Monday, 11 October 2010

It's Only Words

A serious note: This blog entry will contain some pretty hefty language (for reasons you'll soon see). If you are under 18 please leave and visit If you are over 18, but are easily offended, please GO AWAY NOW. If you continue to read, and are offended, that's your fault, not mine. I've tried to be as mature and sincere as possible in this blog post, and am intending it to hopefully provoke a genuine and considered discussion. Thankyou please.


What was your initial reaction when you read that word? Was it:

a) Shock and outrage?
b) Embarrassment?
c) Laughter?

Or did you feel no discernible reaction whatsoever?

We've all (presumably) been brought up to realise that that word is something you just do not say, in public, and is one of those words which is taboo. Hence the warning I wrote at the top there. Sometimes, though, I wonder why this is.

The word "cunt" is a four-letter word, and is made up of these letters: C, U, N, T. We know these letters - they're all in the English alphabet, and we use them all the time. So it's fair to say the letters aren't the problem here. Instead, perhaps we have to look at the word itself. From the OED:

1. The female external genital organs. 
2. Applied to a person, esp. a woman, as a term of vulgar abuse.

Embarrassment about body parts, and their names, is nothing new, as any schoolchild will tell you. Nevertheless, it is interesting how some are used. In her last column in The Guardian's magazine, I noticed Lucy Mangan use the word 'vagina'. Whilst it didn't bother me, it surprised me slightly, as I wouldn't have expected it to be used. Instead, I would have expected a softer, more subtle word in it's place - "flower", "ladyparts", etc. These are slang terms for the vagina, yet another slang term, "cunt" would never, ever be used.

Perhaps the key term here is "vulgar abuse". If you watch a film and the word "cunt" is used, it's probably being used as part of an abusive statement - "you fucking cunt" etc, rather than when describing a part of a woman's body. The funny thing is, there are thousands of abusive words and phrases, yet 99% of them are not treated as seriously as cunt. I've been around women who would quite happily call people "wankers" and "twats" and all sorts, but never "cunts". What qualifies as "vulgar" and what doesn't? I honestly don't know. I think we'd all agree that cunt is vulgar, but why exactly?

I looked up the word on OED for a specific reason, because as well as giving a definition, it also lists some examples of where a word has been used in the past. I'm not joking when I say in this case, it's quite interesting:

a1325 Prov. Hendyng (Camb. Gg. I. 1) st. 42 Yeue {th}i cunte to cunnig and craue affetir wedding.
c1400 Lanfranc's Cirurg. 172/12 In wymmen {th}e necke of {th}e bladdre is schort, & is maad fast to the cunte. 
1552 LYNDESAY Satyre Procl. 144 First lat me lok thy cunt, Syne lat me keip the key.
1956 S. BECKETT Malone Dies 24 His young wife had abandoned all hope of bringing him to heel, by means of her cunt, that trump card of young wives.

Whilst I'm not clever enough to work out what most of those sentences mean, it's interesting to note that the word cunt certainly isn't new. Look at those dates - 1325! 1552! If the word is that old, how has it not lost it's impact by now? Has it always been considered as vulgar, or is this a relatively recent criticism?

I'm asking all these questions because, quite simply, I don't know. On one hand, it bemuses me slightly that a word, a simple 4 letter word, carries so much weight and controversy with it. On the other hand, I'm certainly not advocating that a person should think "Okay, it's only a word" and go round shouting it from the rooftops.

Seriously, what do you guys think? Is it a word you would use in public? If not, why do you think it carries all that weight after all these years? Who decides whether a word is vulgar or not?

Over to you...


  1. You picked an interesting topic here...

    Personally, I really don't like the C-word (so much so I can't even bring myself to type it). It doesn't necessarily offend me (very few things do these days), I just find it to be a horrible word.

  2. Right, I have no problem with the word cunt whatsoever. I've grown up in an area where it's used quite frequently, often in an affectionate, affable idiot kind of way. I also feel that the term has a strong literary presence, as shown by those quotes. When written, the word is often often used sparingly creating a single four letter word that can take us all out of our respective comfort zones. Recently, I came across such a passage in The Beautiful Ones by Leonard Cohen where he refers to the only important bit of his dead wife's body as (paraphrasing) "two square inches, the cunt."
    Where I do have a problem with the word cunt is in the context it's used. I'm all for risque jokes that used the word knowingly or in other ways, but I draw the line at racism, homophobia, or any topic where people are exorcising pure hatred. (If anything they're the cunts). That is the stigma that comes with the word, when used to it's full extent it carries possibly the greatest vitriol of perhaps any spoken word.
    Though I've stated I've no problem with it I'd never use it in front of a woman. Times by a thousand for a woman I was dating. I've seen someone make that mistake once and it wasn't pretty at all.

    Probably could have explained all that better just by leaving this pic though (safe for work) -

  3. I'm slightly surprised by the way you describe the word's use. I know that it's generally accepted to be more 'offensive' than most other swear words, but in practice it's never seemed any more shocking. Sure, I wouldn't use it around children or in a job interview, but in the last few years it seems to have become one of the most commonly used swear words, and it's certainly one of the most satisfying to say.

    Interesting definition, too. I honestly don't know if I've ever used the word about a woman, and certainly not as often as about men. I probably even use it in the anatomical sense more often than about its owner.

    In terms of 'weight and controversy', I'm all for using these words more freely (again, only in informal, adult situations) because it disarms them. Cunt, along with all of its little shits and fuckbuddies, causes about as much shock now as 'bloody' or 'arse' did just a few years ago. Unless one's posh enough, it's near-impossible to pull off more traditional equivalents, like 'dolt', 'drat' and 'whoops-a-daisies'.

    Growing up, 'twat' was the one I was warned about as being the one that "even grown-ups don't say". That one gets used on TV all the time (even in Fawlty Towers!), but cunt doesn't, which never seems right. Cunt sounds far friendlier.

    In the film 'Atonement', it sounds odd when James McAvoy's character writes a letter containing 'cunt', in the anatomical sense, but I think it's just the way he says it. You don't often hear it with the 't' pronounced clearly. Gives it a different vibe.

  4. Very interesting comments so far guys and gals, thanks. Interesting that there's a difference in opinion between Lynsey and you, Father Twinky.

    Something I forgot to mention in the blog post - the difference in feelings between men and women regarding the word. In my experiences, and judging by these comments as well, women abhor it whereas men are less likely to. Perhaps that would be different if the word's literal meaning was a part of the mans body?

    Interesting comments, keep 'em coming!

  5. I think I agree with you in that it's probably been overhyped. Personally, I just don't like the sound of the word, it doesn't exactly, er, roll off the tongue? (Can I get away with using that term in relation? I'm not sure, it sounds weird.) I know people who use it affectionately towards close friends, but I think most people would find it extremely offensive if it was intended to do so.

  6. I hate using it in front of girls. However, I do admit that I use it, although sometimes it does unintentionally slip.

    I grew up having heard it being said a lot by an 'uncle' of mine who is thick and illiterate, whom I'm glad I don't have anything to do with. I use the word to describe a couple of people around uni who think they should ruin lectures by being loud and thinking that they're the centre of attention.

    With that being said, I use it to describe the BNP, EDL, basically people who ruin society. It is the worst phrase to insult somebody with, but when it comes to hearing it; it doesn't bother me that much.

  7. I forgot to mention that I call it my manager, she is a right un.

  8. It's older than that - it's related to a range of female-related terms, like 'queen' (it's the q/c which seems to be feminine in Indo-European root languages).

    I'm torn. Very few words feel so satisfying as expressions of scorn/anger, because of the combination of syllables, but it's inextricably tied up with misogyny, so I don't use it.

  9. I think we get a little too hung up on this word. I will use it as an expletive, usually when driving, but always at a man, never a woman (they're better drivers), and never in earshot of the recipient. I wouldn't tolerate being called it, the same as I wouldn't tolerate being called anything abusive to my face. Due to its earthiness I am more than happy for the word to be used in appropriate circumstances and have never felt as though I was valued any the less in these moments-far from it. It's a word. Like any word, it's the intention behind its use that can make it contentious. And we choose what offends us.
    And I'm female.

  10. This is very interesting Ewar – Are you studying linguistics this year?

    It is fascinating that words can have ‘good’ or ‘bad’ connotations.
    I don’t personally use the word you have discussed here.
    I think some people with limited vocabularies fill in conversational gaps with ‘offensive’ words - This is sad, given the richness of the English language.

  11. Very interesting post, especially for someone like me living in the U.S.A. I think I've done a post on this topic in my own blog somewhere...

    The C word is not really a word people use often here, it's 'forbidden' I guess. I know lots of girls that get really upset when it is used, but I certainly don't.

    I much rather hear the C word than 'pussy', now that word just makes me sick. Honestly, I find the C word really sexy when it's used in bed. Perhaps it's the fact that C word is not really used much at all in this part of the world. The forbidden factor to me is hot.

    But as far as using it as an offensive term, I just think it's funny, why on earth would you call someone a vagina?