisiwe Msomi explains the euphemism, "I'm off"

In the 1940s a  study republished in WORD, the journal of the International Linguistic Association, looked at seven different cultures’ menstrual euphemisms, including East European Jewish, American and Polish. 

It found that those cultures that see menstruation as a conversational taboo had scant terminology for it. 

For example, Irish culture — which considered menstruation taboo — had the most limited vocabulary, with only two prominent euphemisms for menstruation; “in season” and “flowers”. 

Meanwhile, German phrases reflected the stigma attached to menstruation, which historically has been seen as something unclean. Two prominent German vernacular period euphemisms at the time, “Scheinerei” and “Säuerei”, both stress the filthy aspects of swine, authors noted. 

Mid-century Americans had the most and widest variety of ways of avoiding saying “menstruation”. The majority of terms were linked to being unwell, but almost half as many played on the colour — you guessed it — red: “The Red Sea is out”; “grandma’s here from Red Creek”, “ketchup”. 

There was also, sadly, “iceboxed”, which referred to the idea that a woman is unavailable sexually when on her period. 

More than 60 years later, there are few widely available studies — if any — that have unpacked the meaning of the ways we name menstruation. 

Watch: Our Mia Malan explains the euphemism, "ek is siek"

Today, here are a few choice ways other people refer to their periods around the world: 
  • Crimson wave
  • Monthly friend 
  • Code red 
  • Having the painters in 
  • Bloody Mary 
  • On the rag 
  • Blob 
  • Red tide 
  • Mother nature 
  • The hunt for Red October (After the book and then '90s film in which Sean Connery plays a Soviet commander in charge of a submarine by the same name) 
  • Entertaining the general
  • Red tummy ache 
And here are some of the words and phrases we use in South Africa: 
  • O mo matsatsing (you’re on your days) 
  • Usenyangeni (she’s on the moon) 
  • O mo nakong (it’s your time) 
  • Go mensa (I’m menstruating) 
  • Exesheni (it’s that time) 
  • Umenso (menstruating) 
  • Ukumensa (menstruation) 
  • Red robot 
  • Sis Flo 
  • Ek is siek (I’m sick) 
  • Daardie tyd van die maand (that time of the month) 
  • I’m not well 
  • Steak week 
  • Ndiri kumwedzi (on the month) 
  • I’m off

Let us know how you say “period”. Tweet us at  @Bhekisisa_MG with the hashtag #PeriodTalk.

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