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I have several times heard anecdotes on the theme that the words we use for genitals today were considered very vulgar back in Rome during ancient times, similar to cock/cunt etc in modern vocabulary (and the "punchline" with these anecdotes were along the lines that "your feeling of sophistication when you use Latin (derived) words today would be laughable for the Romans").

What words did the educated as well as non-educated Romans use when referring to (human) genitals in formal settings?

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  • Ancient Romans would probably not even understand you had you used "penis" to refer to male genitals or "vagina" to refer to female genitals. "Penis" meant "tail", and "vagina" meant "sword sheath". Apr 17, 2023 at 16:05
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    According to Lewis and Short, penis does have the modern meaning as well in many classical authors. The Romans would be unlikely to struggle with that word. Vagina is only mentioned as a single attestation in Plautus.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Apr 17, 2023 at 17:17
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    Cicero famously complained that hodie penis est in obscenis in one of his Epistulae ad familiares as if that was a recent development at the time, but the modern meaning is actually much older than the meaning 'tail'.
    – Cairnarvon
    Apr 17, 2023 at 17:37
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    @Cairnarvon What makes you think that the modern meaning is actually much older than the meaning "tail"? Apr 17, 2023 at 18:21
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    Cognates in other languages. Greek πέος, Sanskrit pasas, both 'penis'; Hittite pešnaš 'man, husband'; Old English fæsl, OHG fasal 'offspring'; Modern German Fasel 'breeding cow/pig'. Latin is the only language in which the meaning 'tail' is attested, and while the shift 'tail → penis' is more probable than 'penis → tail', that must be what happened. (De Vaan suggests Lat. penis could be related to penna 'feather' instead and not cognate with these other words at all, but that doesn't strike me as semantically any easier.)
    – Cairnarvon
    Apr 17, 2023 at 20:02

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It doesn't quite work as your source has stated. The "proper" terms are mentula and cunnus, which are obscene but not slang, i.e. mentula and cunnus first and primarily referred to male and female genitalia respectively.

In polite speech, the Romans employed a variety of different euphemisms, including penis and vagina, but it should be noted that they often endeavored to avoid the discussion altogether. Formal works (such as orations and epics) were reticent about discussing sex and especially genitalia.

When they did, they often did not distinguish between the sexes, and in fact genitalia comes directly from the Latin and refers, like it does in English, to either sex organs. Other words that accomplish the same are veretrum, verenda, pudenda, some phrase with natura, and even sexus.

For specifically the male membrum, in fact membrum (especially membrum virile) was used, as well as particula ("the little part"), while for the female genitals might be metaphorically described with words for fields or caves. More euphemistically, you see sinus muliebris as a good equivalent to membrum, as well as partes muliebres and even once muliebre membrum, although that comes down from a very late source (Ausonius, 4th century CE).

There are, of course, many other euphemisms, both more formal and some that were slang, that were employed. You will not find a single word across all authors that otherwise designates a "formal" word for the male and female genitals.

One additional note: penis was originally just a euphemism, but did indeed become more obscene over time (as early as Cicero!). Vagina too was just a sex joke in Plautus. It's less "dick/cunt" though and more "shaft/hole".

If you're interested in this topic in more detail, I encourage you to read Adams' 1982 monograph The Latin Sexual Vocabulary.

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    What about the doctors? Didn't they use a special word form them?
    – user11898
    Apr 11, 2023 at 23:58
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    No. Doctors in antiquity weren't like doctors that you're familiar with today. They didn't have charts and special terms for every single organ. That's something that didn't really develop until the Renaissance.
    – cmw
    Apr 12, 2023 at 0:19
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    It's even more like "shaft/shaft," if you pardon my homonyms. Doctors did too have charts and terminology (even anatomical models as teaching aids!), but all that was mainly directed at extracting omens and signs from entrails and suchlike. Anatomical knowledge as we think of it developed almost incidentally as a side product of the pursuit of quite different concerns and interests.
    – Deipatrous
    Sep 8, 2023 at 16:16

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