In 2016, the couple asked hundreds of medical students and anatomists if they were concerned that the word “pudendal” stemmed from “being ashamed”. Most did not. An anatomist added that “it’s interesting where it came from, but it’s established terminology now.”
This jaded attitude dismayed Dr Moxham. It wasn’t just the sexism inherent in the term, he said: “There’s an element of that, there’s no question about it. But it’s also, I think, both scientifically and biologically inappropriate. Generally, anatomical terms are meant to be informative and descriptive. “Pudendum” was neither. “It’s the only term that has a moral context,” he said.
There are other terms that reflect archaic notions about women. The word hymen, which persists in almost all medical textbooks, shares the same root as Hymen, the Greek god of marriage. Nymphae, a slightly older term for labia minora, comes from the Latin word for bride or beautiful maiden. Even the word vagina, which translates to sheath, sheath, or close coverage, suggests that the primary function of this organ is to house a penis, which is neither precise nor scientifically neutral.
Dr Moxham knew that even established terms could be changed, and believed they should be, as part of efforts to eliminate racial and gender bias in medicine. He had just left his post as president of the International Federation of Anatomist Associations, which was working on the publication of the latest edition of “Terminologia Anatomica”.
In 2016, Dr Moxham proposed that the Federation’s terminology group – which was, at the time, entirely male and predominantly European – remove “pudendum” and related words from its upcoming dictionary. He couldn’t tackle all of the sexism in anatomy, but removing that awkward word seemed like an easy task. “I didn’t see any problem at all,” he said. “I just couldn’t have imagined.”
“It’s just not going to fly”
The terminology group describe its mission to manage an “agile and adaptive vocabulary in order to remain relevant in a rapidly evolving world of medicine, biomedicine and the professions related to health”. But in practice, progress is slow. The guiding rule “is to be careful when considering changes in terminology and logic in implementing changes”, Thomas Gest, anatomist and former chairman of the terminology group, said in an email.