Douche bag. What is it?
A feminine hygiene product? An insulting word? A jerk? Which is it first, which is it most?
A douche bag is all of these things, though that’s no surprise. It is not unusual for a word to have multiple meanings, or for a term to have several connotations. But in “douche bag” there is something incongruous, a disconnection between the word and the thing, the signifier and the signified. Why should the word be such an apt insult? Why are people so quick to define the term as “a person who…”, and why doesn’t anyone seem to know for sure, what the damn thing is?
Douche bag: n. a device, as in a syringe, for the introduction of a stream of fluid, often a mixture of water and vinegar or a medicated solution, into a body cavity, especially the vagina.
In object form, Douche bag is rather benign. It is a cleansing device. It holds therapeutic water. Aside from its bodily associations, (the douche bag may be used for giving enemas as well as vaginal lavage), there is nothing overtly sexual, sensual or dirty about the thing. It is mundane. Although perhaps, hanging on the back of Grandmother’s bathroom door, also a little mysterious.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services at www.4women.gov describes douching as an unnecessary and potentially dangerous practice. The vagina is a self-cleaning organ and pumping fluids into it can spread existing infections deeper into the reproductive anatomy. However, the website also states that approximately 20-40% of American women, aged 15-44, douche regularly. Reasons women cite for douching may include cleansing after sex or menstruation, removing odors, healing yeast infections, or to protect against pregnancy and STDs. Douching is not, however, an effective method of birth control or STD prevention.
Douche bag: n. a person, male or female, who inspires anger, frustration, or extreme despite in another individual.
A photo labeled “The Essence of Douche Bag” from www.factualmaterial.com shows a young man at a party wearing a pink polo shirt with a popped collar. He is wearing a tennis wrist band, a hemp bracelet, and a cell phone clipped to his belt. He is smirking, the only person in the photo looking directly at the camera, holding up a sideways “peace” sign, and a drink, which, unlike the others in the photo, is not a beer. He is, according to the website, the “essential douche bag.” Without spending too much time analyzing why this person, named Oliver, deserves this label, I will say that there is a quality about him, not wholly discernable, that makes the skin crawl. Yet this indistinct quality is the only thing that seems to unify the wildly varied definitions of who a douche bag is.
On UrbanDictionary.com there are no less than 427 listed variations on the terms “douche” and “douche bag.” Among these there are no less than 821 individual entries defining them, with 107 separate entries for the single term, correctly spelled, “douche bag.” These I analyzed for content.
In the 107 entries I counted only 25 with references to objects. It was an even smaller fraction (2), though, that explicitly defined the term according to the dictionary definition above. Most referred to a douche bag, vaguely, as a “feminine hygiene product” or “cleansing device.” Although these approximate a correct answer, they certainly leave a few details to the imaginationand as the rest of the entries illustrate, imaginations have a tendency to run astray. No less than 4 entries referred to douche bags as receptacles for the ill-described substance, “douche”, while 2 referred to totally unrelated parts of the human anatomy (the digestive tract, the penis). Two entries defined a douche bag as an oversized purse.
A much greater number of the entries for douche bag, (80) contained one or multiple references to people. A term of insult must naturally refer to someone who has, for whatever reason, irked, angered, or otherwise behaved in a way that someone else perceives as negative or unwelcome. Beyond this general guideline, there may be very few unifying factors among definitions for any particular insult. Entries for douche bag refer to both men and women, range in offensiveness from a relatively mild barb among friends, to a name as angry and unspeakable as the term “cunt.” Multiple entries defined a douche bag as someone who:
· Has an unduly high sense of self-esteem,
· Is a “fake” or a “poser”,
· Is discourteous and untrustworthy,
· Thinks he or she is cool, but whom everyone else actually hates,
· Frequently wears a pink polo shirt with a popped collar,
· Is John Edwards of Crossing Over.
Douche bag: n. a word; a term of insult.
A surprising result of this inquiry was that “douche bag” was sometimes (17 among 107) referred to specifically as a word. The French origin of the word “douche” might be cited within a definition, or a reference to a person-douche-bag might be prefaced by the phrase “an insulting term for….” However several times the word was referred to only as a word; “an insult”, “what you call someone one when you can’t think of anything else to say”, or “what kids call each other even though they don’t know what it means.”
Given the number of variations listed, some as nonsensical and irreverent as “douche bagel”, “douche waffle”, and “douche rocket”, the vast amount of different definitions for them, and the apparent confusion about or limited association with the actual material referent of the word, it seems that “douche bag” is a word without a fixed meaning.
I administered a short survey to a group of my personal acquaintances over email, asking them to define douche bag, and to explain the circumstances of the last time they used the term. Their responses reflected what I found on UrbanDictionary, including the relative infrequency of object references as compared to person references, the wide range of definitions for and intensity of the word as an insult, and relative vagueness of object references.
It is a reasonable assumption to say that the popular understanding, even among well-educated people, of the object-douche bag as a functional, therapeutic item is fading from common knowledge. They are displayed inconspicuously on the bottom shelves of the drug stores that still carry them, girls are discouraged from using them by the dominant medical opinion of the day, and, as accessories for the female inner-genitalia, they are not an appropriate topic for loud discussion.
Still, douche bag is a well known term and it carries with it associations that indubitably stem from its object origins. However these lingering associations, I argue, are neither the same, nor as benign as those made when observing the object itself, a fact which doubtlessly makes the word all the more appealing as an insult. Reading through the definitions on UrbanDictionary is a harrowing test of a thick skin. Where a douche bag is pleasantly and euphemistically referred to as a “cleansing device”, the vagina itself might be called dirty, odorous, over-used and worn-out. The implication is clearly that a vagina that must be cleaned, must be dirty, and consequently must belong to a woman who is slutty. Incorrect definitions of the object-douche bag are even more crass, as they have the creative input of lewd imaginations and often only vague associations of body and sex to work from.
One respondent to my survey illustrated quite succinctly the disconnection I have observed between the object and the word; “The term loses some of its luster once you have seen a picture of a douche bag.” As if the thing itself is not exciting enough to merit the popularity of its name.
Likewise, the small minority that define douche bag as “a term of insult” without any further explanation are a clue, I think, to the widening divide between the object and the word. It is apparently not even necessary to know the meaning of the word to use it competently. Consider “fuck,” certainly the most popular curse-word in the English language, but whose original meaning is lost. As an expletive it can mean almost anything, it can be used as any part of speech, and is one of English’s only infixes (McMillan 1980). But is this in spite of, or because of its lack of association with any real-world object or action? How is it possible for a word’s meaning to be lost, and yet still be a word?
wordness and the word, a discussion of agency.
George Orwell wrote in “Politics and the English Language;”
A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically ‘dead’ (e.g. iron constitution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. (1981: 159)
“Douche bag” is among the “great dump of worn-out metaphors” which exist somewhere in between (159). For Orwell such liminal phrases have lost their evocative power and therefore should be eliminated from use, but the term “douche bag” is something different. It is possible, perhaps, that at some point in its history, the word was used as an insult for a person who was indeed as unnecessary and silly-looking as the thing, but calling a person a douche bag in today’s American vernacular does not call to mind an image of the hygienic device. Instead, vaguer but much more powerful associations of sex, impurity and body are evoked. And those associations become looser as speakers adapt and ply the term to fit as many and as fluid contexts as possible. Absent any uniform meaning or implication, the vagueness of these connotations is what makes douche bag so apt and forceful an insult.
In Matthew Engleke’s article “Sticky Subjects and Sticky Objects,” honey is described as a substance used by Masowe Christians in Zimbabwe as a medium for spiritual healing. In this sense honey is given power by the Holy Spirit and is “understood to be powerful because of its spiritual properties. As a substance it did not matter” (2005: 120). Yet as a material substance, honey has its own inherent properties, some good (it is a natural antibiotic) and some “bad” (it can be fermented into alcohol). The practice of sanctifying a jar of honey, imbuing it with the power of the Holy Sprit and thereby making it Holy Honey, acknowledges its good, curative properties, while ignoring its bad associations. This causes a conceptual contradiction for the Masowe, who in theory, know that honey is only “Holy” to the person for whom it has been sanctified, and only effective on the problem for which it was meant, but in practice they may treat honey, holy or not, as a panacea. With use, holy honey loses its associations with its too-specific original purpose, and the restrictions implied by its sanctity loosen. But its power, its curative “holiness,” remains as strong.
A similar process is at work with the word “douche bag.” In object form, douche bag has relatively benign connotations; vagina, water, hygiene. As an insult, removed from its object origins, the connotations morph, becoming crasser, more shocking and more dangerous; cunt, semen, sex, impurity. Just as the label “holy” imbues honey with sacred power, here the object-douche bag provides its name with potent associations. Through use, specifically use that contradicts the things’ original intentions, both the honey and the word-douche bag become more powerful. The honey changes from a person- and malady-specific treatment into a panacea, while douche bag changes from a name for a thing into a thing in itself. It becomes an insulting word, and as such, it is more powerful the farther removed it is from its object origins.
From Saussure we learn that words are arbitrary symbols, that the signifier and the signified are two separate things. But ending the analysis there neglects the power that words can possess. Through use they develop a kind of materiality; that is they gain their own associations, multiply their meanings, and once said, they are heard, cause impact, require reaction. “Without language,” Saussure implies, “Thought is a vague, uncharted nebula. There are no pre-existing ideas, and nothing is distinct before the appearance of language” (1966: 112).
In “Words and the Murder of the Thing” Peter Schwenger argues for a materiality of language that is distinct from and independent of the materiality of objects. He considers the preposterous example from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, in which the scholars of one land believe they have obviated the use of words by perpetually schlepping about all the objects to which they will ever want to refer. Such a language, of course, can never be adequate, because we realize immediately the versatility and potency of words to represent more than one thing. But Schwenger suggests that this versatility comes at a pricethe murder of the thing. To name a thing is an arbitrary act, but doing so assimilates that thing into the structured terms of human language…(Saussure)… “All of our knowledge of the object,” says Schwenger, “is only knowledge of its modes of representationor rather of our modes of representation, the ways in which we set forth the object to the understanding, of which language is one” (2004: 137). Within language, the word thus replaces the thing, but the thing’s absence is always apparent, as is the loaded presence of its plethora other meanings and uses. Douche bag, then, is a word whose object is conspicuously absentnot just forgottenand whose malleability, playfulness and force are dependent on our awareness of that void.
When Plato described his concept of the Ideal Form, that image of a thing, evoked by its name, which actually has no match in reality, he was attempting to show that we do not perceive the world as it actually is, but through shadows. The Ideal Form is a perfect blueprint for things in the world, but it exists only in the mind. What was never clear was whether the Ideal Form was more or less real than the things we try to match with it. What is clear to me, however, is that the Ideal Form, the idea of a thing, is unnecessary when we have that thing in front of us. The idea is only ever called to mind when we speak its name. In some sense, the word is the ideal form, as it can match any thing that exists. Douche bag, as a floating entity, is applicable to both object and person, and calls to mind vague associations that are equally versatile. But the word is much more than an ideal; it is not ethereal, it has force.
I’ll return again to Orwell, who knew the meaning of words. Read his quote now with an understanding of their agency, their independence of objects.
When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing, you probably hunt about till you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract, you are more inclined to use words form the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. (169).
So what is Douche Bag? A concrete object? An abstract concept? It is a word, a mass of meanings swarming with the energy of its potential uses. It shares the materiality of objects, and the agency of language, and when heard or seen or called to mind, it requires thought and demands a reaction. And in this instance, it is a word that supercedes anything it can represent. Douche bag is itself.
Bloom, Allan D., trans. (1991) The Republic of Plato, second edition. New York: Basic Books.
Engelke, Matthew (2005). “Sticky Subjects and Sticky Objects; The Substance of African Christian Healing” in Materiality. Daniel Miller, ed. Durham: Duke University Press.
McMillan, James B. (1980). “Infixing and Interposing in English.” American Speech 55:3, Pp. 163-183.
Orwell, George (1981). “Politics and the English Language” in A Collection of Essays. New York: Harcourt Inc.
Saussure, Ferdinand de (1966) Courses in General Linguistics. W. Baskin, trans. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Schwenger, Peter (2004). “Words and the Murder of the Thing” in Things. Bill Brown, ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
 As of February 28, 2007.
 The total number of references listed in the following paragraphs does not add up to 107. It is possible on UrbanDictionary.com to list several different meanings within one entry, and the categories I have established, person, object, thing, are not mutually exclusive. For each entry only one reference to each category was counted, though referring to multiple categories was possible.
 An affix that can be inserted in the middle of a word without losing or changing the meaning of the stem. For example: “Absofuckinglutely!”
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