Mind your ‘fucking’ language. HANNAH RICHARDSON considers the creative, crude and cunning uses of the ‘c-word’

Warning: this post contains language which may offend

‘Cunt’.

Most people when confronted with ‘the c-word’ tend to have one of two reactions: grin and laugh childishly or grimace with shock and disgrace. How did you react when you read this as the first word of this blog? ‘Cunt’ is generally regarded as the most offensive swear word in the English language and has been thrown into a jail cell of taboo, never to be spoken or spoken of (Brown, 2016). Though its roots and core definition is of female genitalia and isn’t inherently offensive, this word still has the power to turn the air blue. So what is it that has everyone so scared of this four letter word?

Being used as early as 1230 in the London street name “Gropecunt Lane”, this word has continued to have an impact on the English language. In the middle ages, ‘cunt’ was used as a synonym for the vulva or vagina and variants were included in many great classics by famous writers. Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales used the word “queynte” throughout, and Shakespeare often used it to provide comedy, most notably in Hamlet with his reference to ‘country matters’ when addressing Ophelia, alluding to oral sex (Braier, 2016). So when did this word become such a taboo?

It was during the nineteenth century that language started to become censored, especially regarding public use. The etiquette of the time meant politeness and manners were considered highly important and reputation was a great priority. This left no room for any swear words, particularly those relating to sex or sexual organs; they were no longer considered a humorous topic. In this era, it was seen to be offensive if private matters of the marital bed were mentioned in public, especially to women and children who were seen as needing to be protected from such vulgarity. Children upon hearing this language could be exposed to ideas they do not need to know of yet and therefore would be inappropriate to use in their presence (Braier, 2016).

However, Victorian values were significantly different compared to today. Religion and saving sex for pro-creation was the order of the day and this therefore ruled out any offensive language from their vocabulary including obscenity or profanity, as it went against many of their religious values.

Since then, the word ‘cunt’ has trickled its way back into use in the public sphere. In the 1970s, there was a movement by the feminists to reclaim the word back as their own. Women felt that s they were the ones who owned and were in charge of the cunts of the world, they too should be able to use the word as they see fit. It was a movement that was trying to battle the misogyny of the word as it had become an insult which used a women’s own anatomy against her (Braier, 2016). In even more modern times, ‘cunt’ has found refuge in colloquial language, being used as a term of endearment for many. As a northerner, I find myself surrounded by it, used to describe anything from a slight inconvenience, to stubbing your toe to being annoyed with a friend. This word has become so commonly used, the Oxford Dictionary in 2014 added in ‘cunty’, ‘cuntish’, ‘cunted’ and ‘cunting’ (Braier, 2016).

Nevertheless, most TV shows and films still rarely use this word even after the 9pm watershed just in case it does offend its audience. Many people still find ‘cunt’ uncomfortable and will not use it, especially in front of the older generations. It appears that its offensive nature is passed on between generations as it is often referred to as the most unspeakable of swear words.

Despite this, it could be argued that the offensiveness of this word is related to how it is used. If I was to use the word ‘cunt’ in a sentence around my mother that had nothing to do with her, she may be shocked, but she would be far more upset, angry and offended if I was to call her one. Edwin L. Battistella wrote in his book Bad language: are some words better than others? (2005) that “the notion of offensive language is a variable one” and depends on the context in which is used. What we can deduce from all this is that language is arbitrary and we give meaning to our words. The degree of offensiveness depends on our own perceptions of what is offensive and in the intent of our use.

HANNAH RICHARDSON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Battistella, Edwin L. (2005). Bad language: are some words better than others? Oxford: Oxford University Press

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

Brown, J. (2016, October 4). Every British swear word has been officially ranked in order of offensiveness. 

 

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Should we say ‘boo’ to taboo words? GEORGE NETHERCOTT swears that context is crucial.

Offensive language has existed for hundreds of years. Throughout history there have been numerous words, phrases, and topics that many people consider foul, shocking, and offensive. They are taboo. But what is it that makes these simple words so bad? Why are they not treated in the same way as other words? How do these words have more power?

It appears that the ‘offensive’ factor comes down to semantics. It is the meaning of these words which create the stigma or taboo. Taboos, in particular, involve bodily functions, sweat, faeces, organs, sex acts, diseases, death, killing, objects, and viewing persons (Allan & Burridge, 2006, pp.1-2). All of the above are what most people would consider sensitive topics. Taboos are, therefore, forbidden from use and arise from social constraints. As a result, society collectively decides that these words are immoral, foul, and offensive (Battistella, 2005, pp.76-78).

An example of this ‘prohibition of words’ can be seen in the media. We encounter bad words on a variety of TV shows and movies. In many instances these words are ‘bleeped out’ or censored (Mohr, 2013, p246). However, there are cases where swearing is less constricted. Mohr (2013) suggests that the advances in media and technology create more exposure to language – and in particular bad words. People see more movies, TV, graphic magazines, and music. The threshold for swearing is increased. People can handle more bad words and are less shocked by them.

That being said there are still plenty of reasons to resist offensive language. Many people argue that language should be suitable for all listeners. Can we imagine the negative impact on young people and children who are exposed to bad language? This language is impolite, immoral, and daring. Some suggest that children will grow up to be less developed and unpleasant people (Battistella, 2005). Does bad language dilute our language?

In other cases, people argue that offensive language has a place in society. Offensive language actually has a purpose in our lexicon. Bad words can be used creatively and innovatively. This idea even goes back to Shakespeare and Chaucer who often used taboo words in their poems and plays. Would these plays be different without taboo words? Personally I believe that if they were removed from either Shakespeare, a comedy sketch, or a song, something would be missing. A poetic feature is gone. The uniqueness and creativeness would be almost non-existent. Furthermore, in some cases, swearing has been proven to relieve pain, anger, and frustration. We have all stumped our toes at least once in our lives, and most of us have screamed the ‘F-bomb’ multiple times. There is a relief and satisfaction in this. There is no coming back from it. Can anyone stop us from these instinctual outbursts? I believe no one can control what language a person may use. Imagine a world where there was a police department for ‘bad language’ – it’s ridiculous!

To conclude, offensive language has a time and place. Context is crucial. Different social situations may require a particular vernacular. Personally, I would find it inappropriate to swear at funeral or in a classroom and so would refrain from using such words. That being said, if I was in the pub with friends, swearing would be far more accepted. Different social situations influence one’s usage. As society moves forward, we may find that some words become less offensive and more appropriate to say. On the other hand, there may be new stigmas created which make other words more offensive. Society, in this regard, is very significant. Could it be possible that one day no particular word offends anyone?

GEORGE NETHERCOTT, English language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Allan, K., & Burridge, K. (2006). Forbidden words: Taboo and the censoring of language.            London, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Battistella, E. (2005). Bad language: are some words better than others?. New York, United States of America: Oxford University Press.

Mohr, M. (2013) Holy sh*t: A brief history of swearing. New York, United States of         America: Oxford University Press.