Germaine Greer on the etymology of ‘cunt’. Taken from the BBC’s ‘Balderdash and Piffle’.

I’ve posted Part One above (aired in 2007). Greer runs through a brief history of the word “cunt”, discussing how this word has gained further potency throughout the ages, when other offensive words have lost some of their shock value. Why has this word become the most offensive word in the English language? Greer notes that when lexicographer Francis Grose published A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in the late 1700s, he couldn’t bring himself to write the word “cunt”. Instead, he wrote it as many people are used to seeing it even today: “c**t”. As part of the definition, Grose writes:

a nasty name for a nasty thing. 

Unfortunately, these two ideas pervade English-speaking cultures to this day: the word is repugnant and too ugly to utter, and women’s sex is also scary and too filthy a topic for discussion in civil society.

See Part Two here, where Greer talks about how she tried to change the meaning of the word “cunt” to something positive in the 1970s, drawing inspiration from the feminist movement (to which she was a central figure) as well as the civil rights movement, which sought to reclaim and politicise damaging slurs. Greer recalls:

I tried to take the malice out of it. I wanted women to be able to say it. The same way I would say: “You think cunt is nasty? I’m here to tell you cunt is nice. Like “Black is Beautiful”. Cunt is delicious. Cunt is powerful. Cunt is strong.

Ah - it didn’t work. And now, in a way, I’m sort of, perversely pleased, ‘cause it meant that it kept that power.

Greer notes how women don’t generally embrace any terms that describe their genitals, and particularly not this word. This adds stigma to women’s vaginas and women’s sexuality in general. Watch both videos, I highly recommend them for the social science analysis as well as for people who are interested in languages.

Greer’s argument raises some important issues: what does it mean for women that their vocabulary for describing their bodies is limited to clinical terms like “vagina”, nonsense words (don’t get me started on “vajayjay”), or non-specific phrases like “my front part”? What does it do to gender relationships more broadly when the word “cunt” is a loathsome way to verbally pummel others? Not all women have vaginas or vulvas, but being unable, unwilling or uninterested to appropriate this term and give it a more positive meaning does society damage.

The history of the word “cunt” shows that the patriarchal relations that banned this word in the first place are connected to the present-day reticence to speak about women’s sexualities on equal footing with men’s sexualities. Men’s sexuality is active and celebrated; women’s sexuality is passive and shameful if it’s discussed in the open. There is also a disturbing link between the way in which the word is used today and gender violence: calling a man a “cunt” is emasculating; saying it to a woman is the epitome of hatred and anger. (Don’t make me link to Tom Cruise yelling “Respect the Cock and tame the Cunt" in the otherwise sublime film Magnolia. Okay I linked regardless, but it was for your educational purposes.)

Colloquially, women who use the word “cunt” are looked down upon, depending on your social circles. While words describing male genitalia (“cock” for example) are also used as swearing and to insult, they don’t carry the same potency as yelling “cunt”. Plus, these masculine words are also allowed to be sexy and there is not the same stigma, ugliness and violence attached.

Greer concludes that perhaps its best that “cunt” remains a dangerous word because it represents the power of female sexuality. I don’t agree. Swearing in public is not something I advocate, but as a sociologist, I see that having inequality in the way we use gendered language in our everyday lives speaks of the broader gender inequalities that persist. We might take it for granted that the word “cunt” is the worst thing you can call someone - but have we stopped to think what this says about female sex? Language is not innocuous. Language choices and social meaning are culturally loaded with society’s mores about what’s “good” and “bad”. The taboos around the word “cunt” tells us something truly disturbing about how society denigrates women’s bodies and sex.

I obviously support the idea that we change the meaning of “cunt” to something positive. What do you think? Should we re-appropriate this word? 

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