Warning: this post contains language which may offend
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