Smeg, smegma, and the smeg effect: One little-known word illustrates the way familiarity numbs disgust.

Smeg: The Most Disgusting Word You’ve Never Heard Of

Smeg: The Most Disgusting Word You’ve Never Heard Of

Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language
Feb. 23 2015 8:15 AM

Smeg: The Most Disgusting Word You’ve Never Heard Of

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This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing.

Smegma.

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“Ewww”?

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.
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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.

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Ironically, smegma comes from the Greek word for soap.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

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?
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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.