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Posted by on Apr 2, 2013 in Culture, Debate | 19 comments

The dreaded c-word

There’s some online controversy this morning over the use of the word “cunt” – since a popular comedian used it recently and apparently upset some people.

Let me say immediately that it is a word that I almost never use (though I might mention it, as in this post, for the purpose of talking about it as a linguistic item). On the rare occasions that I do use it, it will be in its primary sense of female genitals (and the genital area) and only in the company of other people who are comfortable with using the word in that sense. So it would be in some context where, for some reason or other, we really are talking about body parts. However, subject to one thing I’ll say below, I never use the word in any other way. In particular, I don’t use it as an insult or a term expressing hostility, and when I see it or hear it used such ways I inwardly wince.

However, my reasons for this are rather complicated and personal. I am an Australian from a working class background, from an industrial city, and from the baby boom generation. I have a certain set of life experiences, have moved within certain social milieux, and so on. My experiences, including my experiences of certain words, may not match yours. To some extent, my experiences will match those of people from similar backgrounds, but to some extent they will be idiosyncratic. I’m very conscious of all this before I tell other people what to do or say.

I have not lived an especially sheltered life. On the contrary, I have experienced my share of humiliations, intimidation, and outright violence. I went to fairly tough state schools where harsh words like “fuck” and “cunt” were employed freely, and I’ve spent time in the ship repair and steelmaking industries where those words seemed to pepper every sentence from most of the workers. Dockers and steel workers are not especially genteel people.

So, how was the word used in my personal experience? Well, sometimes (especially by girls or women) simply with its primary meaning. But the more common meanings in male-dominated environments were:

1. A synonym for “bloke” or “guy”, but with the suggestion of a callous attitude toward the person spoken about, and a certain don’t-mess-with-me macho posturing on the part of the person speaking. As in, “Look at that cunt – what the fuck does he think he’s doing?” So, I associate the word with a certain unpleasant kind of male posturing.

2. As a word meaning something like “truly horrible person (in some way that is not particularly being expressed)”. In this usage, it was about the worst insult, or expression of hostility, you could use, pretty much a precursor to physical violence. At the least, it was an expression that the person spoken to or about was so bad as to deserve ill-treatment. It was an insult of real intensity that didn’t have any parallels with other words. If you called someone a “prick”, for example, it suggested they were obnoxious in some way (perhaps selfish, or unnecessarily hostile), but the word “prick” had nowhere near the same near-violent intensity about it. So, I associate the word “cunt” with a kind of menace that borders on violence.

Note that the word was used in those senses only of boys or men. In my personal experience it was never used of girls or women. I’m not claiming that that is the experience of all Australians or all Australians from my generation or social class; I’m speaking only of my personal experience with the word.

It also hasn’t escaped me that there is something objectionable about using a word whose primary meaning relates to the female genitals for the most intense possible expression of hatred or hostility. As a feminism-positive man (and a man who simply likes women), I find that that sits badly with me. And in any event, I associate the word with a culture with a rather callous attitude toward women. The word “misogyny” may be thrown around too freely at the moment, but there was at least a element of misogyny in this culture (not to mention violent homophobia and other unpleasant things that I could save for another day).

In the upshot, I have nothing against the word in its primary sense – a sense which my female friends also use when the topic arises. But it has all sorts of bad associations for me when used in other senses, especially as an insult. I associate it with a callous, posturing, often violent, somewhat misogynist male culture that I’m happy to have escaped.

Note that I have never heard the word in real-life interactions in the way that I’m assured is common in Australia: “You cunts are all right!” or “I love you cunts!” I.e., more or less as a synonym for “guy” (including women this time), but with a certain gruff affection. I’m familiar with the usage from books, for example, and I do sometimes use it jokingly, but I’ve never been in a milieu where people talk like that and not as a joke. On the other hand, I know very well that the usage exists in Australia and the UK – no argument about that. We all have different experiences.

This is only meant as a personal explanation for my dislike of the word (particularly when used in a certain way). It is not intended to be binding on anyone else. It is not intended to tell you to suppress your personality if part of that personality involves using the word in ways that I don’t… well, perhaps you can bear the above in mind if you’re talking to me, but that’s not compulsory. For myself, I am quite capable, up to a point, of entering imaginatively into other people’s dialects and idiolects – after all, I am quite capable of understanding that, say, a seventeenth-century poem uses a different vocabulary from, say, a modern novel, and of switching between modes when reading them. Coping with different forms of modern English is not that difficult, even though I’ll sometimes make mistakes. I’ll try to err on the side of charity.

There are, I’m told, still other usages. Sometimes the word is apparently used to mean a particularly obnoxious woman. Sometimes it is apparently used as a derogatory term simply for “woman” (analogous to a word that I never use, though I am about to mention it, such as “nigger”). Obviously I deplore the latter usage in particular, although I have never heard it in Australia, even among dockers or steel workers who use the word “cunt” freely. On the other hand, The Macquarie Dictionary gives support to this usage being present here in Australia, so go figure.

If I threw the word around in my own milieu, other than in its primary sense, I’d feel that I was giving support to certain nasty cultural attitudes: attitudes that valorise male “toughness” or machismo, involve a callous stance toward women, etc. So I don’t do that. What you do is up to you, though, again, you might bear in mind that some people have my sort of experience with the word, or even worse experiences with it in which it involves a more clear-cut, even extreme, kind of misogyny.

We all need to make some allowance for cultural differences here, trying to understand how the word is being used and received by others from varied backgrounds. I think about the most ungenerous (and just plain puerile) thing to do is deliberately use the word over and over just to annoy someone from a different culture with a much worse experience of it. But it’s also ungenerous (not to mention parochial or culturally imperialist) to assume that your own culture is the only one, and to draw highly adverse conclusions about people from another culture because of a word that they use in a different sense from the one that bugs you. In a globalised world, there has to be some give and take all round.

Enough! And don’t even start me on any other controversial words, you bastards.

  • My experience in the UK is very similar to yours in Australia. You almost never hear a woman called a ‘cunt’ here, and if you do it sounds rather wrong (like calling a woman a ‘bastard’). Nevertheless, I don’t deny that there seems to be a misogynistic usage too, perhaps largely confined to the US.

  • What?!? You dared to talk calmly and with civility about a word that third-wave feminists hate and want nobody not to say or even mention?

    Be careful, because if the Atheist Alliance International were to link to this post, you’d have a shitstorm coming your way, like Vjack experience firsthand:

  • There is no other word around which the concept of “cultural imperialism” is more crystalline. Should have a look at this –

  • RussellBlackford

    Just a word to the wise, folks. I’d rather have a discussion of the issue of this person (the comedian) using the word, and the general proprieties, and your experiences or perceptions, without naming names of people who have allegedly acted badly in the past, etc.

    While some people will take themselves as having been criticised in the original post, it is not in a way that is searchable, so no one’s reputation is getting trashed here. I’m interested in having a discussion of words and behaviours – a discussion of the kind that we might see more often if not for Elevatorgate, Deep Rifts, etc. Try to minimise the extent to which those things get brought into our conversation. The topic is surely of some intrinsic and general cultural importance, irrespective of Elevatorgate or Deep Rifts.

  • Charles Sullivan

    In the States, “cunt’ is definitely not a synonym for “guy”. If a man calls another man a ”cunt” it’s more like calling him a faggot; fighting words.

    Calling a woman a cunt is the States is like calling her a bitch x 10, like a filthy smelly bitch. perhaps.

    I once knew a man from Scotland in his 60s who I saw at times at a pub in the States (he was living in the US), and in casual conversation among white American male college students he referred to African-Americans as “Darkies”. Some of us tried to explain why we had a problem with that, but he didn’t see the problem since those people were actually dark-skinned. Plus, his memories from home told him that no one seemed to objected to it there, so it couldn’t be insulting. He thought we were being to sensitive.

    The worst insult I could find online relating to Euro-Aussie insults toward Australian Aborigines is “Boong” (or Bung). If it is really insulting or degrading, then that would dissuade me from adopting as a euphemism for “Aboriginal Americans”.

    If, however, we in the States already used the word “Boong” to refer to aboriginal Americans and you told me that it was highly offensive in Australia to Australian aborigines (or anyone, really), then I might consider not using the word because it offends.

    What makes this scenario possible is the internet in its international aspects. It’s fun to discover that a napkin is a diaper, or that a cookie is a biscuit, but when words like nigger, cunt, and boong are at play, maybe in this world wide web we should defer to those who find the words insulting and not use them in international forums, but keep it local, like at the local pub.

  • Coel

    I agree with Notung that UK usage is pretty much in line with the Australian usage that you outline. I’ve never heard the word used in the UK as an insult for a female, only for men (meaning a particularly arrogant, selfish, aggressive, likely-violent sort of man).

    How did the word come to have that association? I suspect that from its sexual meaning it became a verboten and extreme word. And then, as an extreme word, it became available as an extreme insult. In the insult usage (in the UK) it doesn’t really carry intent to demean women.

  • keddaw

    “I think about the most ungenerous (and just plain puerile) thing to do is deliberately use the word over and over just to …”

    1. desensitise society to the use of the word and so rob it of all meaning and power that it has?

    2. reject the very notion that there is such a thing as a “bad” word and people should grow up and not get in a moral quandry over a sound?

    3. own the word and remove it from those who would abuse it?

    4. disabuse people of the notion that everyone who uses a certain word is either a racist or a misogynist?

    5. shock people from their slumber so that one can make one’s point more forcefully?

  • Isn’t it enough that it’s on the Freethought Blogs Index of Forbidden Words (due to its gendered, misogynist nature)? Surely every asshole ought to realize how offensive it is, and if not there’s a rusty porcupine available to shove up their asses.

  • RussellBlackford

    Okay, Brian, I get that that’s irony. But please let’s see if we can discuss the substantive issue without dragging up the rights and wrongs of Elevatorgate, the atmosphere at Freethought Blogs, etc. If I ever want to discuss those things, I’ll have a separate post about them.

    Unfortunately, one result of Elevatorgate and its aftermath is that it can be very difficult discussing some of the topics that interest me without the discussion being overshadowed by various wars in the secular movement… with the prospect that any relevant blog post I write will create a flame war on the comment thread (which I’d like to avoid) or lead to attacks on my character, etc., from other sites (which I can’t do much to prevent, but don’t especially want). There’s a chilling effect, but I’d still like to discuss some of those topics from time to time.

    Some of you will recall that at the height of the original Elevatorgate controversy one of the things I got into trouble for was asking (in a comment on Miranda Hale’s blog, I think it may have been) for a more nuanced discussion of certain controversial words. Well, I still think it should be possible to discuss them (and our attitudes to them) in a careful and civil way, as I tried to do in the original post… and the occasion came up this time with the very recent incident involving Tim Minchin. So can we please have that discussion on its merits, without it turning into yet another rehash of the rights and wrongs of Elevatorgate, the culture of certain other blogs, and so on? Yes, I’ve probably brought that on myself, in part, with the remark in the OP that Keddaw has objected to, but it least it was at an abstract level (as is Keddaw’s response).

    Shorter version: there’s an interesting topic here if we can discuss it on its merits, in isolation from where we line up over Elevatorgate and all the rest of the blogosphere drama.

  • RussellBlackford

    I think that’s going to depend on a lot of things. E.g., I’m not necessarily going to tell people to suppress their personalities on their own blogs. If the “term of affection” use of “cunt” is common in, say, Scotland, I don’t think a Scot who finds it natural to use the word that way should be forbidden to do so anywhere on the internet. But I’d ask him or her not to do so here. I don’t like the word, don’t really want it linked with this blog, and have an audience that is largely American even though I am Australian. All in all, it’s not a welcome word in this forum.

    FWIW the three words mentioned in your last para would all be unwelcome here if someone actually used them (as opposed to mentioning and discussing them as linguistic items). I can imagine circumstances where I would not form an especially bad view of someone who came here and used the word “cunt” – e.g. if a woman turned up here and actually made a comment about her genitals, using the word on some thread where it made sense to do so. I guess that could happen. But someone using either of the other two words you mentioned would immediately be written off by me as a racist. I can’t imagine any circumstances in which it could be justified – and please, everyone, don’t try to dream up far-fetched examples. It was okay for Charles to make the comment he did, discussing the words as linguistic items. But, frankly, they are not words that I want to see much more of even in inverted commas as linguistic items for discussion.

  • My experience of working class Scotland is very similar to yours in Australia, Russell. The word was used alternately in one of the two senses you identify: as a generic and somewhat callous synonym for ‘bloke’, or (more commonly) as a particularly vituperative insult, almost exclusively directed at men. I agree that the etymology could plausibly imply some misogynistic attitudes, although it’s also possible that there’s something cyclical going on here: the word has come to be imbued with a certain power largely because of the reaction it elicits. When many parts of our culture have become thoroughly inured to the impact of swearing, the c-word still packs something of a punch.

    Personally, I use the word very rarely, but when I do, it’s in the opposite sense from yours. To me, it is a harsh and aggressive word, with harsh and aggressive connotations, better suited to service as a Sunday special insult rather than a description of female genitalia. Similarly, I use ‘fuck’ and its derivatives only in the profane and (almost) never in the carnal sense. But as you say, I wouldn’t be quick to judge those who use it otherwise, or not at all.

  • I see that Notung and Coel have largely made the same point. 🙂

  • It is a word I hear often when hanging out with gay men (who can be pretty filthy, especially if drag queens are around). Goes without saying in this context it has nothing to do with women. It’s most often a term of endearment.

    That said, I don’t like saying it because I know my mom hates it. 🙂

  • So, I associate the word “cunt” with a kind of menace that borders on violence.

    My experience in the UK is that cunt is the word of last resort, used in anger from one man to another, to indicate that physical violence would be the next step. I last used it anger about five or six years ago on two occasions. Once was to a tenant who was moving out but who did not feel the need to leave his room in a fit state for someone else to occupy, including blatantly lying about a bicycle and other items not being his. I used the word to indicate that my respect for him had entirely broken down, that I was extremely angry with him, and that he should make his departure as soon as possible. A shame really, since I had previously been a witness at his wedding.

    The second occasion was when a complete stranger approached me in the street and felt the need to touch me in the chest area. I used the word in a very loud fashion to indicate that he had crossed a very real boundary, and that his actions were bang out of order.

    I would not use the word in the presence of a lady, especially not my wife, because I know that many women are deeply offended by it. Here’s to not having to use it again in the near future.

  • Shadow of a Doubt

    I think what people need to do is consider their audience when they use words like this, and if they have half a brain, decide whether it’s worthwhile or appropriate. If someone purposely walked into me in the street, I’d happily tell them to “Back off you fucking cunt”, in the same way that a friend of mine from down under used greet myself and several other staff at work with “G’day cunts (said like “KARNTS)?” He wouldn’t say it around his wife either, though it had more to do with her thinking it rude then it was an indicator that he was a rabid woman hater.

    If people are willing to take offence at the word, then one should not say it to them unless the desire is to offend them, which is rarely useful in a civil conversation, but has it’s place outside of one. What the main problem is, in my opinion, is that people don’t understand that “I don’t care if you are offended” does not mean “I hate all women”. There are certain elements who go out of their way to be offended, and make sure others do so too, as they profit and gain fame from the aforementioned offence. And then there is the problem of people who actively seek to be offended.

    So in consideration of the audience, until we either remove, or remove ourselves from, a community of people who’s popularity and livelihood is dependent on people taking offence at a word instead of correcting actual harmful societal problems, then people will continue to be offended. However, since no one looking to purposefully take offence, or stir up offence, in a conversation with me in order to shut it down is worth talking too, nothing of value will be lost in the end.

  • An Ardent Skeptic

    I find it fascinating that there is such an intense emotional reaction to the use of the word “cunt” as a descriptor for behavior, when there isn’t that same reaction to calling someone a “prick” or “dick” (also a descriptor of behavior).

    The words “woman” or “women” whose “primary meaning relates to the female genitals”, also often appear in statements that are “the most intense possible expression of hatred or hostility” towards women. I find statements that use the words “woman” or “women” to express a hatred toward women far more problematic than the slang use of the word “cunt” to describe the behavior of a particular woman. To me, the ideas being expressed are more of a concern than the particular words used to express them.

    My mother was a verbally and physically abusive woman and a sexist who doled out her affection to her four daughters in direct proportion to the size of their breasts. She felt that a woman’s value was solely the ability to attract men. I was the thinnest of her daughters, with “two flats and no spares” and “concave rather than convex”, and, therefore, the recipient of the worst of her vitriol. My mother found me so unattractive that when I told her that my buxom sister’s boyfriend had raped me, she slapped me hard across the face, called me a liar, and said the ugliest possible things she could say to me. There was no way that a man, who was dating my beautiful, blue-eyed, blonde, buxom sister, would have anything to do with a skinny, unattractive, utterly revolting girl like me. I was so disgusting that “no one would ever love me and I would never get married”. Because she didn’t believe me, she allowed this sexual predator access to my two younger sisters whom he also sexually abused.

    My first boyfriend, who witnessed my mother’s ugly behavior, nicknamed her “The Wicked Bitch Cunt from Hell”. I found his nickname far less offensive that the constant verbal abuse my mother dished out while never using any foul language (she was a good Christian who didn’t know any).

    I think we need to focus our attention on the ideas being expressed, not the language used to express them. My mother expressed ugly ideas on a regular basis, while never once using the word “cunt”. My boyfriend expressed an opinion about her hideous behavior. IMO, she had earned the title my boyfriend bestowed on her. “Cunt” is a very useful word for conveying the idea of just how awful someone’s behavior truly is. I rarely use it, but if someone were to ask how I feel about my mother, I would have zero problem with, and feel zero remorse about, saying, “She’s a cunt!” It is the most concise and accurate way to describe her behavior that I can think of.

  • RussellBlackford

    Thanks for this – I’m going to say some more in a new blog post, and I’ll be reflecting on this comment.

  • It’s not a word I like or use and, my gut reaction is to find it misogynistic. But then, to be fair, I’ve been known to call use the word ‘dick’ or ‘dick-head’ so is it fair to complain at the use of a similar term for women’s genitals being used in exactly the same way?

    When I call someone a ‘dick head’ it’s certainly not (at least in my mind) rooted (pardon the pun!) in any particular distaste for penises or to men in general. I imagine that those who use ‘cunt’ would argue the same.

    Perhaps we feel uncomfortable about ‘cunt’ as a term of abuse because ‘cunts’ have been the objects of abuse? Is that the difference? My attitude toward the word now is not to judge those whose use it, but, perhaps hypocritically, it’s still not a word I will use myself.

  • Hmm. I use the word, my friends use the word, in fact when I hear anyone use it as an attempt to insult, I just smile because it isn’t a bad thing! “Cunt” originally used to mean the wise woman of the village, generally an old woman (or crone) who was most knowledgeable.

    The more people who know this, the better!