I only ever speak English to our three-year-old daughter, and my wife only speaks Swedish to her. The one exception is the word snippa. It’s Swedish for a girl’s genitals, the female equivalent of snopp, meaning “willy”, and I can’t find an English word that does the job.
Almost all the parents I know in Malmö use it. When a cartoon of dancing children’s genitalia made by Swedish children’s television went viral earlier this year, it was called Snoppen och Snippan, with Snippan translated by the English media as Twinkle. But to me, as a foreigner living in Sweden, snippa just is the word you use.
So it was a bombshell to discover that I’ve been the unwitting beneficiary of a programme of feminist social conditioning. The word is new, included in the official dictionary of the Swedish language only in 2006. When I meet Anna Kosztovics, the Malmö social worker who promoted the word back in 2000 – and has a strong claim to naming my daughter’s vagina – she plays down the achievement. But pressed, she admits to being proud of succeeding where even the mighty Oprah Winfrey, with her promotion of the word “vajayjay”, has failed. “I really think I did something,” she says.
The idea came when she was pregnant 18 years ago. “I thought, if this is a girl, I have to have a word for her genitals.” The existing words in Swedish were either too harsh, dirty and sexual – such as fitta, muff and mutta; euphemisms like mus, meaning mouse, or framstjärt, meaning “front bottom” – or too formal and medical, like vagina.
“It came from a gender equality perspective. Boys have a word for it, and girls don’t, and that made me mad,” Kosztovics says. “A friend told me she knew someone who used the word snippa, so I started practising it in front of the mirror.” In 2000 she began promoting it, visiting 50 of Malmö’s then 200 nursery schools, and after that it simply took off.
“It must have been perfect timing because everybody just said ‘yes’,” she remembers.
“I think the snippa initiative was a big success story in Sweden,” says Karin Milles, an academic at Södertorn University in Flemingsberg, who researches feminist projects of “verbal hygiene”. “We hadn’t had much feminist language planning before. It’s the first and I think the major initiative besides hen [a gender-neutral word for ‘he’ and ‘she’].”
The word was already used to describe a small jug for cream and a type of boat, and a small minority used it for vagina. “It’s this shape that is snippa, I think,” says Kosztovics, cupping her hands together to make a slender, tear-shaped gap.
Milles argues that the word’s success also stems from the fact that it looks like a female form of snopp, but that this is problematic for some feminists.
“The female is the marked case, since the female word seems to be constructed from the male word,” she argued in Snippa: a Success Story, an article published in the journal Gender and Language. “This formal correspondence with hegemonic and heteronormative cultural beliefs about gender and sex, strongly embraced by society as a whole, made it appealing to a large majority of language users.”
But Kosztovics laughs down Swedish feminists who instead want to reclaim the word “fitta”, which, while less strong than cunt in English, nonetheless doubles as a term of abuse.
“It never would have worked. Try to teach the children in England to say, ‘ooh, my cunt is itching’.” Kosztovics breaks into giggles. “If you started in every school in Sweden in the first grade, all the children every morning they stand up and say ‘hello teacher’ and then they say ‘fittor är fina’ [cunts are lovely]. If this was done, then in one generation, yes, you could do it.”
Even launching snippa involved some indoctrination. Kosztovics encouraged nursery school teachers to put up notes on their doors asking: “Have you saidsnippa today?”
She argues the risk of the word not sticking was too great to get lost in feminist scruples. When she first visited nursery schools, she discovered that while boys were told, “dry your willy”, girls were often told only, “dry yourself”. “If there isn’t a word you can easily use, there’s a very big risk that you don’t use any word at all, and that’s a problem,” she argues. “If there’s one, and only one, part of your body that hasn’t got a name, then people experience that as a taboo.”
Petter Bragée, the Swedish television producer behind the Snoppen och Snippansong, argues that nowadays the word has shed any taint of political correctness or feminist controversy.
“I think, when it was invented, it was almost only used in nursery schools, but now it has spread a lot, and I think this song was the tipping point. Snopp was natural and snippa is now natural too.”
Kosztovics’s next project (besides her main job working with Malmö’s criminal gangs) is, she admits, “much more complicated”. She is working with a group of nursery schools to “empower” children in discovering their sexuality.
If I see my daughter playing with her vagina, Kosztovics says I should not stop her or even ignore her.
“Just look at her and smile,” she says, mimicking the appropriate look of parental approval.