Why is everyone suddenly using the C-word?

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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California Dreamin’ – 1982 to 1984 – Lenore – She Who Comes Bearing Gifts

This girl I worked with asked if I would meet her friend for a date. I’m always apprehensive about these sort of things. But I had a great work relationship with my friend at work. So I took the friend’s number and called her. We chatted on the phone a few times. One topic of conversation was me always eating Pringles potato chips when we were on the phone. One of my bandmates worked at a supermarket, and we would clip a few items occasionally for his poor bandmates.  (this becomes relevant later). She seemed like someone I’d enjoy spending time with, so we decided to meet for dinner.

I was excited to meet. In hindsight, there were a few warning signs that this might not turn out well for me.

1. In one phone conversation, the topic of butt size came up, and she said something to the effect of, “don’t be scared by how big mine is.”

2. When discussing our dinner date, she said, “You have to promise me that no matter what, we’ll meet again after our date, even if it doesn’t work out, we can have drinks and laugh about it.”

3. When she was describing how I’d recognize her outside the restaurant, she said, “I drive a purple Camaro.”

Being young and naive, I didn’t think much of it all, and arrived at the restaurant that evening with an open mind. How soon things changed. After waiting outside a few minutes, up pulls a purple Camaro convertible. If you’ve ever seen the movie Friday, where Smokey gets set up with “Janet Jackson”, you know what comes next. Back then I weighed about 118 lbs. and am 5’9″. That’s a lean build. This girl had at least 50 lbs. on me, if not more. “HEYYYYY!!!” She greeted me, and I did my best not to look scared to death.

In addition to her purse, she was carrying a brown paper bag. I didn’t really want to know what might be inside. We went in and got seated at our table and after a minute or two of uneasy conversation, she said, “I brought you something.” Out comes the paper bag, from which she pulls out a Ken doll, dressed as Superman, with “Mr. Pringles” written on the cape. My face felt like it was on fire and I could feel everyone in the entire place staring at me.

After ordering dinner, I excused myself to go to the bathroom. On the way back to the table, I passed the front door and seriously considered making a run for it, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Defeated, I slowly walked back to the table and we had our dinner.

We had also planned to go to a comedy club afterwards. I intended to offer to drive us both there, but instead told her to follow me in her car. Again, I considered maybe trying to drive fast and lose her on the way, but figured my VW minibus couldn’t outrun her Camaro. Fearing getting heckled by the comedians all night, I found a table in a dark corner towards the back and the rest of the evening was fairly uneventful. After the show, we said our goodbyes and before I could turn to go, she grabbed me and, giving me a giant bear hug, whispered, “Make sure you call me.”

Needless to say, that was the last I ever saw of Camaro girl. I learned a lot about dating the “friend with the great personality” that night. But to be totally honest, I would have hung out with her again, but that whole “Mr. Pringles” thing really creeped me the fuck out.

 

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