A short item in the February 2010 issue of Harper’s Magazine captures, yet again, how nervous some folks are about any mention of matters menstrual. The piece referred to the publication of a list of words and terms that were blacklisted from use in crossword puzzles and other word games by a British computer program called Crossword Compiler.
Among the partial list of problematic terms, along with others such as bollocksing, bonk, clitoridectomy, fanny, nooky, ruttish, sapphic, sexy and shtup, was the word “catamenial.” This rather arcane term is one of the more obscure references to the period, more likely to appear in medical or, surprisingly, broadcasting documents.
For the first 25 years of commercial TV’s existence in the US, the National Association of Broadcasters specifically banned the advertising of feminine sanitary products. It was not until 1972 that the ban was lifted and a year later, 1973, the first mention of the menstrual cycle appeared in a ground breaking episode of All in the Family.
Once the ban was lifted, strict rules were put in place. Network “standards and practices” guidelines detailed how and when menstrual products could be advertised using the most non-colloquial language they could find. For example, NBC’s “Personal Products Advertising Guidelines” included a sub-category labeled “Catamenial Devices and Panty Shields,” and ABC used a similar phrase, “Catamenial Devices, Panty Shields, Douche Products”
Use of this Greek derivative (meaning to occur periodically) captures the sense of mystery and semantic evasion characteristic of the way menstruation is commonly discussed. It is noteworthy that the guidelines issued by ABC, CBS and NBC all avoided any use of the more common terms, menstruation and period. Furthermore, the most common generic terms used to apply to the products themselves are also avoided. Nowhere in the network guidelines is there a reference to pads, napkins or tampons.
Not only is the language of the network advertising guidelines sanitized (so to speak), but the rules for ad content insured that the ads themselves would be similarly discrete. In this regard, the most important rule was that men have no significant presence in the ads. The NBC guidelines stated that, “Use of mixed social situations is limited to incidental appearances.” CBS insisted that “Sexual themes are unacceptable.” ABC agreed that, “The use of either children or mixed social situations in advertising is acceptable when incidental and unrelated to the product.”
The rise of cable TV has altered the menstrual landscape considerably, yet evasions continue to prevail. As I type this observation, my spell check repeatedly underlines the word “catamenial” in red, and when I ask what the preferred spelling is I learn that it is “cat menial,” whatever that could possibly mean. So here’s an invitation to re:Cycling readers. If the folks at Crossword Compiler decide to rescind their ban, what crossword clue would you suggest as an appropriate one for the word catamenial?