Sex & Society
In a classic episode of “30 Rock,” Liz Lemon overhears a co-worker calling her a “cunt.” She is hurt and insulted, because even though she “loves swearing,” there is nothing she can call the male writer back that has the same power.
“Cunt” — otherwise known as “The C-Word,” “the monosyllable” or “a nasty name for a nasty thing” (Francis Grose, 1785) — is one of the few words in the English language that still has any genuine shock value. Like He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, most would rather this word go unsaid because of its vulgar connotations.
The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry on “cunt” provides two definitions: “1. The female external genital organs,” and “2. Applied to a person, esp. a woman, as a term of vulgar abuse.”
What I want to know is why, of all the dirty words in our language, the one generally regarded as the most foul is a synonym for female genitalia. Why not “shit,” or “piss”? Surely excrement is less pleasant than a vulva. Why not “dick” or “cock”? Why not “fuck”?
The answer is in the gendered nature of the word itself: In our society, female sexuality is still something people would prefer to remain unspoken.
“Vagina” is generally regarded as the polite alternative. It is a far less intimidating word, but only because it does not refer to the same thing. While “cunt” encompasses all external genitalia (including the pleasure-packed clitoris), “vagina” only includes the birth canal, emphasizing function and penetration. Because “cunt” implies female sexual agency and gratification, it is threatening.
“Cunt” was not always an insult. Most linguists agree that it came from the Proto-Germanic word “kunto,” which came either from the Proto-Indo-European root gen/gon, meaning “create, become” (as seen in “genital” and “genetic”) or gwneh/guneh, meaning “woman.”
Others trace it all the way back to prehistoric Indo-European, linking it to the root cu/koo, which simply meant “feminine.”
Some linguists even connect the word with knowledge and power. The word “can” also came from the “cu” root, and Geoffrey Chaucer makes the same connection in Canterbury Tales (1386) when he puns “cunt” with “quaint” (queynte), which originates from the Latin root “cognitus,” meaning “known.”
Still others cite the word “cunctipotent,” meaning “all-powerful,” and the myriad of deities sharing the “cu” root, like the Japanese goddess Cunda, the Korean goddess Quani, and the Indian goddess Cunti. The Ancient Egyptian official Ptahhotep even addresses a goddess in writing as “quefen-t.”
The first recorded usage of the word in English was in 1230, when London’s red-light district featured a street called — no joke — “Gropecunt Lane”.
By Shakespeare’s time, “cunt” was considered rude, though not as obscene as it is today. The playwright loved to slip the word into his plays, like Twelfth Night (“There be her very C’s, her U’s, and her T’s: and thus she makes great P’s”) and Hamlet (when Hamlet asks Ophelia to lie in her lap, and upon her refusal, feigns shock and says, “Do you think I meant country matters?”).
The increasingly perceived rudeness of “cunt” even drove other words out of the English language. Sometime before the 18th century, “cunny” came into use as an alternate form of the word. Because it was pronounced similarly to “coney,” which meant rabbit, the pronunciation of the latter shifted to “CONE-y”. By the 19th century, however, it had disappeared almost entirely and was replaced by “rabbit.”
“Pussy,” which used to mean cat or rabbit, suffered a similar fate. In the 18th century it was also used as a term of endearment for girls, but by the 1900s was so steeped in sexual connotation that “cat” became the preferred term.
“Cunt” is a word with a rich and complex history, and also a word of unparalleled power, sexual agency and femininity. But a word of this magnitude also has the potential to cause great pain. By using it as an insult, you reduce a woman to a sexual part, and that is inexcusable.
By refusing to say it, you are contributing to its exclusive usage as an insult, and increasing your own vulnerability to the word.
But by reclaiming “cunt” as something to be embraced and celebrated, you can chip away at the fear of female sexuality.
In the immortal words of Albus Dumbledore: “Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”
MARISA MASSARA is taking full advantage of her linguistics minor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.