Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Mary Tyler Moore and the Menstrual Mystery

I’m not so out of touch with the female anatomy that I don’t know what it means to get a visit from Aunt Flo. But what I lack in knowledge of the female body I make up with a command of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and that counts for a lot. So here’s the thing: Other than that metaphorical monthly visitor, there is another famous Aunt Flo. She’s a minor recurring character on Mary Tyler Moore, and she has the odd distinction of being the only one to make an appearance on the spin-off Lou Grant, the hour-long drama that Mary’s boss ended up on following his WJM newsroom days.

Isn’t that weird? Not just that a character from a long-running sitcom ended up on a non-comedy spinoff, but that of all the characters on Mary Tyler Moore, it wasn’t Mary or Rhoda or Murray who ended up popping up on Lou Grant but Aunt Flo, who had only appeared three times on Mary Tyler Moore. You’d think they would have eliminated any connection between Mary Tyler Moore and Lou Grant, to underscore how different a series the latter was from the former. And they basically did that, save for this one spare appearance of Eileen Heckart in the fourth season of Lou Grant. I think it’s especially odd that of all the characters to reappear, it would be the only one whose name basically means “menstrual discomfort.” But whatever, her name is Florence and she’s Mary’s aunt, right? Nope. She’s actually not even Mary’s aunt; she’s her cousin. Here, watch:

So then my question is this: Were the Mary Tyler Moore writers just making a period joke, if they went out of their way to call a character Aunt Flo?

I mean, I guess first off I’m not sure people would have known that expression back in 1975, when the episode aired. Unfortunately for me (and I guess her), Aunt Flo doesn’t merit an entry in most dictionaries. Wiktionary has one, but it doesn’t give any indication about when people starting using this cute little personification. So here’s what I did: I searched Google Books for “aunt flo” to see when the period jokes start. The result of my less-than-scientific process? A 1999 article on home remedies that mentions Aunt Flo alongside another euphemism for menstruation, “falling off the roof,” which I have never heard before but which sounds especially awful. Unless I missed an entry, it’s the first mention on Google Books of an Aunt Flo who’s not an actual aunt. And yeah — there are a ton of non-metaphorical Aunt Flos, and it’s kind of weird to read about this Aunt Flo or that Aunt Flo talking or writing a letter or arriving at a party or throwing her arms around her nieces and nephews in a warm embrace. Also, many an Aunt Flo has died, apparently, and that takes the metaphor to unpleasant, new territory, and I won’t even talk about the mention of Aunt Flo in the context of bed linens. Even this 1995 book about sexual dynamics in pop culture mentions Aunt Flo the character but not Aunt Flo the phenomenon. So I suppose the Mary Tyler Moore writers weren’t making a subtle off-color joke when they decided Mary should get a visit from her Aunt Flo.

So, now, two questions.

First, could it be possible that Aunt Flo only entered the English language in the 90s, around the time that Cher Horotwitz framed the whole process in much cooler terms when she complained about surfing the crimson tide? I would have guessed that Aunt Flo would be much older, but then again I wasn’t talking about menstruation in the 80s. It’s 2013 and I’m pretty much only talking about now for the first time.

Second, if this expression isn’t as old as I thought, is it possible that Aunt Flo the Mary Tyler Moore character could have helped it become popular? If not through the original airings than through the TV Land reruns? If this is the case, I would like to think the Eileen Heckart found out and reacted with a mix of pride of horror.

And if there’s a better way to research when a certain phrase entered the English language, tell me. If there’s additional information about menstruation that you may have, I’m good, however. You keep that.


  1. Anonymous2:24 PM

    But why is it aunt Flo instead of some other name? I grew up hearing it as Aunt Dot,

    1. That is new to me. That is also somehow a little grosser, given the implications.

  2. Steph3:38 PM

    you sure love periods. for your birthday, I'm going to give you mine. Surprise!

  3. The Google Ngram Viewer often comes in handy for cases like this, like this search. That tool searches the text of all books and documents scanned by Google Books, which is a fairly large corpus to sift through. The downside: with a search term like 'Aunt Flo' you're probably getting lots of results that include fictional characters with that name (like Mary Richard's TV cousin-aunt), or real people, etc. Also Ngram doesn't give you a way to see what books included that particular phrase at a given time (um) period. But it's useful to track usage over time in comparison to other euphemisms!

    1. Dude, THANK YOU. That was what I was trying to think of when I was researching this post. I see how it wouldn't be especially helpful in this one instance, but thanks for the link anyway.

    2. Anonymous7:33 PM

      Aunt Flo is short for Aunt Flow. Get it now? Having Aunt Flo visit, falling off the roof, having the painters in, and working in the flower bed are all euphemisms that indicate you won't be swimming, riding horseback, wearing white pants, or doing any of the things in the tampon ads any time soon. These expressions for menstruation have been around at least since the mid 1960's, probably longer. They do not indicate pain or anything else in particular, just the monthly inconvenience happening.

    3. Right. I think we all get that. I'm more interested in "Aunt Flo" as a character name, s it may or may not pertain to the menstruation euphemism.