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April 15, 2013 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Cunt: the Last Bastion of Bad?

Cunts! Cunty cunt cunt cuntcuntcuntcunt. Are you filled with rage now? Disgust? An uncomfortable feeling of arousal? Some words are difficult. When someone says ‘cunt’, whatever the context, you can expect someone to at least wince. Depending on the way it is used it can sound horribly violent. What isn’t totally clear however, is why ‘cunt’ is so problematic. Like most things that are offensive, ‘cunt’ is plagued by a tangled, confusing web of stuff. Are vaginas just terribly repulsive? Is that why we shy away from it? Plainly not. Words are thrown around today with abandon that would have, at the slightest mention, have caused the heads of people a short time ago to explode. We are desensitised to so many things. Putting aside the more pointed terms used to disparage racial groups and the like, ‘cunt’ is just about the last bastion of bad.

‘Cunt’ is a really old word. While the etymology of the word is murky—in part because people have historically been reluctant to put it on the page, it is suspected that ‘cunt’ was originally the factual Anglo-Saxon term for the vulva. Before the world became terrified at the mention of it, ‘cunt’ was what was merely a sort of colloquial word used interchangeably with other references to female genitalia. By the time ‘cunts’ begin to pop up in early English literature, they generally had a comical tone: Chaucer, for instance, was very fond of throwing a ‘queynte’ or two (or three or four or five) into his stories. It pops up in a number of guises in early English literature, usually for comic effect: in 12th-century Britain there were a number of Gropecunte Lanes, noted for prostitution, peppering streets all over the country. If you’re in the UK and you find yourself on a street, lane or road with Grope, Grape or Grove in the name, then chances are it used to be some form of Gropecunte. The word was rough, certainly, but for a lot of people it wasn’t obscene. By the time Francis Grose wrote his 1785 treasure A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, he listed the word without any reference to a woman’s parts as “a nasty term for a nasty thing”, and it wasn’t listed in any major English dictionary until 1961.

The strangest thing about ‘cunt’ is that it is a member of the increasingly exclusive club of words that can genuinely shock people. Professor of Linguistics at Victoria University, Janet Holmes, says that most swear words come from one of two groups. The first is “religion, and God in particular, so in the past things like ‘Jesus’ and ‘Christ’ were taken really seriously.” ‘Cunt’ isn’t strictly a religious thing, although a few people might avidly disagree with that. Secondly, and more relevantly, Holmes points to “the human body, particularly those that refer to sexual reproduction,” and says that there are a lot of words of this kind that have lost their power as time has passed, giving ‘bugger’ as a particularly apt example. In many contexts ‘bugger’ has, in the past, only really referred to anal intercourse, particularly between men, a fact which is often surprising to many younger people. Another thing Holmes makes clear is that an important factor in sucking the shock power out of something is repetition. ‘Fucks’ are thrown around liberally to flavour and intensify conversation, while, in contrast, ‘cunt’ “isn’t one that people feel confident using in many contexts”.

In New Zealand (and sometimes in Australia and the UK too), tacking a positive qualifier before it turns what is, for some reason, a slur into a genuine display of approval. “Good cunt! Great cunt!” Which is weird. Is it supposed to mean that most vaginas are bad by default? It’s not a very diverse spectrum. I’m not really qualified to say, but several owners of bona fide vaginas assure me that they are generally great or at least not all that bad. Maybe, if we’re being serious about it, we should have ‘Liminal Cunts’ and ‘Totally Okay Cunts’ and ‘Not-That-Fussed Cunts’ too. Or we could set up the Bureau of Vaginal Standards and Grading. But this is important—contextually we’ve managed to wrangle cunt into a sort-of-but-not-really-okay form. Holmes says that these are what sociolinguists refer to as jocular or mock insults, and that they are a reminder that you can’t ever “take a word in a vacuum and give it meaning.”

While it might sound obvious, references to the penis, conversely, are never that big of a deal. You can go on and on and on about dicks and, while they might think you’re a creep, nobody is going to sock you in the face for it. ‘Cunt’ occupies a space all of its own. Holmes explains this by pointing to the English language’s sorry history of villainising the feminine. “Things that are associated to women are more commonly offensive. In general… there are more terms of abuse for men than there are for women.” Consider ‘witch’, ‘spinster’, ‘mistress’ and, historically, ‘girl’, which are essentially bywords for evil: ‘couldn’t get a husband and doesn’t deserve her vagina’; ‘woman of the night’, and ‘young and sexually available’. When you put them next to ‘wizard’, ‘bachelor’, ‘mister’ and ‘boy,’ which can mean ‘rad guy with a wand’; ‘single and ready to mingle’; ‘a human man’, and… ‘boy’, it becomes apparent that we are very good at applying sex to just about anything vaguely feminine. Holmes also points out that these are often the most extreme insults one can impart. Holmes gives the example of Greg Williams, an Aussie Rules player, who called an Aboriginal member of the opposing team a “black cunt”, and says that when it was reported in the media “it was only reported as a racially offensive term. The worry about causing offence was so great that they didn’t print the second half.”

Well, then, can ‘cunt’ be reclaimed? Should it be? Has it already been? Reclamation is the process whereby a group take back a term used against the members for their own means. Black people have managed this with some words. Queer people have as well, sort-of. The problem, one supposes, is that women are less of a cohesive cultural group. (unlike African-American people for example, repurposing that word that begins with an N). Some women can say ‘cunt’ without anyone batting an eye—it just sounds okay, probably because it should. Women do have them, after all. Even so, the word still sounds overtly political when it is used in a context where its use is calculated. Maybe the key, as Holmes says, lies in repetition: if enough ladies say cunt enough in a way that isn’t intended to crush another then perhaps one day it’ll be the most banal thing ever. Maybe we will have moved onto another body part to fuel the fires of our outrage. Like feet, as in “oh that guy is such a foot”. It could work.


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  1. Tony says:

    Hey wow nice cutting edge article from Salient cicra 2003.

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