Four sounds, four letters. But what makes ‘c-u-n-t’ one of the most offensive words in English? VICTORIA TAMS gropes around for an answer.

See you next Tuesday. The word that makes many people’s spines shiver, muscles clench and hearts skip. ‘Cunt’ undoubtedly is a taboo word. This word stimulates much deliberation over why and how it has become one of the most offensive words in the English Language. Is it the combination of the four letters? Is it the combination of the four sounds? Is it the origins of the word? Is it the tone in which you say it? Let’s find out.

Usage of the word can be traced back to the 13th century in a street name in London called ‘Gropecuntelane’ where prostitutes were often found (OED online, 2017). Did it have negative connotations from the word go?

With regards to the sound, it has often been found that for a word to be offensive it needs to include plosive sounds to give it that sharp edge. Plosive sounds occur when the mouth passage is completely blocked, the pressure can build up behind the blockage and is released when the lips are separated. The basic plosives in English are [t], [k], and [p] (voiceless) and [d], [g], [b] (voiced) (Wajnryb, 2005, p.207). ‘Cunt’ contains two plosives – [k] and [t] – found in-between a vowel [ʌ] and nasal [n]. Could the phonetic structure of the word be the answer to why it holds the title as one of the most offensive words in the English Language?

Potentially, however, if it is just down to the phonemes then why isn’t ‘git’ seen to be as offensive? In OfCom’s 2016 list of offensive words, ‘git’ was only classified as a mildly offensive word compared to ‘cunt’ which was placed in the strongest category. Surely if it is down to the phonemes then ‘git’ would be placed in a stronger category as that too has the plosives [g] and [t] with vowel [ɪ]? This suggests that it may actually be down to more than just the sounds. However, Stephens (2015) does suggest that there could be a “plosiveness theory of swearing” which focuses on the specific combination of vowels and consonants, such as making a hard sound, contributes to the offensiveness of the word.

What about the combination of letters? How really is it possible for three consonants and a vowel to cause such offensive to hearers? If you look at the contraction of ‘cannot’, ‘can’t’ is just the same construction as ‘cunt’ but yet would be unlikely to have the potential to cause any sort of offence.

This leads us to consider that it must it be to do with the meaning behind the word. Although ‘cunt’ can be traced back to street name, it now is a term to refer to a woman’s genitals. This idea is supported by Allan and Burridge who also suggest that “sexual activity is tabooed as a topic for public display and severely constrained as a topic for discussion” (2006, p. 144). However, although this word refers to a woman’s genitals, so does ‘fanny’ (in the UK) or ‘vagina’ and neither of them have the same effect that ‘cunt’ does. ‘Cunt’ is on another level and somehow has the power to make people feel uncomfortable when they hear it.

Well that leads us to the tone in which you say the word, and whether ‘cunt’ can really ever be used as a term of endearment? Braier (2016) says that she loves the sound of the word when she says it, specifically that she loves the monosyllabic weight of it with the harsh consonants. She also says how her friends use it occasionally as a greeting “alright, you little cunt”. Does this suggest it could be considered as an acceptable word should it be a friend who says it? I’m sure my mother would completely disagree.

So maybe, after all then, ‘cunt’ is seen to be the most offensive word in the English Language due to the meanings and connotations it has occurred over the past years. It can also be said that maybe people are using it due to the pure satisfaction of knowing they have used one of the most offensive words. However, you can’t deny people are using it as a greeting term and get some sort of relief out of dropping that c-bomb.

VICTORIA TAMS, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Allan, K., Burridge, K. (2006). Forbidden words: taboo and the censoring of language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Braier, R. (2016, August 11). ‘In praise of the c-word’. The Guardian

OED Online. (2017). Oxford University Press.

Ofcom. (2016, September 30). Ofcom explores latest attitudes to offensive language.

Stephens, R. (2015). Black Sheep: The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad. John Murray.

Wajnryb, R. (2005). Expletive deleted: A good look at bad language. Simon and Schuster.

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One thought on “Four sounds, four letters. But what makes ‘c-u-n-t’ one of the most offensive words in English? VICTORIA TAMS gropes around for an answer.

  1. Anna Tollitt says:

    This was a really interesting blog post, Vicky, which raises a lot of good questions about what it is exactly that makes certain words more offensive than others. As a female myself who definitely shies away from saying ‘see you next Tuesday’ – as you put it! – myself, it was really eye-opening to read some of your proposals as to why the ‘c-word’ seems to remain one of the most offensive words in the English language.

    I had never heard of ‘Gropecuntelane’ before reading this, so that was interesting to learn. I was wondering, have you looked at any uses of that word/similar sounding words in archaic literature? Chaucer used the term “queynte” in Millers Tale in reference to seducing a woman (Rees, 2013) which sounds phonetically similar to the “c-word”, whilst the Latin term for “vulva” is “cunnus” which is again very similar. Do you think that these terms informed the conception of ‘Gropecuntelane’, or the other way round?

    Furthermore, I enjoyed the point you raised about Allan and Burridge’s (2006) assertion that sexual language – especially that which relates to female genitalia – being inherently more taboo than other types of swearing. Why do you think this is, considering the more more relaxed approach that modern generations have to female sexuality in comparison with earlier generations? Do you think that younger generations have less of a problem with the “c-word”, or is it still just as taboo?

    I also found your investigations into the plosive nature of “c*nt” quite interesting. Are words which contain plosives inherently more offensive? If so, how would you rank other-such plosive expletives such as “prick”, “fuck” and “dick”?

    Overall, you raised some thought-provoking points and I found the writing style of the blog thoroughly engaging. Thank you for an interesting read!

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