"Infertile"; "fruitless"? How would you describe such a woman in an informal talk to your friend?

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    Should I mention here an old Polish Officer joke? A Polish officer has been married for a few years, and his English friend asks if he has been blessed with any children. The officer replies, "No, my wife is impregnable." His fellow officer corrects him: "I'm sorry, my comrade's English is not quite perfect; he should have said his wife is unbearable." A third Polish officer helps out: "I am sorry, but neither of my comrades are correct. In fact, his wife is inconceivable." Jan 28, 2011 at 21:49

6 Answers 6


I wouldn't use a particular word, I'd just say, "She can't have a baby."
I would never say something like, "She is infertile/fruitless/barren/sterile." – I find that extremely rude.

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    Usually, it's the men who can be considered impotent, not the women :) Same goes for sterile. Indeed, fruitless is certainly not a good choice. However, barren is not uncommon in some circles. It really depends on who's using the word and where it's being used.
    – Jimi Oke
    Jan 28, 2011 at 12:23
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    Sterile does apply to women, but certainly I wouldn't use it. Also infertile and barren... but as Sid suggests, you'd perhaps be better being considerably less blunt.
    – CJM
    Jan 28, 2011 at 12:28
  • Incapable of conceiving might be acceptable but perhaps less "informal" depending on the reason she can't have one
    – mplungjan
    Jan 28, 2011 at 12:38
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    Thanks to all who answered - you've saved me from a lot of troubles.
    – brilliant
    Jan 28, 2011 at 12:54
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    This is called the "euphemism treadmill" -- a word for a bad thing becomes bad in itself, so someone invents a nicer word, and then the new word attracts the connotations of its meaning and the cycle repeats. "Moron", "negro", "senior" (for "old"), and "handicapped" were all meant as polite substitutes for older expressions. The word you are looking for is "infertile". Say what you mean. Jan 28, 2011 at 21:54

Historically, a woman with such a condition was considered to be barren, but that word is not used much today (although it is nevertheless likely to be understood). Nowadays, one would probably say she is "seeing a fertility counselor" or some such circumlocution, and people would infer the rest.

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    I'd say "barren" has a pretty negative connotation, so while correct, I'd strongly avoid using it. Jan 28, 2011 at 15:46
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    Good manners. Analogous to how "seeing a psychiatrist" means "stark raving mad".
    – dbkk
    Jan 28, 2011 at 15:49

I have always used the word barren, although that word is a bit antiquated.

For some, the word barren may carry a negative connotation. For instance, when the word is used in the Bible it's written as if it was a curse. There are Biblical stories of women who were barren but then were blessed by God and were able to conceive. Consequently, someone who is Jewish/Christian/Muslim might find that particular word a bit insensitive, as it seemingly implies they are cursed.

Perhaps the best way to avoid any potential embarrassment is to state the facts plainly, as in, "She is unable to conceive." Even though most people will understand your intent, I'm not a fan of saying, "She cannot have a baby," because that can be taken literally to mean that she is not fit to mother. Just because someone cannot conceive does not mean they cannot have a child through alternative means, such as adoption or surrogacy.


Joke answers: unbearable, impregnable, inconceivable (maybe that doesn't mean what I think it means...)

  • sorry, I appear to have pinched your punchline in my comment above. +1. Feb 2, 2011 at 22:52
  • Maybe it was simultaneous editing... my first time!
    – user3065
    Feb 2, 2011 at 23:13

In an informal setting, a woman who has passed menopause may describe herself as "dried up" even if she's had many children.


The joke was not meant to provide answers, but a funny lesson on the complexity of the English language - not that other languages aren't complex. Many lessons are best illustrated through humor - although the underlying lessons of that message can be missed entirely. Thanks for the go-around here; I was able to give my daughter a lesson in the fun and folly of language.

I personally would say "she was not able to have children", and if that is too difficult just don't bring it up.

I liked the "euphemism treadmill" concept - very illustrative of the situation - I often get dinged for using the words ignorant, or deception as being negative although I find few ways of expressing the same meaning, and both can be positive or neutral when used that way...

  • I don't know what you mean by "go-around". Actually, I don't know this word at all. If you have time and desire, please, answer here: english.stackexchange.com/questions/10514/…
    – brilliant
    Jan 29, 2011 at 2:57
  • I nearly got hit once for calling a man ignorant. He knew nothing about the subject and would of admitted as much, but he thought I was essentially calling him stupid. If I'd called him stupid, he'd have probably taken it better.
    – Carl Smith
    Mar 12, 2013 at 3:56

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