So I got into an interesting discussion with Lynn Flewelling the other day, on Twitter,
after I linked back to an old post on profanity. We got talking about the differences between UK and US usages of the word "cunt," but Twitter character limits don't really make it a good place for such talk, and while Lynn brought it up on her LiveJournal,
I prefer to avoid the fracturing of nested comment threads; I think they snarl discussion and fuel the misunderstandings and frustrations that lead to shitstorms. I did figure I'd take another run at this though, to try and clarify my position, cause some of the comments Lynn got are, I think, missing the point and glossing over the situation with vague assertions as to how "cunt" is
the Big Bad in the UK too and known to be "against women". I don't actually dispute that it's the Big Bad here -- that would be silly -- but rather what I think needs to be pointed up is how it differs in import and application, that this changes precisely how it works in relation to women. Like all rhetoric I think it's crucial to understand exactly what's going on here down in the nitty-gritty of it. So with that in mind let's get to grips with this "cunt" and see if a bit of context makes where I'm coming from seem a tad more sensible.
Cunt as anatomy
Cunt. A Gropecunt Lane is recorded in London, back in days of yore. Chaucer used "queynte" in the anatomical sense in his Canterbury Tales. Back in the 1500s, I believe, the word was used in the phrase "the cunt of a cow," as pure anatomical descriptor, without a hint of rudeness. That's the root as far back as we know it, just plain old anatomy. Cunt. There's no essential hatred of women coded into the combination of those four phonemes in that order. Listen to the "Reclaiming Cunt" section of The Vagina Monologues and you'll hear the poetry in those plosives, the sexiness. Kih. Uh. Nn. T. Cunt.
No, the word itself is not
"just ugly"; that's the rhetoric of rationalisation, an irrational disgust glossed over with the spurious self-justification that it's not a taboo, honest, just the aesthetics of the sounds. Cause, yeah, the word "country" really brings that kneejerk response out in us too, doesn't it? No? No, it's just a typical English word, like "punt" or "bunt," "cant" or "count." It's not some perfect storm of phonic dissonance that just so happens to be attached to female genitalia. Cunt. What's the big deal?Cunt as vulgarity
Compare piss, crap, shit. These are also perfectly good words for what they signify, with no inherent offensiveness in their roots. Shakespeare uses "piss" as an unloaded term, might as well be talking about "urine". The King James Bible uses it alongside "dung" -- that's the register it has in the era before we started pussy-footing around such functions with Latinate sophistications. Still, all these terms are of a common parlance, vulgar in the literal sense -- of the common people -- and so they start to serve as markers of the mob, the rude mechanical's indelicacy. Piss, crap, shit. Cock, cunt, arse.
It's that vulgarity that makes "shit" taboo by Shakespeare's day. It's all to do with biology, of course, those basic functions that undermine our precious dignity, assert our equality not just with each other but with the brute beasts of the field. That's the deliberately crude message of Swift's "Celia shits," in which the vulgar reality of it all is rammed home: for all our elegance and etiquette and erudition and whatnot, we drop turds in the toilet bowls as surely as any dog does a dump in the gutter. The scatalogical humour of Rabelais's pages-long arse-wiping riff in Gargantua is similarly an exploitation of the tension created by testing such taboos.
It's the basic transgressive nature of this sort of vulgarity that Shakespeare's exploiting in his puns on "cunt" in Twelfth Night and Hamlet, on the one hand like a schoolkid giggling at "Klingons round Uranus" (in Twelfth Night,) or on the other hand, (in Hamlet,) with his protagonist flouting decorum to a deliberately unnerving effect. Still, it is all just a matter of decorum. Where Sterne uses "cunt" in A Sentimental Journey in reference, or where Burns relegates it to his unpublished bawdy verse, both are using it as "earthy" language precisely in challenge to that decorum; it's no more demeaning to women in those works than "cock" is to men or "arse" is to... well, all
humans. The transgression is only a denial of delicacy, a rejection of sexual shame, an assertion that, yes, we are animals that fuck, creatures with cocks and cunts. We shouldn't acknowledge that? We should shy away from gutter-talk that conjures up these "private parts" as is? We should mask them with a fig-leaf of euphemism or Latinate formality?
Bollocks to that.Cunt as obscenity
Compare the development of taboos around cock and arse as we move into the period of Puritanism. The latter is standard for buttocks until the mid-late 1600s, a vulgarity from 1700s on, according to the Routledge Dictionary of Historical Slang, seldom printed in full but rather rendered "ar--". With the former? Prissiness about "cock" becomes sufficient that words like "apricot," "haystack" and "weathervane" arise in that period as replacements for "apricock," "haycock" and "weathercock." For fuck's sake.
This is a step on in disacknowledging our animality, our flesh; terms for both male and female genitalia are seen not just as crude vulgarities but as crass obscenities -- to be excised, excluded. There's a subtle distinction here: where the vulgar is to be used only by the coarse and common, or only when one is being bawdy, the obscene is not to be used at all -- literally it's that which belongs off-scene
. So we see male chickens become "roosters". So we see surnames changed to eliminate even the indelicate syllable. So Alcock becomes Alcott in this prissiness, for example, as per the family of Louisa May Alcott, which went from Alcock to Alcocke to Alcox -- in 1799 -- and then to Alcott with her father.
In that context, there's a strong case that we're dealing with a (particularly Puritan) prudery that is less misogynist than it's simply neurotic about all
those biological functions and the anal and genital organs that carry them out. Or rather, what is misogynist is not the obscenity of "cunt" per se, but rather the weighting of "cunt" as more
obscene than "cock," the fact that it's at the forefront of this taboo formation. (Fletcher and Massinger, in 1622, refer to writing "sunt with a C, which is abominable.") It's no accident, I'd hazard, that this taboo emerges in a culture which seats sin in the materiality of the world, the "weak" flesh and sexual desire, with women blamed as a gender for Man
kind's fall from grace.
The crucial point here, however, is that it's the taboo that manifests and propagates the misogyny.
To be shocked by "cunt" in that anatomical use is to buy in to that hierarchy of shame, when the cunt should be no more or less obscene than the cock. It is to buy into the semiotic subjugation of women that's enforced via that disparity. Where the taboo around "cock" has been dismantled -- or simply eroded -- by the stubborn persistence of those who refused to kowtow to prudery, not doing the same for "cunt" means accepting the inequity. Cocks are just cocks. Arses are just arses. Both are... "naughty parts" to be euphemised if you're of a delicate sensibility. But cunts... they're obscene
Worse than mere acceptance of this is the unexamined response that bluntly rejects "cunt" as a word, expressly damns it as offensive in its very nature; where the rejection is wholesale, eschewing even the earthiness of anatomical use, this is not just accepting but enforcing
that disparity. That's not feminism; it's a patriarchal shell game in which the misogynist taboo is playing you for a sucker. To cordon it off as a special case is not countering some essential misogyny in the word; it's creating
that misogyny by (re)asserting a boundary born of the male gaze, a gender dynamic in which women are Other, virgins and/or whores, their "private parts" a veiled font of sacred/profane mystery. Cloistered. Walled. Guarded by white knights.
This is the problem with a timid concern that one might offend women simply by using the word. The offense is almost certain. That's the whole fucking point of the taboo, to write into the language itself an absolute law that, of all God's creatures, women are such precious flowers of chaste decorum -- or should be, at least -- that to even speak of their sexual capacities is to sully that ideal. They need to be protected from being outraged by those bawdy songs of cocks and cunts. Not that those bawds could be women themselves, of course; women don't get to be bawds, just virgins or whores, with "private parts" or "cunts." Only a whore would call her cunt a cunt the way a man would call his cock a cock. So goes the story being sold anyways: you
don't have a cunt, dear; only whores
have cunts; and you're
not a whore
, are you, dear?
But OK, what about when "cunt" is used as a direct insult? Isn't that patently misogynist?Other vulgarities exapted to epithet
Again, compare "cock." Shakespeare uses "cock" as a substitute for "Christ," in "by Cock's passion" (The Taming of the Shrew) or "by cock" (Hamlet) -- and in an interesting parallel to the modern use of "by fuck" or "for fuck's sake," I might add -- but it's not really an epithet there. In 1639, it is
used as an epithet for a plucky fighter in the phrase "old cock," but this is appreciative, much like D.H. Lawrence has "my young cock" as affectionate term of address. With phrases like "cock of the walk" or "cock of the club" the "rooster" meaning seems key, with that spunky spirit playable as bold or bullying. From 1715, there's "cockalorum" as a "confident little man," which again suggests it's the strutting of the cockerel that's at play. As I understand, we see a gradual shift in the meaning of "cocky," from "horny" to "(over)confident" that's in line with this, providing a root for the modern use of "cock" as an epithet (also "dick" or "prick," applying the same basic rhetoric) as the bullying sense overtakes the boldness. Where we call someone a "total cock," there's no crude metonymic dismissal at play here as one might get in a phrase like "penis with legs"; the sense of bluster and braggadocio is born of a more complex semiotics.
The use of "arse" as an epithet shows a similar collision of signifiers and signifieds, with idiots figuratively "making an ass of themselves" (in the donkey sense) back in the 1580s. That animal "ass" may well have been connected to the buttocks sense of "arse" as early as Shakespeare's Nick Bottom, it seems, but the animal symbol is in use in Aesop and Apuleius. It's not some metonymic slander we're constructing when we call someone an arsehole, nor a metaphor based on the qualities of the buttocks or anus. If we might say they're figuratively "full of shit" this is a post facto rationalisation of the "arse" that only latterly bound to "ass," the animal symbolic of stupidity all the way back to antiquity.
My key point is that these aren't essentially metonymic insults, or at least that's not how the historical development looks. The bold, brash, bullying "total cock" isn't a man being reduced to his genitalia. The bumbling and oafish "total arse" isn't a person being reduced to their buttocks. Rather the insults emerge from combining the semiotics of animals as symbols with the vulgarity impact of those coarse and common anatomical terms. Leastways, that's how I read it. And as an engrained strategy of swearing, it seems to come to fruition only in the 19th-20th century. It's only latterly that words like "cock," "arse," "dick," "prick," "fanny," "twat" and so on are exapted to epithets.Cunt exapted to epithet
The use of "cunt" as an epithet doesn't have any clear lineage that I can find, and it takes two distinct forms. One is a gender-specific metonymic use, which Routledge compares to Romany "minsh," meaning vagina and woman. Loaded with contempt, the misogyny here is clear. This is McMurphy's term of loathing for Nurse Ratchett in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the descriptor of the empowered woman as a "castrating bitch." It's the big gun to be pulled out by any anti-feminist in the face of an assertive woman. There's no question that this is about reducing women to their genitalia, erasing identity. One "joke" using that sense asks why God invented yeast infections, the answer being: so women would also know what it's like to live with an irritating cunt. Lovely.
The other epithet use is more complex though. It's similarly a big gun, an insult of last resort, but it's not metonymic, not even gender-specific. In the UK, actually, I'd hazard that "cunt" in this sense is more regularly used about men -- and for many exclusively
used about men, indeed. The earliest usage Wikipedia gives for this is in WW1, as represented by Australian veteran, Frederick Manning, in The Middle Parts of Fortune (1929), with soldiers in the trenches referring to each other as "cunts." An earlier American usage from 1860 is comparable though: "And when they got to Charleston, they had to, as is wont / Look round to find a chairman, and so they took a Cu--"
There's no impugning of masculinity to "cunt" here, note; the meaning coded into the word in those contexts is, like modern UK/Australian usage, basically equivalent to that of the obsolete "cur". (Interestingly, the period in which "cunt" apparently emerges in this sense coincides with the last gasps of "cur" in writers like Mark Twain. I can't help wondering if all these epithets are grabbing from the domain of anatomical vulgarity in order to replace depleted words like "blackguard" and "dullard.") Like "cur," UK/Aus "cunt" is applied on the basis of callous, self-serving aggression, a malicious nature that takes "total cock" to a new level. If anything, the notion invoked by "total cunt" in this use maps pretty much perfectly to the archetype of masculinity-gone-wrong, the term "macho cunt" more of a tautology than an oxymoron.
In this usage then, the logic of that "joke" above is weak as hell; it would work better turned around, asking why a woman with a yeast infection doesn't want a man, the answer being: because she's already living with an irritating cunt. As far as the stereotypes of the war-of-the-sexes go, UK "cunt" is a shoe that fits the male chauvinist pig more than any misogynist stereotype.
This is not to say that the UK use of the epithet is completely absent misogyny, la la la. We're dealing with a culture of swearing as homosocial bonding, swearing by
men. That means "unladylike" language excluded from female use, and it means language that the most f'ing and blinding foul-mouthed bloke would insist is not to be used "in front of the ladies," women's sensibilities being too delicate for such things. It's a mechanism of moral policing then, in which paternalism is more of an issue than the blatant misogyny of the US "cunt."
It's a culture, in fact, in which exactly those misogynist behaviours that would lead to one being dubbed a blackguard, a bounder, a cad, a cur, in earlier eras or more sophisticated circles, will quite possibly lead to the condemnation of "cunt." Coded into the very meaning of "cunt" in UK parlance is a criticism of empowerment/entitlement that has rendered it inherently more applicable to the knavish knobhead, largely inapplicable to the "weaker sex" who must be protected from such things by white knights. A "cunt" is someone in a position to "take the utter piss" with their reprehensible behaviour, and someone with the arrogance to care not a jot that they're doing so. Calling women cunts in the US sense? Man, that's nigh on the definition
of a cunt in UK parlance.
The point is that the US gender-specific usage is a term of blatantly hostile bigotry paralleling "nigger" and "faggot," but the UK usage is operating in a deeply different way. Like "cock" and "arse," it's an exaptation of the anatomical term and its vulgarity impact to a general-use epithet -- one that functions as an accusation of specific failings rather than a simple labeling as Other. What misogyny it carries comes solely from that disparity between the weightings of "cock" and "cunt" or in the ironic paternalism of how it is not
used against women. And the fact that this is not a metonym of womanhood being applied as metaphoric insult to a man -- in stark contrast to the US (and increasingly UK) term "pussy" -- probably plays no small part in the obliviousness of many British men to even that dodgy gender dynamic.
The UK "cunt" just doesn't parse to any sense of vaginal or feminine qualities being applied to a person, no more than "talking bollocks" parses to a sense of testicular or masculine qualities to one's speech. The fact that "cunt" is more powerful than "cock" or "arse" by far will likely be read as happenstance in the context that also includes "tit" and -- more pertinently -- "twat" or "fanny" at the lowest end of the scale as terms for fools, less contemptuous than "dick" or "prick." Shifts in language have dismantled the taboos around those two signifiers of female anatomy -- in the UK at least -- and while the anatomical meaning of the former may be, in part, simply obscured by a collision with "twit," the latter continues to refer to the vagina in the UK, rather than to the buttocks as in US English. As swear words all inhabit distinct domains -- c.f. the religious curse ("damn you") and the disease-based curse ("a pox on you,") which was searing in its day but is now all but obsolete -- so a UK swearer can instantly recognise the anatomical domain that binds all these examples. Singling "cunt" out as a special case is likely to be baffling to someone unaware of the targeted bigotry of the US use. So it happens to be the most extreme of its ilk? "Twat" is arguably the least
Accepting that this is expedient complacency however, in the face of a reality in which "cock" and "arse" were restored to the language fairly painlessly, while "cunt" was absent even from the dictionary until 1965, there's a hard reality to face that "cunt" is
still the worst thing you can call someone. Nevertheless, we're left here with a misogyny more subtle than the racist and homophobic rhetoric of abjection in "nigger" and "faggot." One which is predicated on non-use rather than use, one which asserts the Otherness of women via the prohibition of "cunt"
in contradistinction to "cock." This is not about directly abjecting abuse; it's about the fact that all but one of those taboos around our fleshly bits and bobs have been mostly deactivated, about the fact that, not surprisingly, it's the taboo around women's sexuality that remains.
By Cunt's passion, I think that's fucked-up.Cunt as familiarity
There's another facet to UK usage that's pertinent here -- "cunt" can be and is used familiarly and affectionately between men in a parallel to the older UK "cock," stripped of all meaning/import other than any modifier, which might as easily be appreciative as derogatory. A "clever cunt" is just clever, a "silly cunt" just silly; "cunt" in both terms is interchangeable with "git," "sod," "bugger" and a host of other epithets depleted by constant use in homosocial badinage. Just as "sod" has lost any meaning for most as an abbreviation of "sodomite," as few would have any idea that "git" comes from Scots "get" and implies illegitimacy, so "cunt" has been brought into the sort of process that, taken to fruition, can transform a word from vitriolic hate-speech to the vacuity of "you old so-and-so."
If we can criticise the dubiety of banter like "you dozy bugger" for its anitquated homophobic foundations, the end result remains a thorough evacuation of rhetorical force from that word; it is no longer even remotely as effective in enforcing heteronormativity as it once was. Those who attempt to use it as homophobic insult, in fact, largely mark themselves out as risibly out-of-step by doing so. It's not just that the reactionary discourse they assert is obsolete; its conflict with the new semiotics invokes the application of
that new semiotics, the reinforcement of progressive, anti-bigoted meanings in their reassertion. That homophobe is, in the discourse of modern swearing, "a fucking stupid old sod." The misogynist who does metonymically regard women as "pussy" to be "got" (and in the doubly depersonalised collective of "some
pussy") is, in the discourse, "a complete twat."
It goes both ways, of course. Retrogade meanings can emerge, as with the twisting of "gay" to mean "lame." Mild as it is, that's about as progressive as ribbing someone for penny-pinching with "that's so Jewish." But faced with that sort of bigoted secondary meaning, assuming Sodomites like myself find that use of the word deeply objectionable and Othering, that doesn't mean the word itself is essentially homophobic and therefore to be avoided at all costs. To assert that is to sacrifice the field. Suspend all usage of "gay" because one usage binds the meanings of "homosexual" and "lame," render it taboo as if the sequence of sounds is inherently unspeakably hateful, and you make that its meaning.
That 1860 American usage of "cunt" as epithet, but apparently in the current UK sense, might well indicate that it's something of this sort that happened with "cunt" in the US. While the UK-style use was no doubt the big gun of insults back then, I mean, rather than a positively-loaded term like "gay," it seems possible that the US gender-specific "cunt" as outright misogynist hate-speech usurped a use that would at least primarily apply it to men, particularly to the sort of scurrilous curs who spew misogynist hate-speech. And a use that, in the process of depletion-via-badinage that's taken place here in the UK, tends towards its redefinition as meaningless jocular familiarity.
It doesn't seem a wild speculation to me that the victory of "cunt" as a rhetorical weapon against "uppity bitches" may have been facilitated by the abandonment of "cunt" as a rhetorical weapon against scurrilous curs... because those most likely to slap down an unmitigated blackguard as a "cunt" would be those most concerned with not offending the "fairer sex." Take a culture of swearing that operates by "not in front of the ladies" paternalism, in which "cunt" is already the last
word even the crudest bloke would use amongst "polite company" because, why, those demure damsels can only be outraged at the invocation of their "lady parts"; persuade those white knights that this isn't a misogynist taboo in its own right
but a taboo against a word somehow intrinsically "demeaning" to such "ladies" (because, for the love of Cock, it mentions their unmentionables); and suddenly you have your white knights exercising an embargo, establishing a linguistic line... the crossing of which can be done with a single syllable by any blackguard who wants to verbally slap a woman in the face.
This is my point: it's not that the UK or Australia are somehow paradises free of misogyny, nor even that the use of "cunt" in these cultures doesn't manifest any misogyny at all, but that the issue is a whole lot gnarlier. It may be entirely arse-backwards
from a feminist perspective to simply brand "cunt" a misogynist no-no in cultures where, stripped of that "bitch whore" woman-hating direct-targeting of the venom, it looks rather as if the real misogyny resides in rendering a signifier of women's sexuality unspeakable
. Where the shock value of the word is, it seems, bootstrapped into existence by persuading men -- and even more so women -- that one should be shocked to the depths of one's soul by such shameful impropriety. Lady parts! Let us not speak of such things!
I mean, as someone brought up in a working-class Scottish culture where swearing is part of the fucking rhythm of one's fucking breath, where 'cunt' is often a term of affection, such notions of impropriety seem, to be blunt, utter bollocks. You want shock though? The American usage of "cunt" was utterly
alien to me when I first encountered it, and utterly abhorrent when I realised that, yes, for some deeply fucked-up-to-fucking-fuck reason, men in the US genuinely used "cunt" like a fucking racist Nazi fucktard spitting, "kike" at a Jew with the audacity to confront their holocaust denial. Seriously. "Cunt" is, for sure, the Doomsday Insult in discourse here in the UK as much as in the US, but to equate the way it operates in the UK with the way it operates in the US... it's like equating "cretin" as an insult spat at some idiot who's screwed up your life and "cretin" as an insult aimed at someone with congenital hypothyroidism whose cardinal crime is that they repulse you to the cold depths of your rotted heart. Jesus Fucking Cunt!
The distinct differences in usage in these non-US cultures means that we cannot simply assume an American paradigm, not least if to assume it is to impose
it. If, as I'd argue, the UK and Australian paradigm is at very least free of "cunt" as a term comparable to "nigger" or "faggot," blindly accepting a taboo on "cunt" as misogynist hate-speech here may be like blindly accepting that we should henceforth stop using "arselicker" because it is and can only be a grossly homophobic slur vis-a-vis the practice of rimming. All that would achieve is to kill the "ingratiating toady" meaning and put a new tool in the homophobe's arsenal (no pun intended) of insults. Score one for the bigots.
At the end of the day? If the discourse is aimed at tackling misogyny, it's undeniable that "cunt" carries a "bitch whore slut monster" meaning in one use, but if we suspend all uses of the word on that basis, we're surrendering all other meanings, surrendering it to the misogynist fucks who'll happily use it with that meaning now here in the UK, when previously if they'd done so they'd have been called "cunts" for it. This doesn't seem like an ideal strategy to me. It's like surrendering "gay" rather than reclaiming "queer."
Maybe I'm being a daft cunt
here, pissing into the wind, but sod it
, the UK culture in which those two italicised phrases in this sentence are equally innocuous seems an infinitely preferable paradigm to me.