There are few words in human languages that are so forbidden, so offensive, that they can only be referred to in code. In English, three are so iconic that they claim the definitive rights to their first letters. They are the Cher, Beyoncé, Denzel, and Leo of the profanity catalogue. Everyone, everywhere, knows what you mean when you call something “the ___ word.”
I consider these three words to be on different levels of crudity.
Level 1 is “the F-word”: unless you’re fifteen, “fuck” doesn’t sing a provocative song. According to the American Motion Picture Rating System, a PG-13 movie is allowed one “fuck” before it moves up to R-rated. So, not too interesting.
The most interesting thing about “fuck” is that it can be a noun, a verb or adjective, anything that your heart desires. Can we, as a people, really deny such a versatile word presence in our everyday lives? HBO says we can’t, and I fucking agree.
Level 3 is “the N-word”: unless you’re black, this isn’t a word in your vocabulary. What’s that, Chip? Your black friends call you “the n-word”? I don’t care. No exceptions, don’t be a fuckwit and get off my damn lawn.
I bet you’re wondering what Level 2 is. What is more vulgar than “fuck” but doesn’t quite hit the same level of taboo as the n-word? What word straddles that fence, trudges through No Man’s Land, and veers from, “Well, okay,” to, “How DARE you?!” depending on the ears it assails?
The more moderate of Holy Trinity is “the C-word”.
“More moderate?” I can hear some of you ask. “That’s the worst word in any language ever! That word killed my father and burned all my crops! My family starved because of that word!”
Yes, depending on who you are, “cunt” carries with it different weights of vulgarity. If you were Germaine Greer, you’d say that “cunt” is the last known word in the English language that can provoke immediate disgust. When Francis Gross wrote A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1785, he couldn’t even write “cunt” down. Instead he wrote “c**t” and called it “a nasty name for a nasty thing.” Thanks Dude…
I’m not Germaine Greer (thank god) but I agree that there’s a distinct sexism in the hatred of the word “cunt”. That much is obvious. There is a fear that we have of the vagina, of what is traditionally a “woman’s body”. The vagina, way more than the penis, is dirty – truly a “private part.”
There’s not really any nice way to talk about vaginas. Penises get “cock” or “dick” which might also double as insults, but carry a certain strength to them. Kids with vaginas are thrown headfirst into “vagina”, only to later learn that their bodies are the ultimate insult. Nobody has ever been called “pussy” or “cunt” and had it mean anything other than an hate fuelled insult or an accusation of weakness.
If we hopped in a time machine and went back to when things like Latin mattered, we’d find out that vagina means sword sheath, which is pretty gross and awful. If we went in that same time machine to the early middle ages, we’d find that the melding of Germanic languages into Old English means that “cunt” is thrown around more casually than it is today. Even Chaucer uses it a bunch without blinking.
The actual etymology of “cunt” is up for debate. Origins like “squeeze”, “wedge”, “vulva”, or just “woman” have been suggested as root phrases.
Beyond literal definitions, if we accept “vagina” as the only legitimate word for the thing, then it means Latin has won! Won what? Linguistic supremacy! Let me give an example.
Up until the American Revolution, there were a whole load of immigrants and convicts coming in to the Americas. British convicts got a pretty good deal. Labour was in such high demand, that they could serve out their time doing some hard physical work and then go free. Everyone else? Not so much.
Enter the German Redemptioners. Redemptioners were European immigrants who would sell themselves into indentured servitude just to pay for the ship that brought them over. That’s a pretty rough ride. More than half of German immigrants were Redemptioners. Hello class divide!
Before this, there’s already a class difference between Latin languages and Anglo-Saxon languages. English, you might have noticed, is a pretty decent mixing pot. We’re Latin based but we borrow, beg, and steal (violently, with clubs, and sacks filled with doorknobs) vocabulary from other languages.
This class divide is why the word for beef, the meat we eat, comes from French, while cow, the animal you raise, comes from German. The rich people eat the meat, and the servants raise the cattle. Vagina, because it’s Latin, is high class. Cunt, because it’s Germanic, is low brow. You get me? So in America, and therefore the world, there grew, and grows, and has always grown, a class divide between Latin and non-Latin languages. It’s a conspiracy!
So, what does this all mean? Am I petitioning for all the textbooks to be changed, for “cunt” to become the new medical standby? Of course not, though that would be pretty funny. Besides, “cunt” makes such a good swear word. There’s something about how its bracketed by a velar and alveolar stop on either side – k-uh-n-t – how it looks like you’re taking a bite when you say it – cUNt – that makes it super satisfying, harsh, and quick, like karate-chopping someone in the throat.
What I am saying is that “cunt” has potential. If we limit its use to the Ultimate Insult of Dickishness, not only do we follow along with the sexist and classist bullshit narrative that’s been spun for it over a thousand years, but we miss out on an opportunity! Imagine a world where “cunt” is as versatile as “fuck”. Imagine a world where things went cuntingly that day, or you expressed surprise by saying holy cunt.
In this world, maybe “cunt” has lost its impact, and what used to feel like ripping a phonebook in half with your bare hands will feel like flicking someone on the nose. But maybe, as in all things, there’s a middle ground we can reach; a compromise, an apex, a meeting point. What I’m saying is, maybe we can get to the real cunt of it.
Barbara Taylor is a human being, probably. She's really into arguing vehemently for things she might not even care about that much. She refers to William Shakespeare, who died 400 years ago, as: "Bill, my son." Her Instagram is @OhWowBee and is mostly pictures of her dog. She writes, sometimes.