See You Next Tuesday
When exactly will we see the ‘c-bomb’ in everyday speech?
I recently found myself in the peculiar position of trying to explain the undefined, yet pretty unanimously agreed upon, ranking of English swear words. From 'bloody hell', through 'crap', 'bollocks', 'wanker', all the way up to the infamous trio: 'shit', 'fuck' and 'cunt'. Whilst certain words fluctuate more in this mythical line-up, the list is always topped the same. Despite the bravado of the playground, I never even encountered the word 'cunt' until I was approaching my teens; it is THE bad word. But why?!
Thanks to the single syllable, blunt delivery of harsh, satisfyingly plosive consonants, the word, even divorced from its meaning, can pack a real punch. However, I can’t help but notice that, unlike the similarly single-syllabled (and admittedly fun to say) ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’, ‘cunt’ is distinctly gendered. Everyone shits; almost everyone fucks; but only half of the population has a cunt.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a ‘cunt’ first and foremost as ‘a woman’s genitals’. The word is also credited with a secondary definition: ‘an unpleasant or stupid person’ (an amusingly child-friendly phrase to see printed alongside a word which is never welcome in children’s books!). Other dictionary publications specify that this ‘stupid person’ is specifically female, suggesting that one must have one, in order to be one. But all definitions are agreed that this word is ‘obscene’, ‘extremely offensive’ and, in the case of dictionary.com, worthy of a full paragraph ‘usage alert’:
‘All senses of this word are vulgar slang and are very strongly tabooed and censored. […] to call a person a cunt, especially a woman, is one of the most hateful and powerful examples of verbal abuse in the English language.’
Upon further inspection, I discovered that indy100 had undertaken a survey to “officially” rank the offensiveness of swearwords. There it was, sitting atop the pile. Just below, in the ‘strong words’ category, came a list of nineteen similarly genital-focused words. Twelve were slang terms for a vagina; compared with just six phallic insults (and, the word ‘bastard’ comfortably sat on the gender-neutral fence, to complete the nineteen-strong set). This ratio seemed to underpin my suspicions about the gender-specific status of the word ‘cunt’. No matter how far we come towards emancipation, the very idea of female genitals is considered offensive and abhorrent.
Considering the literal, primary definition, it’s true, sometimes a vagina can be a real 'cunt, in the harsh, painful sense of the word. (If you've ever had a lingering infection, or, I imagine, given birth, you would probably agree.) But, compared with being a 'nob', 'dickhead' or ‘bellend’, words much more comfortably thrown around in daily conversation, I fail to see the reason why my genitalia is considered so much worse than that of the opposite sex.
To adopt a purely linguistic viewpoint, some of the words and phrases that comprise the indy100 list, ‘beef curtains’ for example, conjure quite a graphic image and are thus understandably considered inappropriate. Others, let’s take ‘prick’ and ‘twat’, have become increasingly divorced from their literal meaning, instead taking on primary functions as insults. It is this removal from the original, bodily definition of words that also allows some women to experience ‘ball ache’ or to invite others to ‘suck my dick’; these are little more than unisex swear-phrases now. Yet, in the ever-controversial case of the cunt, it seems that the word still, above all, relates to the female genitalia. Although, unlike so many of our European counterpart languages, English doesn’t gender nouns, to be, or to have, a cunt is undeniably feminised and, as such, intrinsically negative.
Indeed, feminising an insult often intensifies it: ‘son of a bitch’, or ‘motherfucker’, for example, are both directed at one’s closest female relative. In these instances, aimed primarily at insulting men, somehow a woman still sits in the firing line!
I am not advocating the rise of a utopian society of free love and no insults or curse words. Rather, I am suggesting that censorship and taboo cannot pave the road to equality between gendered swearwords. There is an argument to be made that it is simply about how you say ‘cunt’: the phonetic shape of the word. Those who accentually drop their ‘t’s immediately sound less offensive. Or perhaps the context is most important: the first recorded reference in English originates from circa 1230, when a street in Oxford was dubbed ‘Gropecuntlane’. Certainly an eye-catching address, but with no noticeable hint of associated malice. Let’s regain our lost innocence and remove the taboo around a word that describes what is an omnipresent body part in so many scenarios.
The growth in technology has ensured that all conversations are hack-able or eavesdropped on; nothing is truly censored anymore. As such, when nothing is left unsaid or unheard, why are we denying ourselves certain words? How can the archaic taboo prevail?
I strongly feel that no part of my body should be shied away from at a mere mention. In a world of waxing, cunt-landscaping and vajazzles, isn’t it time we threw some glitter at the word itself and set it free?!
Title image: Grapefruit by Tyler Shields sourced via artsy.net