‘What’s a douche?’

An etymology of the term

Douche. My first encounter with the word happened at age 11. My mother and I were grocery shopping at a Kroger in Austin, Texas, when we made a pass through the feminine-hygiene aisle. That’s when we ran into a neighbor, who started chatting with my mom as I took a look around. I’d already had “the talk,” so I knew what tampons and maxi pads were. But what was this Summer’s Eve box with its picture of an ethereal blond woman, smiling dreamily?

Of course I asked Mom, right there in Kroger in front of the neighbor lady: “What’s a douche?”

My poor, blushing mother quickly shut me up with a “We’ll talk about that later,” and I instantly knew that this wasn’t a word for polite company or neighbors.

At some point between adolescence and graduating college, I also realized that douche meant to gently cleanse a woman’s otherwise dirty, icky vagina, and that the practice was widely decried by health-care professionals and feminists alike. Both groups view it as unsafe and unnecessary, and the latter also criticize industry-marketing tactics designed to convince a nation that its women are, well, kind of gross down there.

But when exactly did the term douche become synonymous with a certain type of jerky guy?

Douche—and its long-form alternative, douche bag—have been slang terms since at least the ’60s. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, by the end of that decade the word came into fashion, aimed at young college women as a disparaging term for an “unattractive co-ed.”

Several decades later, the term is everywhere, better known as the de facto put-down for a certain kind of jackass. Urban Dictionary defines douche as an “an individual who has shown themselves to be very brainless in one way or another, thus comparing them to the cleansing product for vaginas.” And the word seems to pop up in every TV show, movie, blog post or Facebook update when someone wants a shorthand expression for describing a guy who drips hair gel, cologne, Ed Hardy tees, and arrogance and lies. Or brags about his income, talks excessively about his workout/diet, says he only reads Playboy for the articles, gets wasted on Heineken and picks random bar fights. Or, according to one particular hotly debated critique in the back pages of this very paper, a musician who sports ear protection at a rock show.

Go on, do a Twitter search for the word. The results are mind-boggling. (e.g., “When u buy a white truck does it come with a license to be a douche?”)

Hell, there’s even a song called “Roseville Bars” about those douches at north Sacto clubs who think their “new tribal tattoo makes the panties go drop,” which in and of itself is pretty douchey concept, because the Blobots, the band who sing it, also have a Scottsdale, Arizona, version of the song.

There’s a small part of me offended, slightly disturbed by the modern ubiquity of the word—comparing a smug idiot to a product meant to flush the insides of a woman just seems, at least on the surface, more than a little sexist.

Then again, anyone trying to sell you on the idea of lady-parts flushing epitomizes the word douche. So go on, keep co-opting the word, one asshole at a time.