The Following Cliches Are Brought to You by the Letter P

Pert 2-in-1 Shampoo on Amazon

There are two words I keep running into in romances, and I have to talk about them.

First: when a heroine is barefoot and she's ambulating from one location to another, what verb will be used to describe her movement?


All barefoot people pad. Count on it.

I searched “padded” on all books on my Kindle, and came up with 20+ examples referring to people walking barefoot. Because it's new, I have a total of 10 books on this device, so granted this is a very limited sample. But when I search my archive of books online, I get a similar flash flood of people paddling around. These are some of the results – sound familiar?

  • “She padded into the kitchen.”
  • “She padded into the living room.”
  • “Her bare feet padded against the hardwood floor.” 
  • “She tossed the covers off, padded naked to the table…”
  • “I changed into my sweatpants and padded out to the living room in my bare feet.”
  • “He padded back to the bedroom.”
  • “She kicked off her heels and padded toward the kitchen barefoot.”

Perhaps I'm unconsciously drawn to books wherein someone will be barefoot, but that's a lot of padding.

This is starting to remind me of when I found references to “scudding clouds” in the sky in about six different historical romances within a two month period. It's like words go through surges in popularity within a subgenre. So with contemporary romance, there's a higher likelihood of small towns with aspirational names, baked goods and pastries, irascible secondary characters, and barefoot people padding all over the place.

It's not as if “pad” isn't a verb. It totally is and it's been around for awhile:

Definition of Pad: Transitive verb, to traverse on foot. Instrans; to go on foot or walk on padded feet.


And now that I've been thinking about it, I admit to having a difficult time coming up with an alternate word. The only thing better would be if there were a specific word for those who walk around in the shoes with toes, like Bikram Five Fingers.

“She five fingered her way through the living room.”

Well, no, that doesn't work, does it? 

It's not as if there's a better word, or that the usage is wrong – it's not. It's one of those words that read more than said aloud – have you ever said to someone, “I padded my way to the kitchen,” or “Pad your way up the stairs right now, young man”? I have not. And it seems as if that word is in so many books of late, I'm adding it to my cliche bingo card.

And while I'm on the subject of letters beginning with the letter 'P,' I do need to ask WHY all the nipples are PERT. We've talked about how nipples are fruity (and nipples on men are (a) flat and (b) male) but we haven't really examined the use (or overuse, depending on whether or not you're me) of pert.

Have you noticed how many pert nipples there are? THERE ARE SO MANY.

Her already pert nipples crinkled into tight buds. He grinned.

Lila Dubois
Red Ribbon


Her pert nipples were enlivened and visible against the bodice of her gown. He vividly recollected how those nipples had been pressed to his chest after he'd rescued her from the stream.

Cheryl Holt
Double Fantasy


Then with a light shaking movement I'd ease my red semi-see-through bra over my breasts and down across my nipples.'
'Wait do your nipples feel like?'
'They're haaaard,' I panted. 'And they're pert.'

Amanda Brunker
Champagne Kisses

He couldn't resist the invitation and licked at onepert nipple, stroking his tongue over it and then tugging gently with his teeth.

Christine Feehan
Deadly Game


He tweaked her pert nipple and she moaned.

Lorelie Brown
Jazz Baby

…his head had dropped lower, and suddenly his mouth closed over one pert nipple, teeth biting gently, then lips suckling hard, as his long fingers tangled in the soft curls at the juncture of her thighs.

Jacqueline Baird
Untamed Italian, Blackmailed Innocent


Her thumbs smoothed over her pert nipples, bringing them into even more prominent life.

Celia M. Hart
Made for Sin

She arched her back and her breasts pushed forward, the pert nipples standing up like little pebbles set in a round of pale caramel.

Charlotte Boyett-Compo
WyndRiver Sinner


Now honestly, who does that to caramel dessert?!

Those pert nipples are not just in romance either:

“I would love to tease your pert nipples with my tongue.”
“You don't have a tongue.”
“Yes, all right, but if I did have a tongue, I would love to tease your pert nipples with it.”
Dean R. Koontz
Demon Seed


And this example which just made me laugh:

It is a cliche to say “pert nipples”. What does “pert” mean? Pert; fucking stupit word. Now she was leaving. Nay wonder.

James Kelman
You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free

Aside from Pert 2-in1 shampoo, is there anything else that is so frequently described as pert?! I've seen a handful of pert noses, but mostly, it's nipples. Why are nipples always pert? Is there no other word, aside from fruity references?

I pondered “pert” WAY too much and had to learn more about it. Much like “pad” as a verb, “pert” is an adjective with a long history:

Def of PERT from Free Dictionary: Trim and stylish in appearance, jaunty, high-spirited vivacious, impudently bold, saucy. I hate when my nipples are saucy.


Pert definition from Merriam: Saucily free and forward, flippantly cocky, being trim and chic, piquantly stimulating


So nipples are trim and stylish and jaunty? Or are they high spirited, vivacious, bold and saucy? Or saucily free and forward? For God's sake, it's a nipple, not hired entertainment leaping out of a giant cake.

“Pert” can also mean “attractive due of neatness,” “jaunty,” or “lively.” I do not want lively nipples. I have enough trouble with pokey nipples when wearing sheer shirts.

Perhaps the reason the almost ubiquitous usage bothers me is within the etymology: “pert” comes from Middle English meaning “unconcealed, bold” and traces back to the Latin word “apertus,” for “open.” So basically the nipples are much like the hero's dick-as-divining rod, and the erect nipple is a signal that she's bold, unconcealed, and open for, ahem, plundering. They're the equivalent of an erection in signaling arousal, or signaling piquant stimulation. Even if she says no, her pert nipples say yes.

The usage in romance sex scenes seems to have more in common with the older definitions of “pert,” particular the Middle English one, and not the contemporary definitions I've found. But the word “pert” in romance has become almost exclusively connected with “nipple,” to the point where looking too closely at the meaning conjures up some very alarming nipples indeed. 

Pert is ubiquitous, much to my dismay. Unfortunately, if one is looking for a different word (and not raspberry-like fruit references), the listed synonyms at aren't much help: active, airy, animate, animated, bouncing,brisk, energetic, frisky, gay, jaunty, jazzy, kinetic,mettlesome, peppy, perky, lively, pizzazzy,racy, snappy, spanking, sparky, spirited, sprightly, springy,vital, vivacious, zippy.

Frisky nipples! Mettlesome nipples! ZIPPY NIPPLES. Oh, I cannot wait for the zippy nipples. 

Have you noticed people padding with pert nipples in your romances? Or is there another word you see all the time? Does it bother you? 

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Oaxacamama says:

    There’s one expression that I see all over historical romances and that bugs the hell out of me: bone-deep or bone-tired. To me it’s shorthand for “I can’t figure out how to show how excruciating the heroine’s pain is, so I’ll just use this cliche.” Isn’t there some other way to communicate the same idea to us without using ‘bone’ as a modifier? Or if it is necessary, can’t we be a little more expansive with it? Bone-happy, for example, or bone-angry, bone-crazy, bone-intelligent, bone-horny, bone-aroused. There are really endless possibilities, but all I really know is that it makes me feel bone-annoyed.

  2. 2
    Sarah W says:

    I will now clean off my keyboard and go invent a drink called the Zippy Nipple. 

    It will be fruity and pert.

  3. 3
    SB Sarah says:

    “Bone horny” might be accompanied by a boner, if it’s a dude. That sounds promising!

  4. 4

    I want to know: if one of the definitions of pert is “cocky,” why aren’t we hearing more about pert cocks? Is it because it would be redundant?

  5. 5

    evocative.  or evocatively.  (yes, I’m looking at you, Stephanie Laurens).  What-the-hell does “he touched her evocatively”  mean ?  evocatively of what ? 

    Once or twice, maybe … but in almost every book, the heroine gets touched evocatively (evocative:  adjective, brings to mind a memory, mood or image; redolent or reminiscent). 

  6. 6
    Anna Cowan says:

    Being in love with any overtly feminine word being applied to a man, I now want to see pert cocks come into fashion.

  7. 7
    Sophydc says:

    Need. at least two thirds of love scenes involve the word “need” used to mean desire or lust. I find it weirdly euphemistic and annoying, particularly when repeated eight in one scene…….Pert cocks would be awesome, but they sound little and cute so I think that might not go over too well : )

  8. 8
    Susan Donovan says:

    You’re right, SB Sarah. Words do go through surges in popularity in romance novels, just as they do in popular culture. This is no excuse for lazy writing, however.

    I should probably be serving five-to-ten for my liberal use of “padding” and “bone-somethings,” but I don’t think there’s a pert nipple to be found in my eleven years as a writer. I’ll say this—it’s damn difficult to keep coming up with different descriptive phrases for erect body parts. Let’s say, for example, that each book has three hot-and-heavy love scenes and each love scene makes thirty references to naughty bits in their turgid states. Let’s say a writer has written twenty books in her career. That’s 1,800 uniquely engorged anatomical parts! It makes me bone-tired just to think of it, and I’m generally quite pert at 8:30 am. 

  9. 9
    Liz Talley says:

    Ha, this was a perfect post to read this morning. I needed a laugh.

    I usually use “pert” in reference to a nose rather than nipples. I might have used perky, but I’m thinking I probably skipped that one, too. Now, I’m going to have to go back and look.

    But here lately, I’ve been using “snick” a lot. As in “the door snicked closed” or “She heard the soft snick of the door.” Don’t know why. Maybe because I can hear that sound, but I catch it when I type it and I feel like I’m over using it. But otherwise, it’s just “the door closed” which is fine, I suppose, but I like “snick” better.

    And so now I’ve been noting it in all the books I read.

    Fun post :)

  10. 10

    people leaning in – “he leaned in and kissed her” – way too many times, in too many books.
    can’t he angle in for a kiss? stoop, lunge, move? or just kiss? is it essential for the guy’s move to be described, or could we just extrapolate from the fact that they weren’t touching, then he kissed her, which must’ve required some movement…?

  11. 11
    Liz Lincoln says:

    I had the exact same thought.

  12. 12
    Liz Lincoln says:

    As a breastfeeding mom, my nipples do at times get jaunty. But in a very non-sexy way. A hero would not like the results (my husband just laughs at me). And the raspberry thing baffles me. In my random sample of 1 (me), they are quite different from raspberries.

    And I’m so glad you posted this while I’m working on revisions. I’m totally finding a place to work in zippy nipples. And on the same vein, my heroes never have flat, male nipples (of course their nipples are male – they’re men!). Just nipples. That phrase pulls me out of the book every time I read it.

  13. 13
    Beccah W. says:

    “the hero’s dick-as-divining rod” HA!

    Yes, descriptions of nipple are almost always thought provoking. I’ve seen many a pert nipple appear in Romance Land, but what I find even funnier are these descriptions: “his long fingers tangled in the soft curls at the juncture of her thighs.” OUCH. That sounds painful! Stop tangling those curls and just do some nice stroking.

  14. 14
    Sandy D. says:

    Have you already discussed “laved”?

  15. 15
    SB Sarah says:

    Oh yes, we have discussed laved. And lathed, which is NOT the same thing.

  16. 16
    Zmom Joanne says:

    I’ll need mind-bleach.

    The bitch padded over to her litter of ten where each of her offspring latched onto a pert nipple full of nourishment. Oh, ugh.

  17. 17
    LauraN says:

    AGREED.  I nearly sprain something from rolling my eyes too hard every time I see it.  But then, I also almost hurt myself with the self loathing I feel whenever I give her another chance.  I’ll grant that her first few novels are fun, but the stuff she’s produced in the last several years?  Formulaic and boring.  If I had a greater pool to choose from when it comes to downloadable audiobooks from my library, I’d never read her again.

  18. 18
    Sally says:

    Oh, I noticed that, too!  The Stephanie Laurens cliche that did for me was the hero’s ubiquitous ‘demons’. It seems that every time a SL hero touches a SL heroine, he needs to rein in, leash, or otherwise control his ‘demons’.

    Oh, and Mary Balogh’s heroes, when, um, exploring their lady friends, inevitably ‘part folds’. It gets to the point now that I start looking out for that phrase.

  19. 19
    hapax says:

    The one that gets me is the Eve Dallas books, when she is always “fisting” her hands in Roarke’s hair.  I know what she means, but “fisted” has a rather different connotation for me, and I always think “Ah, ewww” for a minute.

    Oddly enough, I haven’t noticed it so much in her Nora Roberts books. 

    (Also, “slanting” lips.  WTH does that even *mean*?)

  20. 20

    Bahaha! I do not think I’d ever describe a nipple as “pizzazzy”. With so many words for things, we must learn to use our thesaurus’ more often :) Great post!

  21. 21
    Cschuttenhelm says:

    In old stuff….. pouting breasts and impertinent breasts. Are they not talking to you? Or are they talking back? I was a clueless teenager way back then and I couldn’t figure it out.

  22. 22
    Qualisign says:

    Illicit and elicit. Not only is illicit used inappropriately in many books, it is offputtingly common to find its near homonym, elicit, in its place. There just aren’t that illicit acts left these days, and kissing isn’t one of them…

  23. 23
    MissB2U says:

    I’ve come to look at some of these words and phrases as commonly accepted lingo – like you’d find in a scientific paper.  Everyone uses them and knows what is meant. I think Ms. Donovan makes an excellent point, how many ways can you say it?  This is one of the reasons I periodically read books with a romantic theme but little or no actual sexytimes.  I love it when the story is so compelling that the “parts” don’t add that much to the mix. 

  24. 24
    GHN says:

    *rolls eyes at clichés*
    Those pert nipples are so omnipresent that they have become invisible, or at least unnoticeable.

    Another thing that I frequently encounter in descriptions of romantic sexxytimes, is “inner thighs”, which is used when the author wants to talk about the piece of female anatomy that is found between them. Which part must NEVER, EVER be named.
    Unless the author reaches for another piece of euphemism and writes something like “Her womb clenched in lust.”
    Actually, HELL NO!
    When your womb clenches, it’s because you have menstrual cramps, and believe me, sex is the last thing on my mind at a time like that!!

  25. 25

    “Graced”: as in “A smile graced his/her perfectly formed lips.” Every time I see that, I sigh. Possibly evocatively, as it reminds me of the hundreds of earnest fan-fic stories I’ve read over the years. I know it is technically correct, but I always envision a smug Mona-Lisa-like face, which can really change one’s inner vision of the hero!

  26. 26
    Flo_over says:

    You had me at Zippy Nipple.

    I hope someone starts a band with that name.

  27. 27
    K.M. Jackson says:

    I love this post because just the other day when writing my heroine got out of bed and I stopped and groaned. Ugh. She was padding and it felt so off. So I went to the dictionary and the thesaurus. After I paced a while, she still padded but it was against my will. Maybe she should have shuffled.

  28. 28
    Jaelwye says:

    This is a good moment to reiterate the rule that the words “moist” and “damp” should never appear in a romance novel except in conjunction with the word “dishrag”.

  29. 29
    Sarah Ginter says:

    Good points, ladies! Hair, no matter its natural texture, is ALWAYS “skeins (stupid word anyway) of silk.” Why can’t the chick’s hair be a little nappy? Coarse and stiff? I mean, my hair is naturally curly and I can tell you unless I do something with it, burlap is closer to what my hair feels like than silk. I even read a romance (very typical, sudden-crappy-weather-we-must-hide-together-in-this-abandoned-cabin-in-our-very-wet-clothes type) where they had just come in from flat-ass pouring rain and her curly hair was soaked and the hero described it as silky, and I distinctly remember him running his fingers through it. O_o Sounds legit.

  30. 30
    Sarah Ginter says:

    I agree with the “folds” thing. I always think of two pieces of bologna smacking together, “folds” sounds too close to “flaps.” Gives me the heebies. Another one that bugs the everloving hell out of me is “nether curls.” Can’t we just say “hair?” Like we’re not going to know that you mean pubic hair?

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