Monday, 7 February 2011

Just A Word

EDIT: Even though I wrote this post a year ago, I still see a lot of people linking to it defending their use of the word. So I thought I'd include a caveat here: This post is about my feelings towards the word 'cunt', and why I personally am not offended by it. However, I grew up in an environment where it was never used against women, but in the manner I describe in the post. I know that is not the case for everyone, and I fully reserve other people's right to be offended by it, and if my use of it does offend anyone who has different experiences from me, I will apologise for it. For what it's worth, I consider this a clunky and badly-explained post, and wish I hadn't included the part where I seemed to tell people not to be offended, because that's not my opinion. It is far better to read that paragraph as if I am talking to myself, as that's how it is meant. I don't mind people linking to this as an explanation of why they personally, like me, are not offended by the word, but please don't use it to try tell people why they shouldn't be offended by it. That's not cool. Just think about why the person who is might be offended by it and consider whether an apology for using it may be in order if you have had the privilege not to have had the word used against you as a gendered slur. 

WARNING: This post will contain a LOT of swearing.

Today, I have been reading posts by Harpy Marx, Laurie Penny and Holly Coombe at the F-Word about the word 'cunt'.

Harpy Marx hates the word, pointing out its historically negative connotations and arguing that it should be offensive to all women. Laurie Penny seeks to reclaim the word for women, "as a word of sexual potency and common discourse rather than a dirty, forbidden word". Holly Coombe argues that the word should be neutralised, saying:
"It makes me squirm when men apologise for using the word cunt in front of me. I realise some of those men will be making an effort to respect certain feminist objections to the way the word has been used to oppress women but, in my experience, many more will reveal antiquated and unhelpful ideas about feminine delicacy. This leads me to the strategy of making it clear that I find such ideas far more sexist and offensive than a word for a part of my own body. This isn’t an invitation to be rough-housed or verbally abused to make some boorish statement about so-called equal treatment. Like plenty of other women and men, I don’t appreciate aggression from anyone. I just don’t object to a word that I am all too aware men may or may not use around me in order to prove a point".

So, now I thought I'd wade in with my opinions on the matter.

In my opinion, the debate needs to stop. It is a word.

Yes, it's a word that has historically been used towards women negatively. So what? It's 2011. It someone called me a cunt in 1811, I might object.

No, we don't need to 'reclaim' it, because all that saying that you are reclaiming a word does is tell people that deep down, you are offended by it (because you want to be the only group to be able to use it) and gives people the power to use it against you. Think about words that have been 'reclaimed' by ethic minorities and LGBT groups. Now, if you were a racist, or a homophobe, what words would you use in order to offend them the most?

The word 'cunt' just a swear word. Yes, it is a very strong swear word, but it's just a swear word*. I am not offended by the word 'cunt', any more than I am by the word 'wanker'. I use the word myself, frequently and liberally (much to the chagrin of my parents). I use it to describe men and women. Hell, I use it to describe animals and inanimate objects. I use it as an adjective ('cunting'). I use it as an exclamation ('Oh, cunt!'). However, when I use it, it's not because I'm referring to something as a vagina, it's because I want to swear. Like if I said the phrase "the fucking toaster won't work", I don't literally mean that my toaster is in flagrante delicto, I just want to express my annoyance. If I call someone a 'bastard', I don't literally mean that they were born out of wedlock, I just want to swear about, or to, them.

It's not a word I use more, or less than other swearwords (I like to mix them up - calling someone 'an absolute cunting bastard' is joy unbounded). The fact is, in English, we use sexual swearwords. Whether the swear words are for sexual acts (fuck, wank, bugger, etc.) or for sexual organs (prick, cock, dick, twat, etc.), they are words that, at some point, have been deemed offensive enough to be classed as swear words. They are words we use when we WANT to be offensive. So why leave the word 'cunt' off the list?

If you feel the need to swear, then swear**. If you're offended by swear words, be offended by them because they are swear words. Don't proselytize about how no one should use a specific word because it has, and can, refer to women's sexual organs, because all that does is give it a significance above other swear words that it should not have.


*Obviously the situation is different if the person using the word 'cunt' as an insult is a man using it specifically because the person on the receiving end is a woman and they are using it in a sexist manner - like the word 'prick' is different if a woman uses it to insult a man in a sexist manner.
**Although you probably shouldn't in, say, a job interview, or at your nana's house.


  1. Yep. I'm with you on that (with the possible exception that word reclaiming might work, in the long run. But it's irrelevant to this because it doesn't need reclaiming).

    I remember a David Baddiel sketch, years ago, about objections to use of the word cunt. He said he'd rather it was only used as an insult, and never anatomically. Because it was really good for insulting people, and it seemed a shame to use it for something as nice as a vagina.

  2. I'm a huge fan of creative swearing. A friend's favourite is 'shitting crikey', so that's one we enjoy using around each other. He regularly calls his best mate 'a gentleman and a cunt' or some such; the mate of course reciprocates in a similar manner. Elaborate constructions, especially using adjectives like 'wanking', 'bollocking', 'cunting' and so on, are a joy. One of my personal favourites is 'bollocks' - there's something really satisfying about saying it. Then there's the ability to put a different slant on a swear word, depending on how it's said - 'fuck' vs 'feck', 'bastard' (southern English accent) vs 'bastard' (northern English accent), same for 'cunt', and so on. People who say it lacks creativity, or imagination, or ability to express oneself, are most likely just being prudish. (This is nothing to do with using the appropriate register for the situation, of course, but that's a different matter.)

    I am not easily offended, but two examples spring to mind. When I was 16 or so, I was called a 'fucking Polish bitch' by the school bully for refusing to 'borrow him a quid'. I was so angry I attempted to chase him down the street, despite being fresh off crutches and barely able to walk sensibly, let alone run. Curiously, my wrath terrified the little fucker so much he actually ran away (!), and later sent his minions begging me not to tell the headmaster. The other time, about a decade and a half later, was when I confronted a barman about shortchanging me (with good reason - it was by about 15 quid). I asked to see the manager, and the barman's response was that my opinion didn't matter because I was a 'short piece of shit'. I, um, flung the contents of my glass in his face (a whisky - I know, a terrible waste), and things went downhill after that...

    The point is that in both cases the people picked on something personal; if 'Polish' and 'short' had been omitted or replaced with 'cunt(ing)' etc, I wouldn't have given nearly as much of a fuck. Not quite the minority situation you mention, but they hit a nerve nonetheless. Meek as a twatting lamb, me.

    Sorry about long rambling post. I've been ill and so unable to rant for a couple of days. Bollocks.

  3. I'm not sure "just a word" cuts it as an argument. "Nigger" and "Paki", for example, are just words

  4. That's completely different, those words are calculated insults, used for the purpose of insulting specific people. I made it clear that I oppose use of the word 'cunt' to insult a woman specifically, just not as a generic swear word. No one uses those words as generic swear words.

  5. Yes, fair point. Admittedly, nobody uses the two words I cited as generic insults; I suppose I was just uncomfortable with the title of your post. Maybe one can get too hung up on the use of language but then language, to my mind, is what it's all about.

  6. I do reserve the word 'cunt' for special swearing moments when your average run of the mill swears won't do. I have used it as an adjective but never an exclamation, it is now on my to do list.

    I love the David Baddiel quote.

  7. If I object to anything it's that it's overused. As the strongest swearword (a friend refers to it as "The last English swearword") it should only be deployed in extraordinary circumstances.

    After some pupils at a school I was working at were swearing like bastards, I gave them a long boring talk about appropriateness and how, because I don't swear at work, if I let slip a damn or a bugger then they know I really mean it. They were better at controlling themselves around me after that (they hate being talked at)

  8. Lucky you did not work with me then, because swear words are used all the time, but then again we have no women working with us.

    But words are words they are made up names for items people things.

    People now say Paki is an insult, yet my local Asian shop is called Paki, I bought some rice from an Asian shop called paki, just because it's now seen as an insult does not mean it's so.

    Taff is not an Insult or Jock, sheep shaggier is a joke we are told yet it's insulting.

    Not to long ago retard was the norm, and so was spastic it was in fact a medical term, now all of a sudden in a PC world it's wrong.

    But lets just say it the way you use a word, you can spit out paki and you know it's a threat, then again you can spit out jock and you know a person is looking for a fight.

    Sexual words are used in a sexual way or they can be used again to insult.

  9. It's amazing how some words have deeply powerful associations-in a sentence, the word 'c**t'(noun) is always preceded by 'He/She/It (subject) is a Tory...'. I cannot conceive of its use in any other context.

  10. Racially offensive words almost always used to be racially offensive. "Cunt" is almost never used in a sexist context (at least in my experience. I like to use the word cunt quite a big EXACTLY BECAUSE people find it offensive. I never understood why "cunt" should be any different to "cock" or other similar words. Maybe it just sounds worse?

    BTW Robert - "Taff" and "Jock" can be an insult in certain contexts. Usually this takes the form of a condescending racial abuse. E.g. Welsh person makes some kind of mistake, English person says "fucking idiot Taffy" - this is more offensive than "fucking idiot".

  11. Cunt is different to 'cock' or even 'twat' as a swear word. Largely I think because it was used for a long time, by writers such as D H Lawrence, Norman Mailer etc, not just as a term for female sexual organs but as a word that was synonymous with women. That said, it is a brilliant swear word.

  12. In Finnish 'vittu' (cunt) is used instead of 'fuck' (exclamation) and also as an adjective and adverb. You can hear it in playgrounds (so my family say), everyday (but impolite) conversation and of course modern literature. But then Finland is something of a female-oriented society.

  13. @plentyofants - wasn't it a Ben Elton sketch rather than David Baddiel?