This article contains explicit language.
The word “cunt” continues to be increasingly prevalent in our consumption of popular culture. So what is it about this word and its ability to grab our attention? Does it still have the same shock value?
The history of ‘the monosyllable’
Cunt has a good pedigree with related forms in Old Norse kunta, Old Frisian and Middle Low German kunte, and Middle Dutch conte. Surprisingly it’s not attested in Old English, except in place names like cuntan heale (literally, “cunt hollow”).
Etymologists question its connection with classical Latin cunnus (giving us French con) because of the “t”. I’m not sure why, since “t"s often appear as phonetic afterthoughts at the end of words (look at against, peasant, truant and parchment – all have erroneous "t"s).
By Middle English the word is making regular public appearances. Early medical texts have descriptions like “wymmen the necke of the bladdre is schort, & is maad fast to the cunte”. It crops up in plenty of medieval place names too — probably the most well-known is Gropecuntlane (found in around 20 localities, though sometimes disguised as Gropelane).
It even appears in personal names (Clevecunt, Wydecunthe, Cruskunt, Cunteles, Fillecunt, Twychecunt and Sittebid’cunte) and plant names (cuntehoare “fumitory”, countewort and counteminte “catmint”). Some pretty rude words feature in early naming practices generally, so there’s no reason to doubt these examples. Besides they’ve been well researched.
Taboo is dynamic, and notions about what is forbidden will change, sometimes dramatically, across cultures and across time. Cunt fell from grace, and we can track its fall in early dictionary-making conventions. In Nathan Bailey’s Universal Etymological English Dictionary (1721), it appears in print, but its definition is camouflaged in Latin – “Pudendum Muliebre”.
Included among the 4,000 vulgarisms in Captain Frances Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (first published in 1785) is the entry c**t, with the telling definition “a nasty word for a nasty thing”.
It was around this time that cunt then became truly invisible — banished to the “dark continent of the world of words”. It wasn’t until the 1960s that it reappeared in general dictionaries.
There is one notable exception here — The New and Complete Dictionary of the English Language (1775). The baptist minister John Ash goes down in linguistic history as the one lexicographer who included “the monosyllable” (as it was known then) without fig-leaves – now therein lies a story.
Cunt had well and truly fallen into the semantic abyss, and it took innocent bystanders with it. The old word for “rabbit” coney (rhyming with honey) dropped out of use because (as one lexicographer delicately put it) it took on “inappropriate anatomical significance”. In some places it lingered longer because of a clever vowel change (think of Coney Island).
I’m sure taboo association is one of the reasons King Cnut’s name transformed to Canute – people in the 18th century could transpose the letters of Cnut, just as we transpose the letters of FCUK.
Taboos furnish languages with their terms of opprobrium, so it follows that patterns of swearing change over time. When blasphemous and religiously profane language was no longer considered offensive (at least by a majority of speakers), more physically and sexually based expressions filled the gap.
Cunt was among the earliest of such terms to be pressed into maledictory service in the second half of the 19th century. Its taboo quality enabled speakers to let off steam, abuse, offend – and express mateship and endearment (the more affectionate the feeling, the more abusive the language; for example “wookey is a gem, love that cunt”).
Has c–t lost its edge?
However, the potency of the profanity relating to sexual and bodily functions has now well and truly diminished.
Emotional expressions lose their sting with frequent use, but it is also that sex and bodily functions are no longer tabooed as they were in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Free-to-air television now frequently includes words such as fuck and cunt, and their social acceptance explains why courts now typically dismiss obscene language charges.
True, some people still complain about hearing such words in the public arena, but what is now perceived as truly obscene are racial and ethnic slurs, the use of which may provoke legal consequences. As a simple illustration of the evolving sensitivities, take the various permutations of the phrase “pot calling kettle black arse”, which went to “pot calling kettle black”, then “pot calling kettle”.
So the force of cunt has weakened considerably. The recent addition of derived forms cunty, cuntish, cunted, cunting to the Oxford English Dictionary barely raised an eyebrow. But the word still provides that bonus layer of emotional intensity and added capacity to offend.
Of the taboo terms for bodily functions, sex and private parts (now there’s a nice euphemism), cunt remains the most disturbing and the most powerful, which is a fall-out of the strength of the original taboos.
And here you’ll find revealing asymmetries. As my colleague Keith Allan pointed out in his account of bawdy part terms, there’s a vast difference in wounding capacity between expressions of abuse invoking male and female sex organs. Prick means “stupid, contemptible”, whereas cunt means “nasty, malicious, despicable”.
Males can be abused by prick and dick but females rarely, if ever (how does “She’s a prick” strike you?). On the other hand, cunt and its gentler counterparts twat and prat freely apply to both males and females.
It’s a familiar story — general terms for women are insulting when used of men – for example, calling a man a “girl”, “old woman” or “sissy” – but there’s no real abuse if male-associated words are used of women.
Use it to lose it
One way of redressing such lexical imbalances is to reclaim a word like cunt and re-evaluate its derogatory semantics.
Some attempts to rescue pejorative language have been successful. Consider the triumph of wog as a marker of group identity and badge of pride. But not all are happy with such a label, and certainly used by those without “natural cover” such terms remain provocative.
Linguistic, psychological and neurological studies all confirm that it’s forbidden words that are the most arousing, memorable and evocative of all language stimuli. They also confirm that this effect depletes with word repetition.
So, the shock value of frequently encountered expressions wears out. If you want to diminish its potency, just use the word, and frequently.