JUST SAY “ITHYPHALLIC”: A Weiner election meditation

Posted on September 13, 2011 by


As the post-Weinergate special election looms in New York today, a visitor to the city could be struggling in vain to grasp what ex-congressman Anthony Weiner actually did this summer to warrant his abject and tear-filled resignation, since the mainstream press remains quaintly coy regarding sexual terminology.

A censored shot of a Weiner Twitter image...

One can learn from the New York Times or Washington Post that the former Representative was sending “lewd” and “sexually suggestive” photographs, and that these images were “explicit,” “salacious” and somehow involved Weiner’s undergarments.   But what, precisely, caused all the fuss?  Dig a little deeper, and we find a few more determined reports that explain the ex-congressman’s briefs were “bulging,” or (as NPR put it) that he was “obviously aroused.”

Yes, this becomes a little clearer.  But in our supposedly liberated 21st century, one has to wonder, can we really not call a spade a spade?  Is there no decent word that can be used to describe this rather common feature of male anatomy?

One of the phallic images locked away in the Secretum

In any lexical dilemma, I look to the reprobates of history for guidance.  150 years ago, the more risqué minds of Victorian Britain also found it difficult to publicly discuss the – ahem – male organ, especially when it was bulging.  So they fell back on a venerable ancient word to use in polite society, which I suggest should be re-incorporated into the media vocabulary for the upcoming election: ithyphallic.

I first came across this useful term while researching in the British Museum in London for The Sinner’s Grand Tour, investigating a collection called “the Secretum” – a special underground room created in 1865, where curators began depositing the most shocking erotica from around the globe.  Although it was finally disbanded in the 1960s, I was able to pore over the Secretum’s Acquisitions Register — a weighty, leather-bound tome, in which sweaty-palmed museum staff recorded in delicate scrawl an array of shocking relics with sexual imagery arriving from ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, Japan, India and beyond.

As I leafed through the pages, I couldn’t help noticing that every second listing seemed to involve the word ithyphallic.  There were ithyphallic rings and ithyphallic sculptures, ithyphallic lamps and ithyphallic medallions.

Investigating further, I learned that the term originated in antiquity, to describe the carved wooden phalluses carried during the rites of Bacchus, god of wine.  It combined the ancient Greek word ithus, straight, with phallos, phallus.  For Victorian scholars, ithyphallic did the lexical job admirably: It was academic, almost clinical, and sounded both elevated and dull.  Ideal for discussing the subject over claret at the club.

Today, the revival of the word would surely be a gift for harried journalists and broadcasters: Nobody would be ever again be offended by reference to “an ithyphallic Twitter photograph.”  And the advantages would go far beyond Weinergate.  For example, this summer, the term would have allowed reporters to quickly describe Dominique Strauss-Kahn emerging from his hotel bathroom — “ithyphallic French politician” — without falling foul of decency standards.

Finally, we must think of future generations of Americans.  Even though the Weiner hubbub will eventually fall into obscurity – probably around tomorrow  – I doubt it’s the last we’ll hear of ithyphallic scandals.