A journalist from Canada recently shared a video on Twitter in which she asked people in Manchester their opinion of Tommy Robinson (real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon). Two young people – one male, one female – replied immediately with the word “cunt”. The journalist was taken aback, and the video quickly racked up retweets and comments. So what’s going on here? Is the status of this notorious word changing?
Swearing is power language, a parallel vocabulary packed with emotion and social force. But its effects depend heavily on context: one person’s everyday expletive is another’s strict taboo. These differences also vary greatly across time and place. The strong religious swears in English in the Middle Ages are now mild in most places, though minced versions remain popular (jeepers, cripes, gosh).
Over time, taboos shifted from religion to sex and excretion: fuck, shit and company. Salient among them is cunt. “In the premier league of profanity,” Susie Dent tells us, “cunt has been dominating the table for over two centuries.” Yet it was not originally profane at all. It was once routine enough to appear in street names, surnames, even medical books. “In the 14th century cunt was standard English for the female pudendum,” writes Jane Mills in Womanwords. A century later it was still “the standard way to define vulva”, according to Melissa Mohr in Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing.
Attitudes then began to change, and cunt became taboo. Slang lexicographer Eric Partridge notes it was “avoided in written and polite English” – though Shakespeare snuck it in anyway. Later it became obscene by law. Partridge’s forerunner Francis Grose, in his 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, defined it – nastily – as “a nasty name for a nasty thing”. The OED prudishly omitted it from its first edition but caught up in 1972 and has fared better in recent years, adding the adjectives cunted, cunting, cuntish and cunty in March 2014. (The authoritative Green’s Dictionary of Slang catalogues a great variety of such terms.)
“By the early 20th century cunt has acquired a layer of hatred in its meaning,” Kate Warwick writes in an exploration of the word’s offensive power, describing how phonetics and connotation contribute to that effect. Germaine Greer’s influential Female Eunuch (1970) deemed it “the worst name anyone can be called”, and many would still agree. Surveys by broadcasting standards authorities in different English-speaking countries consistently place it at or near the top of their offensiveness charts.
But profanity is determined socially, which traditionally has meant locally, and in certain dialects cunt has little or no shock value. For some speakers of Australian English, Irish English and British (especially Scottish) English, it is an ordinary element of their speech. In Scotland it’s even becoming a pronoun. There are socioeconomic implications: “Even within England,” writes Ally Fogg, “it is used more commonly the further you get (both geographically and socio-politically) from the ruling class and the bourgeoisie.”
Its casual use can be hard to adjust to if your culture categories it as a serious, misogynistic slur. In dialects where cunt is less taboo, it’s often used of men, typically as an insult but also with affection. That doesn’t rid it of its gender-markedness, though (any more than “guys” has become gender neutral) simply because some people use it that way. As Lynne Murphy writes, “The shift from feminine to masculine in BrE is part of a more general tendency to use words for women (or our parts) as the ultimate way to put down a man. Which sums up the status of womanhood in our culture rather neatly.”
There are signs that cunt’s taboo is decreasing slightly in North America, or at least parts of it. Feminist efforts to reclaim it gained momentum through Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues, while Michael Adams has tracked its re-appropriation on American TV – though he concludes that the examples don’t yet constitute a trend.
The word’s occurrence in high-profile shows such as Game of Thrones may reduce its profane power, if only a little, but the greater influence of religious and social conservatism will preserve the taboo’s strength. In language use we take our cues from family, friends and peers far more than from pop culture. One swallow doesn’t make a summer, and even a couple of swears doesn’t break a taboo.
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