Cunt: A Cultural History of the C-Word
The c-word, 'cunt', is perhaps the most offensive word in the English language, and consequently it has never been researched in depth. Hugh Rawson's Dictionary Of Invective contains the most detailed study of what he calls "The most heavily tabooed of all English words" (1989), though his article is only five pages long. Cunt: A Cultural History Of The C-Word is therefore intended as the first comprehensive analysis of this ancient and powerful word.
'Cunt' has been succinctly defined as "the bottom half of a woman or a very despicable person" (Pentti Olli, 1999). According to Francis Grose's scurrilous definition, it is "a nasty name for a nasty thing" (1796). 'Cunt' is a synonym for 'vagina', though this is only its most familiar meaning. As a noun, 'cunt' has numerous other senses: a woman (viewed as a sexual object), sexual intercourse, a (foolish) person, an infuriating device, an ironically affectionate term of address, the mouth as a sexual organ, the anus as a sexual organ, the buttocks, prostitution, a vein used for drug-injection, a synonym for 'damn', an attractive woman, an object or place, the essence of someone, and a difficult task. It can also be used as an adjective (to describe a foolish person), a verb (meaning both to physically abuse someone and to call a woman a cunt), and an exclamation (to signify frustration). Despite its semantic flexibility, however, 'cunt' remains our highest linguistic taboo: "It has yet, if ever, to return to grace" (Jonathon Green, 2010).
'Cunt' is a short, monosyllabic word, though its brevity is deceptive. The word's etymology is surprisingly complex and contentious. Like many swear words, it has been incorrectly dismissed as merely Anglo-Saxon slang:
"friend, heed this warning, beware the affront
In fact, the origins of 'cunt' can be traced back to the Proto-Indo-European 'cu', one of the oldest word-sounds in recorded language. 'Cu' is an expression quintessentially associated with femininity, and forms the basis of 'cow', 'queen', and 'cunt'. The c-word's second most significant influence is the Latin term 'cuneus', meaning 'wedge'. The Old Dutch 'kunte' provides the plosive final consonant.
The Oxford English Dictionary clarifies the word's commonest contexts as the two-fold "female external genital organs" and "term of vulgar abuse" (RW Burchfield, 1972). At the heart of this incongruity is our culture's negative attitude towards femininity. 'Cunt' is a primary example of the multitude of tabooed words and phrases relating to female sexuality, and of the misogyny inherent in sexual discourse. Kate Millett sums up the word's uniquely despised status: "Somehow every indignity the female suffers ultimately comes to be symbolized in a sexuality that is held to be her responsibility, her shame [...] It can be summarized in one four-letter word. And the word is not fuck, it's cunt. Our self-contempt originates in this: in knowing we are cunt" (1973).
When used in a reductive, abusive context, female genital terms such as 'cunt' are notably more offensive than male equivalents such as 'dick'. This linguistic inequality is mirrored by a cultural imbalance that sees images of the vagina obliterated from contemporary visual culture: "The vagina, according to many feminist writers, is so taboo as to be virtually invisible in Western culture" (Lynn Holden, 2000). Censorship of both the word 'cunt' and the organ to which it refers is symptomatic of a general fear of - and disgust for - the vagina itself. The most literal manifestation of this fear is the myth of the 'vagina dentata', symbolising the male fear that the vagina is a tool of castration (the femme castratrice, a more specific manifestation of the Film Noir femme fatale).
There have been attempts, however, to reappropriate 'cunt', investing it with a positive meaning and removing it from the lexicon of offence, similar in effect to the transvaluation of 'bad', 'sick', and 'wicked', whose colloquial meanings have also been changed from negative to positive - what Jonathon Green calls "the bad equals good model" of oppositional slang (Jennifer Higgie, 1998). The same process took place in Mexico when the offensive term 'guey'/'buey' was "co-opted by the cool, young set as a term of endearment" (Marc Lacey, 2009).
The Cunt-Art movement used traditional 'feminine' arenas such as sewing and cheerleading as artistic contexts in which to relocate the word. A parallel 'cunt-power' ideology, seeking to reclaim the word more forcefully, was instigated by Germaine Greer - and later revived by Zoe Williams, who encouraged "Cunt Warriors" to reclaim the word (2006), the latest of the "various attempts over several hundred years of usage to "resignify" cunt to resume its original, feminine-anatomical status" (Jacqueline Z Wilson, 2008[b]).
What 'cunt' has in common with most other contemporary swear words is its connection to bodily functions. Genital, scatological, and sexual terms (such as, respectively, 'cunt', 'shit', and 'fuck') are our most powerful taboos, though this was not always the case. Social taboos originally related to religion and ritual, and Philip Thody contrasts our contemporary bodily taboos with the ritual taboos of tribal cultures: "In our society, that of the industrialised West, the word 'taboo' has lost almost all its magical and religious associations" (1997). In Totem Und Tabu, Sigmund Freud's classic two-fold definition of 'taboo' encompasses both the sacred and the profane, both religion and defilement: "The meaning of 'taboo', as we see it, diverges in two contrary directions. To us it means, on the one hand, 'sacred', 'consecrated', and on the other 'uncanny', 'dangerous', 'forbidden', 'unclean'" (1912).
Taboos relating to language are most readily associated with the transgressive lexicon of swearing. William Shakespeare, writing at the cusp of the Reformation, demonstrated the reduced potency of blasphemy and, with his thinly veiled 'cunt' puns, slyly circumvented the newfound intolerance towards sexual language. Later, John Wilmot would remove the veil altogether, writing "some of the filthiest verses composed in English" (David Ward, 2003) with an astonishingly uninhibited sexual frankness and a blatant disregard for the prevailing Puritanism. Establishment "prudery [...] in the sphere of sex", as documented by Peter Fryer (1963), continued until after the Victorian period, when sexually explicit language was prosecuted as obscene.
It was not until the latter half of the 20th century, after the sensational acquittal of Lady Chatterley's Lover, that the tide finally turned, and sexual taboos - including that of 'cunt' - were challenged by the 'permissive society'. During the Lady Chatterley obscenity trial, the word 'cunt' became part of the national news agenda, and indeed the eventual publication of Lady Chatterley can be seen as something of a watershed for the word, marking the first widespread cultural dissemination of "arguably the most emotionally laden taboo term" (Ruth Wajnryb, 2004).
The word has since become increasingly prolific in the media, and its appearances can broadly be divided into two types: euphemism and repetition. Humorous, euphemistic references to 'cunt', punning on the word without actually using it in full, represent an attempt to undermine our taboo against it: by laughing at our inability to utter the word, we recognise the arcane nature of the taboo and begin to challenge it. By contrast, the parallel trend towards repetitive usage of 'cunt' seeks to undermine the taboo through desensitisation. If 'cunt' is repeated ad infinitum, our sense of shock at initially encountering the word is rapidly dispelled. With other swear words (notably 'fuck') gradually losing their potency, 'cunt' is left as the last linguistic taboo, though even the c-word can now be found adorning badges, t-shirts, and book covers. Its normalisation is now only a matter of time.
'Cunt' is probably the most offensive and censored swear word in the English language: "Of all the four-letter words, CUNT is easily the most offensive" (Ruth Wajnryb, 2004). Martin Samuel calls it "one of the best words" (2007). Our taboo surrounding the word ensures that it is rarely discussed, though, when it is, the superlatives come thick and fast. Accordingly, Zoe Williams writes: "It's the rudest word we've got, in the entire language" (2006), and Nick Ferrari is outraged by it: "[it's] the worst word in the world [...] I think it's an utterly grotesque word [...] it's just a gutteral, ghastly, nasty word" (Pete Woods, 2007). Jacqueline Z Wilson also writes in superlative terms: "'Cunt' is the most confronting word [...] probably in every major variety of English spoken anywhere [and is] the most offensive word in the English language" (2008[a]). In her study of Australian prison graffiti, Wilson writes that 'cunt' is "the most confronting word in mainstream Australian English, and perhaps in every major variety of English spoken anywhere" (2008[b]). Sarah Westland (2008) calls it "the worst insult in the English language", "the nastiest, dirtiest word", "the greatest slur", and "the most horrible word that someone can think of". According to a front-page article in The Mail On Sunday, 'cunt' is "the most offensive word in English" (Chris Hastings, 2011). Peter A Neissa describes it as "the most degrading epithet in English speaking culture" (2008).
Sara Gwin (2008) calls it "the most offensive word for women" and "one of the most offensive words in the English language, if not the worst". Specifically, she problematises the word's reductivism: "It objectifies women by reducing them down to their body part that has been defined by male usage [...] there is a whole history of misogyny packed in to that one-syllable word". She cautiously acknowledges the potential for feminist reclamation: "Women have every right to reclaim the word for themselves or for a particular group. However, there has to be the acknowledgement that this word is still incredibly insulting to many and we have to respect that".
'Cunt' is "one of the most foul and insulting [words] in the English language" (Megan Goudey and Ashley Newton, 2004) and "a word so hateful it can scarcely be uttered" (Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, 2000). Naomi Wolf's book Vagina (2012) includes a chapter on the c-word titled The Worst Word There Is, in which she calls 'cunt' "the word considered to be the most derogatory, the most violent, the most abusive". M Hunt [no relation] calls it "the most taboo word in the English language" (2006). Peter Silverton (2009) describes it as "the most unacceptable word in the language", "the worst word in the language", and "a hate word of unparalelled force". Zoe Heller calls it "the worst of bad words" (2012). Libby Brooks views it as "the most shocking word in the English language [...] the grossest insult you can use" (2008). Andrew Goldman calls 'cunt' "the mother of all nasty words" and "the most controversial word of all" (1999). Victoria Coren calls it "the word which is still considered the most offensive in the language" (Deborah Lee, 2006). Alex Games sees it as "still the ultimate taboo utterance" (2006). Geoffrey Hughes calls it "the most seriously taboo word in English" (2006). For Tom Aldridge, it is "unarguably the most obscene [and] most forbidden word in English", "the ultimate obscenity", and "the nastiest four-letter word" (2001). In her article The C Word: How One Four-Letter Word Holds So Much Power (2011), Christina Caldwell calls 'cunt' the "nastiest of nasty words". Jack Holland notes that "the word 'cunt' expresse[s] the worst form of contempt one person could feel for another" (2006). John Doran describes it as "The most offensive word in the world", "the worst word that anyone has ever been able to think of", and "[the] most terrible of terrible words" (2002). It is, according to Sue Clark, "far and away the most offensive word for the British public. [...] If it is used aggressively towards women it is absolutely the last word in swearing" (Anthony Barnes, 2006). Beatrix Campbell calls it "a radioactive word [...] impregnated with hostility". It is Michael Madsen's favourite word: "I just lke it because it's really mean and at the same time it's really lyrical and colourful and imaginative" (Chris Hewitt, 2008). It is also Elton John's favourite word: "It is the best word in the English language" (Peter Silverton, 2009). Rankin, who wore a mask with an 'I'm a cunt' slogan in 2006, describes it as "an amazing word".
Deborah Orr provides a neat summary of the word's central functions, invective and empowerment: "Attitudes to this powerful expression, especially among women, are changing. For many centuries now, the word has been elaborately veiled under the weird and heavy drapes of a disapproval so strong that it has become pre-eminent among forbidden words. "Cunt" remains, for the vast majority of people, pretty much the worst, the ugliest, the most barbaric, crude and filthy English word there is. For others, though, its use is a mark of worldly and liberal sophistication" (2006). In her article Why The C Word Is Losing Its Bite (2009), Kathleen Deveny calls 'cunt' "the rudest, crudest, most taboo term in the English language, the superstar of four-letter words".
Further attitudes towards 'cunt' were included in the BBC3 television documentary The C-Word: How We Came To Swear By It (Pete Woods, 2007). The programme, presented by Will Smith, acknowledged the omnipresence of 'cunt' in contemporary life and culture: "every language needs its single, ultimate taboo swear word, and ['cunt'] has become ours. But for how much longer? You see, the more you hear it, the more you become immune to its power".
Etymology: The Origin Of The Word
The etymology of 'cunt' is actually considerably more complex than is generally supposed. The word's etymology is highly contentious, as Alex Games explains: "Language scholars have been speculating for years about the etymological origins of the 'c-word'" (2006). A consensus has not yet been reached, as Ruth Wajnryb admits in A Cunt Of A Word (a chapter in Language Most Foul): "Etymologists are unlikely to come to an agreement about the origins of CUNT any time soon" (2004), and Mark Morton is even more despairing: "no-one really knows the ulterior origin of cunt" (2003).
In Cunt, a chapter from the anthology Dirty Words, Jonathan Wilson notes the word's etymological convolution: "The precise etymology of cunt, yet unresolved, continues to engender the most arcane and complex disputes" (2008). Greek Macedonian terms for 'woman' - 'guda', 'gune', and 'gyne' - have been suggested as the word's sources, as have the Anglo-Saxon 'cynd' and the Latin 'cutis' ('skin'), though these theories are not widely supported. Jay Griffiths (2006), for example, links 'cunt', 'germinate', 'genital', 'kindle', and 'kind' to the Old English 'ge-cynde' and Anglo-Saxon 'ge-cynd' (extended to 'ge-cynd-lim', meaning 'womb'); to this list, Peter Silverton adds 'generate', 'gonards', and 'genetics', derived from the Proto-Indo-European 'gen' or 'gon'.
Perhaps the clearest method of structuring the complex etymology of 'cunt' is to approach it letter by letter, and this is the approach I have taken here. I have examined the Indo-European, Latin, Greek, Celtic, and Dutch linguistic influences on 'cunt', and also discussed the wide variety of the word's contemporary manifestations.
The prefix 'cu' is an expression of "quintessential femineity" (Eric Partridge, 1961), confirming 'cunt' as a truly feminine term. The synonymy between 'cu' and femininity was in place even before the development of written language: "in the unwritten prehistoric Indo-European [...] languages 'cu' or 'koo' was a word base expressing 'feminine', 'fecund' and associated notions" (Tony Thorne, 1990). The Proto-Indo-European 'cu' is also cognate with other feminine/vaginal terms, such as the Hebrew 'cus'; the Arabic 'cush', 'kush', and 'khunt'; the Nostratic 'kuni' ('woman'); and the Irish 'cuint' ('cunt'). Mark Morton suggests that the Indo-European 'skeu' ('to conceal') is also related.
Thus, 'cu' and 'koo', both pronounced 'coo', were ancient monosyllabic sounds implying femininity. 'Coo' and 'cou' are modern slang terms for vagina, based on these ancient sounds. Other vaginal slang words, such as 'cooch', 'coot', 'cooter' (inspiring the Bizarre headline Cooter Couture in 2010), 'cooz', 'cooze', 'coozie', 'coozy', 'cookie', 'choochy', 'chocha', 'cootch', and 'coochie snorcher' are extensions of them. 'Coochie snorcher', as in The Little Coochie Snorcher That Could from The Vagina Monologues, is a childish euphemism for 'cunt' that has generated the following (often elaborate) variants:
The phrase also inspired the song titles Itchycoo Park (The Small Faces, 1967), Rock And Roll Hoochie Koo (Rick Derringer, 1974), and (I'm Your) Hoochie Coochie Man (Muddy Waters, 1954). Hoochie Coochie Men was also the name of Long John Baldry's backing band during the 1960s. Also, heterosexual pornographic films are known as 'cooch reels'.
The feminine 'cu' word-base is also the source of the modern 'cow', applied to female animals, one of the earliest recorded forms of which is the Old Frisian 'ku', indicating the link with 'cu'. Other early forms include the Old Saxon 'ko', the Dutch 'koe', the Old Higher German 'kuo' and 'chuo', the German 'kuhe' and 'kuh', the Old Norse 'kyr', the Germanic 'kouz', the Old English 'cy' (also 'cua' and 'cyna'), and the Middle English 'kine' and 'kye'.
The prefix has also been linked to elliptical (thus, perhaps, metaphorically vaginal) terms such as 'gud' (Indo-European, 'enclosure'), 'cucuteni' ('womb-shaped Roman vase'), 'cod' ('bag'), 'cubby-hole' ('snug place'), 'cove' ('concave chamber'), and 'keel' ('convex ridge'). The Italian 'guanto' ('glove') and the Irish 'cuan' ('harbour') may also be related, as they share with 'vagina' the literal meaning 'receptacle'. 'Quality', and even 'cudgel', have been suggested as further links, though a cudgel seems more like a cock than a cunt, and indeed none of these terms have the demonstrably feminine associations of 'cunt' or 'cow'.
'Cu' also has associations with knowledge: 'can' and 'ken' (both 'to know') evolved from the 'cu'/'ku' prefix, as, perhaps did 'cognition' and its derivatives. RF Rattray highlights the connection between femininity and knowledge: "The root cu appears in countless words from cowrie, Cypris, down to cow; the root cun has two lines of descent, the one emphasising the mother and the other knowledge: Cynthia and [...] cunt, on the one hand, and cunning, on the other" (1961).
Indeed, there is a significant linguistic connection between sex and knowledge: one can 'conceive' both an idea and a baby, and 'ken' means both 'know' and 'give birth'. 'Ken' shares a genealogical meaning with 'kin' and 'kind', from the Old English 'cyn' and the Gothic 'kuni'. It also has vaginal connotations: "['kin'] meant not only matrilineal blood relations but also a cleft or crevice, the Goddess's genital opening" (Barbara G Walker, 1983).
The Latin 'cognoscere', related to 'cognate', may indeed be cognate with the sexual organ 'cunt'. Knowledge-related words such as 'connote', 'canny', and 'cunning' may also be etymologically related to it, though such a connection is admittedly tenuous. Less debatable is the connection between 'cunctipotent' and 'cunt': both are derived from the Latin 'cunnus'. Geoffrey Chaucer's 'cunt'-inspired term 'queynte' is yet another link between sex and knowledge, as he uses it to mean both 'vagina' and 'cunning'.
In Celtic and modern Welsh, 'cu' is rendered as 'cw', a similarly feminine prefix influencing the Old English 'cwithe' ('womb'), from the Welsh 'cwtch'. Interestingly, 'cwtch' (also 'cwtch', with modern forms 'cwts' and 'cwtsh') means 'hollow place' as a noun (and is thus another vaginal metaphor) and 'hide' as a verb. Giovanni Boccaccio's term 'val cava' makes a similar association, as he used it to mean both 'cunt' and 'valley' (as Jonathon Green notes in From Gropecuntelane To Val Cava, part of the 'cunt' chapter in his Getting Off At Gateshead). The 'cw' prefix can be traced back to the Indo-European 'gwen', which also influenced the Greek 'gune' and 'gunaikos', the Sumerian 'gagu', and the feminine/vaginal prefix 'gyn'.
Feminine 'gyn' terms include:
The form is also used, in a negative sense, to describe the hatred of women: 'gynography', 'gynephobia'/'gynophobia', 'gynophobic', 'misogyny', 'misogynist', 'misogyne', 'misogynic', 'misogynous', 'misogynistic', 'misogynistical', and 'misogynism'. The female sex androids in Inosensu: Kokaku Kidotai (Mamoru Oshii, 2004) are called "Gynoids". Mary Daly, in Gyn/Ecology (1978), coined the new terms "gynaesthesia", "gynocentric", "gynography", "gynomorphic", and "gynocide". In the same year that Gyn/Ecology was published, 'gynocidal' was used in the title of the feminist journal paper Pornography As Gynocidal Propaganda by Leah Fritz (in New York University Review Of Law And Social Change). 'Gynocide' appears in the title of the third chapter - Despair (Gynocide) - of the film Antichrist (2009).
Sharing the 'cw' prefix is 'cwe', meaning 'woman', influencing the Old English 'cuman' and 'cwene'. Anglicised phonetically, 'cwene' became 'quean', and is related to the Oromotic term 'qena', the Lowland Scottish 'quin', the Dutch 'kween', the Old Higher German 'quena' and 'quina', the Gothic 'quens' and 'qino', the Germanic 'kwenon' and 'kwaeniz', the Old Norse 'kvaen' (also 'kvan', 'kvenna', and 'kvinna'), the Middle English 'queene' and 'quene', and the modern English 'quean' and 'queen'.
'Cwm' also shares the 'cw' prefix, however its feminine origins seem initially perplexing, as it means 'valley'. In fact, this topographical definition is clearly a vaginal metaphor, as valleys are as furrowed and fertile as vaginas (although the Welsh slang words for 'vagina' are 'cont' and 'chuint' rather than 'cwm'). Viz magazine (William H Bollocks, 1997) punned on the sound of the Welsh phrase 'pobol y cwm' ('people of the valley') with 'pobolycwm', defined as "people who like quim".
'Cwm' is pronounced 'come', though 'quim', an English slang term for 'vagina', is a mispronounced Anglicisation of it. Alternative etymologies for 'quim' include possibilities such as 'cweman' (Old English, 'to please') and 'qemar' (Spanish, 'to burn'). Variants of 'quim' include 'qwim', 'quiff', 'quin', and 'quem', and it has been combined with 'mince' to form 'quince' ('effeminate'). 'Quimbledon', a combination of 'quim' and 'Wimbledon', is a slang word describing male spectatorship of all-female sports. 'Quimbecile' ('idiot'), is a combination of 'quim' and 'imbecile'. Other extended forms of 'quim' include: 'quedge' ('space between upper thighs'; a combination of 'quim' and 'wedge'), 'quim-trim' ('pubic haircut'), 'quimle' ('cunnilingus'), 'quimff' ('long female pubic hair'; a combination of 'quim' and 'quiff'), 'quimble' ('male sexual excitement'), 'quimby' ('middle person in a threesome'), 'quimsby' ('vagina'), 'quimstake'/'quim-stick'/'quim-wedge' ('penis'), 'quimwedge' ('sexual intercourse'), 'quim-sticker' ('womaniser'), 'quimfill' ('penis fully inserted into the vagina'), 'quimling' ('stimulating a woman to orgasm'), 'quimagination' ('mental depiction of unseen genitalia'), 'grimquims' ('group of unattractive vaginas'), 'stretched quimosine' ('elongated vagina', a pun on 'stretch limousine'), 'quim de la quim' ('exceptional vagina', a pun on 'creme de la creme'), 'quimple' ('vagina-shaped dimple'), 'quimper' ('sexual whimper'), and 'quimpotent' ('unable to reach orgasm'). The film Dr Loo And The Phaleks includes a character called Quimberly Dickmore, Viz created the fictional name "Quimford Minge" (Rosemary Flatbread, 2011), Natasha Desborough wrote a novel titled Weirdos Vs. Quimboids, and French And Saunders produced a parody of Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman titled Dr Quimn, Mad Woman (broadcast in 1996).
'Quim' has been extended to form 'quimwedge' (literally 'vaginal wedge', thus 'penis'), which is especially interesting as it utilises 'wedge' to mean 'penis' when, in fact, 'cunt' itself derives from the Latin for 'wedge' ('cuneus'). Dorion Burt's Decunta (197-) provides a further oxymoronic 'cunt'/'penis' connection: a large sculpture filled with whiskey, it is blatantly phallic in shape yet vaginal in name. There is a lesbian magazine titled Quim, and related to the term are the portmanteau words 'queef', 'kweef', 'quiff', and 'queefage', all meaning 'vaginal fart' and derived from 'quim' in combination with 'whiff'.
In addition to the clumsily Anglicised 'quim', 'cwm' was also adopted into English with the more accurate phonetic spelling 'coombe', from the Old English 'cumb'. 'Coombe' and its variants 'combe', 'comb', and 'coomb' remain common components of surnames and placenames. Indeed, so common is the word in English placenames that Morecambe Bay is often mis-spelt Morecombe: as Ian Mayes is at pains to point out, "It is not Morcombe Bay [...] it is Morcambe Bay" (2001). In England, there are nineteen places called Coombe (one each in Buckinghamshire, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Kingston-upon-Thames, and Kent; two each in Somerset and Wiltshire; three in Devon; six in Cornwall) and eight called Combe (one each in East Sussex, Herefordshire, West Berkshire, Oxfordshire, and Somerset; three in Devon). There is also a song titled Biddy Mulligan: The Pride Of The Coombe (The Clancy Brothers, 196-).
In America, 'combe' appears in the name of Buncombe County, from which the slang term 'bunkum' is derived. Congressional representative Felix Walker, ending a long-winded House of Representatives speech in 1821, insisted that he was "bound to make a speech for Buncombe" (Jonathon Green, 1998). Thus, 'buncombe' became synonymous with nonsensical speech, and was later simplified to 'bunkum'.
We have seen how 'cu' originated as an ancient feminine term. In the Romance languages, the 'cu' prefix became 'co', as in 'coynte', the Italian 'conno' and 'cunno', the Portugese 'cona', and the Catalan 'cony'. This 'co' prefix may also suggest a possible link with the Old English 'cot', forerunner of 'cottage', and with 'cod' (as in 'codpiece'), 'cobweb', 'coop', 'cog', 'cock', 'chicken', 'cudgel', and 'kobold', though this is not proven.
The 'co' prefix is found most abundantly in Spanish, which provides 'concha' ('vagina'), 'chocha' ('lagoon', a vaginal metaphor), and 'cono' ('vagina'). Suzi Feay finds 'cono' preferable to the coarser-sounding 'cunt': "I must say, 'cono' is a much nicer word than its English equivalent" (2003). There is also a Castilian Spanish variant ('conacho'), and a milder euphemistic form: 'cona' and 'conazo'. 'Cono' and its derivatives are practically ubiquitous in the Spanish language, as Stephen Burgen explains: "People are often shocked at the shear quantity of conos in Spanish discourse" (1996). In Mexico, Spaniards are known colloquially as 'los conos', indicating Mexican surprise at the word's prevalence in Spain.
'Cono' is significantly milder than its English equivalent, 'cunt', and therefore closely mirrors the similarly mild and omnipresent French term 'con' (of which more later). The transition from 'cu' to 'co' can be seen most clearly in the progression from the Old French 'cun' and 'cunne', to the Middle French 'com' and 'coun', and the modern French 'con'. These terms contain the letter 'n', and this is a clue that their evolution from 'cu' was indirect. The missing link is the Latin term 'cuneus', meaning 'wedge'.
'Wedge' and 'cunt', however, seem unlikely associates, as Jane Mills explains: "I know what a cunt looks like, and the word 'wedge' doesn't sort of spring to mind!" (Kerry Richardson, 1994). The 'wedge'/'cunt' link actually rests on their shared cuneiform shape: 'cuneus' led to both 'cuneiform' and 'cunt', with both words describing wedge-shaped triangular formations. The Latin 'cuneat'/'cuneate' and 'cuneare' also derive from 'cuneus', and are the sources of the modern 'coin'. Euphemistically, 'coin' means 'conceive', and 'coiner' can refer to a man who impregnates a woman, thus the word has a demonstrably sexual, if not explicitly genital, connection.
Thus, 'cuneiform', 'coin', and 'cunt' share the same etymological origin: 'cuneus'. The connection between 'cuneus' and 'cunt' is 'cunnus' (Latin for 'vagina'; perhaps also related to 'culus', meaning 'anus'), and this connection is most clearly demonstrated by the term 'cunnilingus' ('oral stimulation of the vagina'). In this combination of 'cunnus' and 'lingere' ('to lick'), we can see that 'cunnus' is used in direct reference to the vagina, demonstrating that the 'cun' prefix it shares with 'cunt' is more than coincidental. (The adjective is 'cunnilingual', and cunnilinus is performed by a cunnilinguist.) Another link is shown by the 'constrictor cunni', one of the muscles of the vagina.
Euphemistic variants of 'cunnilingus' include 'cunnilinctus', 'cumulonimbus', 'cunning lingus', 'Colonel Lingus' (t-shirt slogan), 'dunnylingus' (incorporating the slang 'dunny', meaning 'toilet', suggesting cunnilingus performed in a bathroom), 'cunnichingus' (cunnilingus performed with the chin), 'conulingus' (a contraction of 'con you cunnilingus'), and "Canni langi" (Michelle Hanson, 2003). It is often comically confused with 'cunning linguist', as in the Sluts song Cunning Linguist (1982), and was evoked by the Not The Nine O'Clock News song and album (The Memory) Kinda Lingers (1982). Viz has created the convoluted euphemisms 'cumulonimbicile' (a combination of 'cumulonimbus' and a mis-spelling of 'imbicile', referring to a man who cannot perform cunnilingus), "cumulously nimbate", and "cumulonimbulate" (Roger Mellie, 2005). 'Cunnus' also occurs in the phrase 'cunnus diaboli', medieval "cunt-shrine[s]" known as 'devilish cunts' and defined by Barbara G Walker as "Sacred places associated with the world-cunt [that] sometimes embarrassed Victorian scholars who failed to understand their earlier meaning" (1983).
There are many terms derived from 'cunnus' that have either literal or metaphorical vaginal or maternal connotations: the Roman goddess Cunina, the pagan goddess Cundrie, the Welsh 'cunnog', 'cuniculus' ('passageway'), 'cununa', and 'cunabula' ('cradle'). 'Cunctipotent', meaning 'all-knowing' or "having cunt-magic" (Barbara G Walker, 1983), is also derived from 'cunnus', and links sex to knowledge in the manner discussed earlier. Also from 'cunnus' is 'cundy', which means 'underground water channel' and is slang for 'vaginal fluid', a vaginal metaphor in the manner of 'cwm'.
The Greek 'kusos', 'kusthos', 'konnos' ('tuft of hair'), and 'konnus' (perhaps related to the Egyptian 'ka-t'), all emerged in parallel with 'cunnus'. Along with the Hebrew 'kus' and 'keus', they share an initial 'k' in place of the Latin 'c'. In modern Czech, 'kunda' ('vagina') is an invective equivalent to 'cunt', and is also found in the diminutive form 'kundicka' (the closest English equivalent being 'cuntkin'). In the Volga region of Russia, 'kunka' is a dialect term for 'cunt' related to 'kunat'sja' ('fuck') and 'okunat' ('plunge').
The Norwegian 'kone' ('wife') provides a further variant form, related to the 'ku' and 'cu' feminine prefixes already discussed. Modern Norwegian includes a broad lexicon of related terms, including 'torgkone' ('market-woman'), 'vaskekone' ('washer-woman'), 'gratekone' ('female mourner'), and 'kvinne' ('woman', also spelt 'kvinner' and 'kvinnelig'). Like Norway's 'kone' and its variants, there are are many other words with similar meanings, also belonging to Scandinavian languages: 'kunton', the Old Swedish 'kona', 'kundalini' ('feminine energy'), 'khan' ('Eurasian matriarch'), the Hittite 'kun' and 'kusa' ('bride'), the Basque 'kuna' (also 'cuna'), the Danish 'kusse', the Old Norse and Old Frisian 'kunta' and 'kunte', the Middle Lower German 'kutte', the Middle Higher German 'kotze' ('prostitute'), and the Icelandic 'kunta' (or 'kunt').
The Old Dutch 'kunte' later developed into the more Latinate Middle Dutch 'cunte' and 'conte', and the modern Swedish 'kuntte', though the modern Dutch term is 'kutt'. Also spelt 'kut', and extended to 'kutwijf' ('cuntwife'), 'kutt' has been used as the title of the porn magazine Kutt (2002), leading to Lee Carter's 'uncut' pun "live and unKutt" (2002). It is interesting that these Dutch examples include the suffixes 'te' and 'tt', as the final 't' of "the most notable of all vulgarisms" has always been "difficult to explain" (1961), according to Eric Partridge, who included 'cunt' in his Dictionary Of Slang And Unconventional English. The complex etymological jigsaw of this "most notorious term of all" (1947) can now be broadly pieced together: the 'cu' is Proto-Indo-European, the 'n' is Latin, and the 't' is Dutch. The Middle English 'kunte', 'cuntt', 'cunte', 'count', and 'counte' bear the marks of each of these three influences.
Case Study: Cunt As A Proper Noun
We have seen how the Celtic 'cwm' was influenced by the feminine prefix 'cu', a topographical vagina metaphor comparing the shape and fertility of valleys and vaginas. Other water-related terms also have similarly vaginal connotations, such as 'cundy' ('underground water channel'), which is a hydrographical vaginal metaphor derived from 'cunnus'. Similarly, 'cuniculus', also from 'cunnus', means 'passageway', and was applied to Roman drainage systems. Keith Allen and Kate Burridge (2006) cite 'cundy' as an early variant of 'conduit', alongside 'cundit', 'kundit', and 'cundut'; they also suggest that 'channel', 'canell', 'canal', and 'kennel' are related to it. 'Konnos', the Greek for 'vagina', is derived from 'cunnus' and the Sanskrit 'cushi'/'kunthi', meaning 'ditch', as both vaginas and ditches are channels for water. The Spanish 'chocha' ('lagoon') is another vaginal metaphor. The Russian 'kunka' describes two hands cupped together carrying water. 'Cut', a further term meaning 'water channel', is a recognised euphemism for 'cunt', though is not etymologically related to it.
The vaginal water channel allusion is replicated by the River Kennet in Wiltshire, as Kennet was originally Cunnit: "At Silbury Hill [the river] joins the Swallowhead or true fountain of the Kennet, which the country people call by the old name of Cunnit and it is not a little famous amongst them" (William Stukeley, 1743). Adjacent to the river is the Roman settlement Cunetio, also spelt Cunetione, Cunetzone, Cunetzione, and Cunetiu (though now known as Mildenhall). "The name ['Cunetio'] must be left unresolved", insist ALF Rivet and Colin Smith (1979), though its origin, like Kennet's, is the Celtic 'kuno'.
The rivers Kent (formerly Kenet) and Cynwyd share Kennet's etymology, and, as Michael Dames explains, Kennet's link to 'cunt' is readily apparent: "we may yet rediscover the Kennet as Cunnit, and the Swallowhead as Cunt. The name of that orifice is carried downstream in the name of the river. Cunnit is Cunnt with an extra i. As late as 1740, the peasants of the district had not abandoned the name [...] The antiquity of the form is clearly shown by the Roman riverside settlement called Cunetio - their principal town in the entire Kennet valley" (1976).
The earliest 'cunt' citation in the Oxford English Dictionary features the word as a component of a London streetname: circa 1230 in Southwark, there was a street called Gropecuntelane (though variants of the name include Groppecountelane, Gropecontelane, and Gropecunt Lane). The street was part of the 'stews', the Southwark red-light district, though its name was not confined only to London. There was also a Gropecuntelane in Oxford (later renamed Grove Passage and Magpie Lane), a Grapcunt Lane in York, a Cunte Street in Bristol (later renamed Host Street), and, in Paris, Rue de Poile-Con and Rue Grattecon. Bristol also had a Gropecountlane, later shortened to Gropelane, subsequently changed to Hallier's Lane, and finally Nelson Street. London's Gropecuntelane was later shortened to Grope Lane, subsequently became Grub Street, and is now Milton Street. Martin Wainwright cites a Grope Lane in York, perhaps a sanitised form of Grapcunt Lane or Gropcunt Lane, which was further sanitised to Grape Lane "by staid Victorians who found the original Grope - historically related to prostitution - too blatant" (2000). Keith Briggs (2009) lists numerous variants: Groppecuntelane in Northampton, Gropecuntelane in Wells (subsequently Grope Lane, Grove Lane, and Union Street), Gropecountelane in Shrewsbury (subsequently changed to Grope Lane), Gropecuntelane in Great Yarmouth, Gropecuntelane in Norwich, Gropecountelane in Windsor, Gropecountelane in Stebbing, Gropequeyntelane in Reading, Gropecuntlane in Cambridgeshire, Gropcuntlane in Shareshill, Gropecunt Lane in Grimsby, Grapecuntlane in Newcastle, and Gropecunt Lane in Banbury.
Other 'cunt'-related placenames include Coombe and Kennet, discussed earlier, the evocative Ticklecunt Creek, and the fictitious "Cunt Hill" (Robert Coover, 1983). In Barcelona there is a restaurant called Bar Cuntis, there is a town in China called Cuntan, and there is a town in northern England called Scunthorpe (Who Put The *@!+ In Scunthorpe?, asked Empire in 1993). There are places called Cunt in Spain and Turkey, and Spain also has a town called Cunter. Emma Rees added an extra 'n' to Connecticut to create "Charlotte in Connecticu(n)t" (2013).
Keith Briggs, for his paper OE And ME Cunte In Place-Names (2009), researched medieval towns and villages whose names derive from 'cunt'. He cites an area once known as Cunta Heale, which Nicholas P Brooks (1982) translates as "cunt-hollow". He also mentions Shauecuntewelle in Kent, Cuntelacheker in Fulstone, Swylecunt Dyche (later Swylecuntdiche) in Macclesfield, Cuntemedewey and Cuntemed in Adstone, Tapcuntlathe in Penrith, Cuntlait in Scotland, Cuntelowe in Parwich, and Cuntelowe in Hatton (the latter being subsequently changed to Countylowe). Briggs also identifies a curious cluster of Lincolnshire place-names with 'cunt' connections: Cuntebecsic, Hardecunt, Cuntewellewang, Cuntesik, Cuntland, and Scamcunt Grene. He also cites Hungery Cunt, which appears on a 1750 military map of Scotland in Cleish, though the name is presumably a mis-spelling of Hungeremout.
Graeme Donald cites another form of 'cunt' used as a proper noun, this time in medieval surnames, two of which predate the OED's earliest citation: "Early records mention such female names as Gunoka Cuntles (1219), Bele Wydecunthe (1328) and presumably promiscuous male sporting names such as Godwin Clawecunte (1066), John Fillecunt (1246) and Robert Clevecunt (1302)" (1994). Explaining that "Any part of the body which was unusual [or] remarkable was likely to provide a convenient nickname or surname for its owner" (1988), James McDonald cites the further example of Simon Sitbithecunte (1167, again predating the OED). Keith Briggs (2009) cites further 'cunt' names: Cruskunt, Twychecunt, and Bluthercuntesaker. Russell Ash provides more recent examples, in a book chapter titled The C-word (2007): "despite its super-taboo status, 'cunt' and its variants crop up as both a first name and surname in Britain". Ash cites Mary Allcunt (born 1815), Cunt Berger (born 1878), Cuntin Churles (born 1861), Cuntha Cronch (born 1834), A Cunt (baptised 1684), Fanny Cunt (born 1839; also her son, Richard Cunt; her daughters, Ella Cunt and Violet Cunt; her brother, Alfred Cunt), Harry Cunt (born 1874), Richard Harry Cunter (born 1880), Worthy Cuntilla (born 1825), Lancelot S Cuntin (born 1899), Mary Cunting (born 1837), Emma Scunt (born 1845), Cuntliffe Fanny Vidal (born 1887), Joseph Cuntingdon (born 1823), Ellen Cuntly (born 1877), James Cunts (baptised 1757), Margaret Cunty (married 1798), Cunty Hoel (born 1849), Cunt Pepper (born 1828), and Mary Ann Cunt Hunt (born 1829; also her husband, George F Cunt Hunt). He also cites names with 'cunt' homophones: Mike Hunt (born 1842), Phil Mike Hunt, Temperance Kunt (born 1824), and Kunt Zonar (born 1828).
Other 'cunt' names include those of the witch Johannes Cuntius, the make-up artist Gabreil de Cunto, the visual-effects artist Karina DiCunto, the writer Maren Hancunt, the actress Lilia Cuntapay, the composer Matias Gomez Decunto, the producer Loredana Cunti, the director Sol Cuntin, the actor John Dacunto, Constance Acunto (owner of The Acunto Group, a talent agency in Los Angeles, from 2005 to 2008), Pilar Cuntin, the actor Richard Acunto, Steve Acunto, the actress Amy Acunto, the actress Isabella Acunto, the actress Constance Acunto, the actor Philip Dacunto, and the director Luciana Rodrigues Dacunto. 'Cunt' pseudonyms include Miss Cunty and Maxine de la Cunt (both drag queens), the singer Dave Cunt, Kunt And The Gang band-members Andy Kunt and Little Kunt, Vaginal Necrosis band-member Mike the Cunt, The Wildhearts band-member Howling Willie Cunt, and the director Ima Cunt ('I'm a cunt', similar to Craig Brown's Latin parody "amacunt" from 1999). Carolee Schneemann wrote a letter to Friends magazine using the pseudonym "Cuntalee Snowball" (1971), criticising its Cunt Of The Week column: "A couple signal to a cab. It does not stop for them. The man screams after the cab, "You cunt!" Men and women are watching a sport on television. A player drops a ball. The men yell, "Cunt! Stupid cunt!" Some men are discussing another man who has betrayed them; they detest him and sum up his character as "An utter cunt," My questions: is a "cunt" something that makes men angry? or afraid? Does it stand for what they hate?". 'Cunt' also appears in the Indian surname Cuntararajan, and the Romanian surnames Cuntan and Cuntanu. A Bit Of Fry And Laurie created the fictional author "Ted Cunterblast" (Roger Ordish, 1989), and Viz writers have used the fictitious names "Cuntly Cuntington" (2011[a]) and "Major V Cuntingdon-Smythe" (2011[b]). In the first episode of the comedy series In Time With Alan Partridge, the eponymous character mistakenly refers to another character as "Alice Clunt", the joke being that her 'real' name is Alice Fluck (Neil Gibbons and Rob Gibbons, 2019). In The Simpsons, the name "Cantwell" is a 'cunt' pun: "Meet your new teacher, Ms Canterwell. Do not call her by the obvious dirty nickname" (Matthew Schofield, 2013).
The surname Kuntz has a tantalising phonetic similarity to 'Cunts', and is especially notable in the case of WD Kuntz, whose 'cunt' connection is compounded by his position as a gynaecologist. In a similar vein, Matthew Norman quotes a letter from Archibald Clerk Kerr: "[I have] a new Turkish colleague whose card tells me that his name is Mustapha Kunt ['Must have a Cunt']. We all feel like that [...] but few of us would care to put it on our cards" (2003). Tom Conti has received the same treatment: Gareth McLean wrote that "Conti should probably enter the vernacular as a term of abuse" (2003), owing to its similarity to 'cunt'. The surname Kant is commonly confused with 'cunt', as Mark Lawson discovered to his cost on a live television programme: "My error was not to have known that the Philosopher Immanuel Kant's surname is habitually pronounced by academics to rhyme with "punt"" (2003). Furthermore, the name of a character in the film I'll Never Forget What's 'is Name, Quint, has been interpreted as a reference to 'cunt'.
Terence Meaden suggests that legal suppression of 'cunt' constituted "a series of vicious witch hunts encouraged by an evil establishment wishing to suppress what amounted to apparent signs of Goddess beliefs" (1992), and, indeed, there was a Japanese goddess Cunda, a Korean Goddess Quani (the Tasmanian 'quani' means 'woman'), a Phoenician priestess Qudshu, a Sumerian priestess Quadasha, and, in India, a goddess known variously as Cunti-Devi, Cunti, Kun, Cunda, Kunda, Kundah, and Kunti, worshipped by the Kundas or Kuntahs. These names all indicate that 'cunt' and its ancient equivalents were used as titles of respect rather than as insults (as does the Egyptian term, 'quefen-t', used by Ptah-Hotep when addressing a goddess). 'Kunti', the name of an Indian goddess, is also an Indonesian term used to describe a mythical female vampire, abbreviated from 'kuntilanak'.
My own surname, Hunt, also has associations with 'cunt', as experienced by a character called Mike Hunt in a Leslie Thomas novel: "And if I 'ear any of you giving me nicknames - like My Cunt, Mike 'Unt, get it? - 'is feet will not touch the ground" (2005). The Mike Hunt pun can be traced back as early as the 19th century: "The dance was followed up by an out-and-out song by Mike Hunt, whose name was called out in a way that must not be mentioned to ears polite" (FLG, 1841). Designers Morag Myerscough and Charlotte Rawlins turned 'Mike Hunt' into a neon sculpture titled Has Anyone Seen Mike Hunt? (2004), when they were asked to illustrate the letter 'c' for a British Library exhibition. Maev Kennedy reviewed the sculpture in an article headlined Library Show For Word Rhyming With Hunt: "C, after all, is almost unique in having its own word. The C-word. The hardest word of them all" (2004). Mike Hunt is also the name of an American publishing house. An Australian magazine feature on the c-word was subtitled An Article About Mike Hunt (Rhonda Pietin, 2001).
In Australian slang, Mike Hunt is extended to Michael Hunt, which explains why Michael is Aussie slang for 'cunt'. The phrase is found in the Australian drinking toast Mich Hunt's Health (1731).
'Hunt'/'cunt' comparisons are many and varied: I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue has been introduced as "the show that is to panel games what James Hunt is to rhyming slang!" (John Naismith, 1998); in Head On Comedy a joke was made about "William Hunt" (Pati Marr, 2000); the "rhyming slang potential" (Gareth McLean, 2001[a]) of 'Mr Hunt' has been commented upon. 'Colin Hunt' is another rhyming 'cunt' euphemism: "Colin Hunt, the perpetual office joker in The Fast Show, is evoked. That's all they are, really. A bunch of Colin Hunts" (Charlie Catchpole, 2001). Smut has a comic strip called Kevin Hunt (2001) which puns on 'cunt'. Stupid Hunts, a pun on 'stupid cunts', was used as a headline by Total Film magazine in 2006. Private Eye punned on the connection with a reference to "ISAAC HUNT" (2011), Tristram Hunt ("what a bunch of Tristrams!", 2010), and the headlines STUPID HUNT (a reference to politician Jeremy Hunt; 16/10/2015), What a Hunt (another reference to Jeremy Hunt; 24/3/2017), and A complete Hunt (yet another Jeremy Hunt reference; 28/7/2017). Kirsty Allsopp demonstrates how easy a 'Hunt'/'cunt' slip-up can be: "I had to stand outside a house and say, "Welcome to The Great House Hunt!" [though instead] I said, "Welcome to The Great House C[unt]!" I was so embarrassed!" (Polly Hudson, 2003). Disc Jockey Nicky Campbell has mispronounced 'hunt' as 'cunt' three times in his BBC Radio 5 career, leading The Sun to call him Nicky C***bell ("pro-c[unt]ing, er, hunting"; Tom Wells, 2/4/2010); his Freudian slip was also reported by the Herald Sun in Australia (BBC Radio Host Drops C-Bomb In On-Air Chat, 2/4/2010).
The Viking invader King Canute's name was originally spelt Cnut, an anagram of 'cunt' in the manner of French Connection's FCUK. FCUK and Cnut are both tabooed words with their respective middle letters reversed, the difference being that FCUK was a deliberate reference to 'fuck' whereas Cnut was an accidental reference to 'cunt'. This accidental reference may explain why Canute has now replaced Cnut, in an attempt to Anglicise and elongate the word and thus disguise its similarity to 'cunt'. French Connection initially insisted that the similarity between FCUK and 'fuck' was merely coincidental, though they soon dropped their false modesty by pressing charges against the rival Cnut Attitude clothing brand.
Cnut Attitude later rebranded themselves as King Cnut, selling an extensive range of 'cnut'-themed clothing (as worn by characters in Monkey Dust, Chewin' The Fat, and The Baby Juice Express): t-shirts ('CNUT', 'cnut', and 'Cnut'), hoodies ('CNUT'), and thongs ('cnut', 'brazilian cnut', and 'hollywood cnut'). Their t-shirt slogans are: 'SAFFA CNUT', 'AUSSIE CNUT', 'BRAZILIAN CNUT', 'U R A CNUT', 'BRITONS NEED CNUT', 'UNIVERSITY OF CNUT', 'SPRINGBOK CNUT', 'STONED CNUT', 'CHARLIE NOVEMBER UNIFORM TANGO', 'BRITISH CNUT', 'ARMY CNUT', '24 CARAT CNUT', 'sexy cnut', 'posh cnut', 'lazy cnut', 'ginger cnut', 'cheeky cnut', 'pissed cnut', '20th CENTURY CNUT', 'it's spelt fuck you stupid cnut', 'Your boyfriend is a cnut', 'king cnut', 'kiwi cnut', 'miserable cnut', 'tory cnut', 'labour cnut', 'fat cnut', 'run like a cnut', 'bald cnut', 'you cnut be serious?', 'pommie cnut', and 'thick cnut'.
King Cnut, known as Cnut the Great, was one of several Danish Cnuts, including St Cnut. His name now prompts predictable double-entendres, such as this from Simon Carr: "John Prescott made King Canute gestures with his hands. Or, more accurately, King Cnut gestures (I'm glad I'm not dyslexic)" (2003). Private Eye punned on the name with its headline Silly Cnut in 2011. A split-second reference occurred in an advertisement for Kellogg's Crunchy Nut Cornflakes, when the final frame read "C NUT" (2002). In Believe Nothing, Rik Mayall played a character called Adonis Cnut, leading another character to ask him: "may I call you A Cnut?" ('may I call you a cunt?'; Claire Hinson, 2002). A Daily Star feature on the programme somewhat missed the point with the headline You Cnut Be Serious, using Cnut as a pun on 'cannot'.
The euphemistic Spoonerism 'cunning stunts' ('stunning cunts') relies not on rhyme but on a reversal of the initial letters, a trick later imitated by Kenny Everett's "dangerously named" (Mark Lewisohn, 1998) comedy character Cupid Stunt, a Spoonerism of 'Stupid Cunt'. There are albums called Cunning Stunts released by Caravan (1975) and Cows (1992), and Metallica released a Cunning Stunts DVD in 1997. A 'Cunning Stunts' t-shirt is also available, and a 'Cupid Stunt' t-shirt has been produced by SmellYourMum (2007). Furthermore, 'Cunning Stunts' is also the name of an advertising agency and a female theatre group. (There are also theatre groups called House Of Cunt and Theatre de Cunt, and Deborah Antoinette and China Blue Fish performed their feminist sketch show Queen Cunt - Sacred Or Profane? in 2018.)
Another 'cunt' Spoonerism is Cunny Funt ('Funny Cunt'), the title of a Smut comic strip. Richard Christopher cites two further 'cunt' Spoonerisms (both of which are rather sexist): "What's the difference between a magician and a chorus line? - The magician has a cunning array of stunts [thus the chorus line has a stunning array of cunts]" and "What's the difference between pigmies and female track stars? - Pigmies are cunning runts [thus female track stars are running cunts]" (199-). In a final Spoonerism, Courtney Gibson (2001) recalls a conversation between the Mayor of Newcastle and the Queen Mother: the Mayor attempted to point out the 'punts and canoes' on the river, though this became "the colourful c[u]nts and panoes cruising the river", to which the Queen Mother replied: "what exactly is a panoe?".
'Cunt' is known euphemistically as 'the monosyllable', 'the bawdy monosyllable', 'the divine monosyllable', and 'the venerable monosyllable', though, paradoxically, its earliest forms (such as 'cunte', 'cunnus', and 'kunta') were all disyllabic. Germaine Greer's Cuntpower Oz lists a page of 'cunt' synonyms under the heading The Divine Monosyllable and Jonathon Green's Slang Down The Ages features a similar selection of vaginal slang terms headed The Monosyllable. Artist Jason Rhoades created a deluxe lambskin-bound book/sculpture titled Birth Of The Cunt (2004), in which he listed various 'cunt' synonyms.
'Constable' (pronounced 'cuntstable') is a further 'cunt' euphemism, due to the phonetic similarity of its first syllable. William Shakespeare uses it in All's Well That Ends Well (1601[a]): "From below your duke to beneath your constable, it will fit any question", and, more recently, 'thingstable' has become a recognised euphemism for 'constable', acknowledging the 'cunt' link. The bawdy comedy film Carry On Constable is a pun on the c-word, with its phrase "silly constable" further emphasising the joke (Gerald Thomas, 1960). Ned Ward has reversed the syllables of 'constable' to create "stablecunt" (1924), and 'constable' has also been rendered as 'cunt stubble' and 'cony-fumble'.
Another euphemism for 'cunt' is 'the big C': "the big "C". No, I'm not talking Cancer. I'm talking Cunt" (Anthony Petkovich, 199-). The phrase was used as the headline for an article about 'cunt' by Joan Smith (The Big C, 1998), however it is also the name of a shopping centre and garage in Thailand. Similar terms are 'red c' ('red cunt', a pun on 'Red Sea') and 'open C' ('open cunt'). Other words termed 'big C' include 'cancer' and 'cocaine', and 'cirrhosis'. Even 'C' in isolation has also been used as a substitute for 'cunt', as in "the Cs of Manchester United" (Paul Wheeler, 2004) - a phrase which is seemingly innocuous yet also readily understood as an insult.
A handy two-birds-with-one-stone euphemism for both 'fuck' and 'cunt' is the phrase 'effing and ceeing' (thus, 'Woking FC' officially stands for 'Woking Football Club' though has also been extended to 'Woking Fucking Cunts'). 'Cunt' has also been combined with 'cock' to produce the portmanteau word 'cuntock' ('labia'), with 'smug' to produce 'smunt', with 'men' to produce 'munts', with 'gut' to produce 'gunt', with 'arse' to produce 'carse', with 'bastard' to produce "custard" (Roger Thomas, 1994), with 'penis' to produce "Cunis" (Walter Cairns, 2003), with 'prick' to produce "prant" (ACJ Scott, 2003), with 'fucking' by Charlie Brooker to produce "funt" (Paul Wheeler, 2012), and with 'fuck' to produce Peter Sotos's Cuntfuck (in Total Abuse, 1999). Eva Mendes created the extraordinary "motherfuckingcuntwhorebitch" (Chris Hewitt, 2007), and Douglas Coupland created the shorter portmanteu word "Fuckshitpisscunt" (2009). 'Cunt' has also been combined with 'twat' to produce 'twunt', and with 'twat' and 'wanker' to produce 'twankunt'; 'twat' has also been used as a replacement for cunt, for example when two men who were both politicians and gynaecologists were described as "being surrounded by twats. No prizes for guessing what the first draft of that joke was!" (John Spencer and Richard Valentine, 2011).
'Cunt' has been censored as 'c***', though 'c...', 'cxxt', 'c---', '___t', 'c__t', 'c--t', 'c nt', 'c_nt', 'c-nt', "c*!@" (Kate Burridge and Reka Benczes, 2019), 'c**t', 'c*nt', '*unt', '*@!+', 'c#@t', "c - " (Oliver Maitland, 2000), "#@*!" (Iain Burchell and Paul Malley, 2006), "@^*#" (CNN, 2008), "c-u-x-t" (John Beesley, 2017), "@%!*" (Daily Star Sunday, 2007), "C%#T" (Chuck O'Neil, 2015), "c#%t" (Street Of Shame, 2019), "c@&!" (Owen Williams, 2013), and '****' have also been used. It has also been intentionally mis-spelt as "cund" (Viz, 2010). Ruth Wajnryb notes the print media's coy treatment of the word: "CUNT has retained its shock-and-horror capacity. A good test of this is how a word is treated in the media. Most print media still baulk at printing CUNT, resorting to the rather quaint convention of asterisk substitution" (2004). Using other characters, especially asterisks, to replace letters (often vowels), serves to accentuate a word's obscenity, drawing attention to its unprintability.
Though the word 'cunt' is printed by some British newspapers, it never appears in a large font size, and is therefore never used in headlines. Thus, while articles about 'cunt' may include the word itself in the body-text, their headlines rely on asterisks or euphemisms instead, as in Last Taboo Broken By Sex And The C*** (1999). This tendency was parodied by Private Eye with a spoof headline about cricketer Kevin Pietersen: "The Only F****** W***** Is You KP, You Whingeing C***" (Kevin Pietersen: An Apology, 2014), and a spoof headline about political divisions: "Everyone agrees that abuse in politics is the fault of 'those c***s on the other side'" (Private Eye, 2017). Other examples include I Heard Maureen Lipman Say The C Word! by Catherine Bennett ("to urge an audience to shout "Cunt" seems like a real treat", 2001), C-Word Flak Leads Hoffman To Tears (John C Ensslin, 2004), CU President Says C-Word Is Used As Term Of Endearment by Kevin Vaughan (2004), BECKS C-WORD FURY AT 'SIR' SNUB in The Sun (4/2/2017), and 'Sir' David's jaw-dropping excuse for his C-word rants in The Mail On Sunday (5/2/2017). The last two examples were in reference to the leaking of emails by David Beckham in which he used the word 'cunt', leading to two jokes in Private Eye: the spoof song title I Vow To Thee My Cunt (a pun on I Vow To Thee, My Country; The 75th Anniversary Desert Island Discs You Weren't Allowed To Hear, 2017) and a spoof comment: "Ok, so he's called hoity-toity blazered bores a bunch of c****!!! (And that isn't CLOTS, geddit??!?)" (Glenda Slagg, 2017).
American newspapers are much more cautious about references to swear words in general, and 'cunt' in particular (practically the only exception being The Village Voice, which used the headline Cunt Candy Factory for an article by Tristan Taormino about "disembodied replicas of porn stars' famous bits [moulded into] plaster cunts" in 2005). As we shall see later, not only is 'cunt' a taboo in America, but discussion of this taboo is also a taboo in itself. Thus, while a few British newspapers print 'cunt' in full, and all British newspapers gleefully use the phrase 'the c-word' to describe any word starting with that letter, American newspapers often refuse even to print 'the c-word', let alone printing 'cunt' itself.
A significant example of this is Lisa Bertagnoli's article headlined You C_nt Say That (Or Can You?), written for the Chicago Tribune newspaper in 2004. Bertagnoli's article identified a phenomenon she termed "linguistic bleaching", suggesting that 'cunt' is changing its linguistic value through cultural repetition. She argues that, with the word's creeping presence on cable television and in general conversation, it is becoming an increasingly neutral term in casual speech. However, her article, and its (by British standards, quite mild) headline, were considered too strong by the Chicago Tribune editors, who decided at the last minute to remove it while the newspaper was actually being distributed. The article had already been printed, so the section in which it appeared was physically removed from the newspaper, though some early copies could not be recalled and the newspaper's censorship of itself was viewed with both scorn and humour by American media commentators. The scandal was inevitably dubbed "C[u]nt-gate" (Walter Burns and Hildy Johnson, 2004).
However, none of the commentators who criticised the Tribune actually used the word 'cunt' themselves. In a radio report about the scandal, for example, Bob Garfield referred to "a word beginning with 'c' and rhyming with 'shunt' [...] the dirtiest [word] in the English language" (Brooke Gladstone, 2004). Lisa Bertagnoli herself, the author of the suppressed article, sees the word as "something vile and hurtful, to be reclaimed", and maintains that women of her generation are not offended by the word: "I say that to my friends; I refer to a part of my body by that word. No big deal". By contrast, she admits that the typical response from older women is somewhat less accepting: "oh, my God. Shocking. Never use that word. Vile, repulsive. I would faint if somebody said it to me".
An affectionately disguised variant of 'cunt' is 'cunny', whose variants include 'cunnie', 'cunni', 'cunnyng', 'cunicle', 'conny', 'coney', 'conney', 'conie', and 'cunnikin'. Extensions include 'cunny-burrow' ('vagina'), 'cunny-catcher' ('penis'), 'cunny-fingered' ('butter-fingered'), 'cunny-haunted' ('sex-obsessed'), 'cunny-thumbed' ('feminine thumb gesture'), 'cunnyskin' or 'cunny-skin' ('pubic hair'), 'cunny-warren' ('brothel'/'vagina'), 'cunny-thumper' ('villain'), and 'cunny-hunter' ('womaniser'). Bunny Rogers wrote a poetry collection titled Cunny Poem in 2014. 'Cunny' is derived from 'cony' (also spelt 'coney'), which meant 'young rabbit' and was also a slang term for 'vagina' (hence 'cony-hall'). William Shakespeare hinted at this second meaning in Love's Labour's Lost (1588), juxtaposing 'incony' with 'prick' ('penis'): "Let the mark have a prick in't [...] most incony vulgar wit!".
'Cony' can be traced back to the Middle English 'cunin' and 'cuning', the African 'coning', and the Old French 'conin'. Related are 'conyger' (meaning 'warren' and also spelt 'conynger', from the Middle English 'conygere'), the Anglo-Latin 'coningera' and 'conigera', and the Latin 'cunicularium'. The word also appears in Old French, as 'conniniere', 'coniniere', 'coniliere', and 'connilliere'.
Perhaps in an effort to minimise the scurrilous impact of 'cunny', 'cony' was phased out of common usage and the meaning of 'rabbit' was extended to animals both young and old. Spanish and French provide strikingly similar examples: the French 'connil' ('rabbit') was phased out due to its proximity to 'con' ('cunt'), and replaced with the alternative 'lapin'. The Spanish 'conejo' means both 'rabbit' and 'cunt', and the similar Spanish term 'conejita' ('bunny girl') provides another link between the two elements.
The similarity of 'cony' to 'cunny' is echoed by the relationship between 'count' and 'cunt': "It is a likely speculation that the Norman French title 'Count' was abandoned in England in favour of the Germanic 'Earl' [...] precisely because of the uncomfortable phonetic proximity to cunt" (Geoffrey Hughes, 1991). Indeed, the title 'count' is rendered in Gaelic as 'cunta'. (The Gaelic 'cunta', with an acute accent over the 'u', means 'assistant.) Keith Briggs (2009) cites place-name suffixes such as Le Cunte derived from 'count'. As early as 1572 a direct and bawdy comparison between 'Earl' and 'Count' was made by Stephen Valenger:
"Well ay thie wyfe a Countes be yf thou wilt be an Earle;
The phonetic similarity of 'Count' to 'cunt' is so striking that accidental obscenities abound: Gordon Williams notes that, "[during] a Restoration performance of Romeo and Juliet [an actress] enter'd in a Hurry, Crying, O my Dear Count! She Inadvertently left out, O, in the pronuntiation of the Word Count [...] which reduced the audience to hysterics" [sic.] (1996). The Falmouth Penryn Packet newspaper once printed 'Countess' as "Cuntess" due to a typing error (20/4/2011).
An episode of Have I Got News For You once ended with the words: "So, for our winners: the chance to go to Michael Portillo's constituency and see the count. For our losers: the chance to retype that sentence without the spelling mistake" (Paul Wheeler, 1997). (The programme has also used "bunch of cundurangos" as a pun on 'bunch of cunts'; John FD Northover, 1995.) An identical instance occurred when the first 'O' of a fake cinema sign was lower than the rest of the text: "THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO" (Marquee Meltdown!, 1998). Linacre Lane cites 'Count Of Monte Cristo' as a Scouse insult, adding dryly: "The first word is often intentionally mispronounced" (1966). In the 1990s, a sign in a Japanese railway station advertised 'Discunt Tickets', a misprint of 'Discount Tickets'; similarly, the menu for London restaurant Bengal City misprinted 'Discount' as 'Discocunt'. An Asia Books poster (2017) advertising a 'DISCOUNT' used a circumpunct to represent the 'O', rendering it as 'DISC☉UNT'. Bangkok University's School of Accounting's logo replaces the 'o' of 'Accounting' with a graphic representing a ship, rendering it as 'Acc unting'. Like 'count', 'countdown' also has comic potential if its 'o' is removed, as we shall see later.
In Cockney rhyming slang, 'John Hunt', 'James Hunt', 'Billy Hunt', 'Ethan Hunt', 'Roger Hunt', 'Treasure Hunt', 'Joe Hunt' (abbreviated to 'Joey'), 'Flingel Blunt' (abbreviated to 'flingel'), 'back to front' (abbreviated to 'backter'), 'Bargain Hunt' (abbreviated to 'bargain'), and 'Charlie Hunt' (abbreviated to 'Charlie') are all euphemisms for 'cunt'. This last example, 'Charlie Hunt', is especially significant, as its abbreviated form 'Charlie' has entered the common vernacular as merely a term of mild reproach. The expression 'proper Charlie', for example, is used frequently without causing offence, as its connection to 'cunt' has been forgotten. A good example of this is the BBC Radio 2 sitcom A Proper Charlie. Although 'Charlie Hunt' is the most often cited origin of the abbreviation 'Charlie', another possible source is 'Charlie Ronce', which is rhyming slang for 'ponce'.
'Sir Anthony Blunt' (abbreviated to 'Anthony Blunt' and 'Sir Anthony') is a further rhyming slang 'cunt' euphemism, leading to James Blunt being known as "Cunty Blunty" (Q, 2005) and the t-shirt slogan 'WHAT A JAMES BLUNT...' (Shot Dead In The Head, 2006). In another reference to James Blunt, Stephanie Merritt's article There Once Was A Singer Called Blunt (2006) provides the first line of a limerick implying a "missing rhyme" with 'cunt'. On Just A Minute, Janey Godley punned on the similar sounds: "My friends Hunt, Blunt, and Cunningham" (Matt Stronge, 2016).
'Grumble and grunt' is another Cockney rhyming slang phrase meaning 'cunt'. It has been abbreviated to 'grumble', though this abbreviation is frequently a reference to pornography, so-called because heterosexual porn includes images of vaginas ('grumble and grunts'). In this pornographic sense, 'grumble' has been extended to form 'grumbled' ('caught in the act of masturbation', a pun on 'rumbled'), 'grumblehound' ('constant seeker of porn'), 'grummer' ('porn magazines'), 'jumble grumble' and 'grumble sale' ('cheap pornography'), 'grumbleweed' ('weak from excessive masturbation'), 'grumbelows' ('sex shop'), 'grumbler' ('pornography vendor'), and 'grumbilical chord' ('connecting lead for porn TV channels', a pun on 'umbilical chord').
'Sir Berkeley' and 'Lady Berkeley' are also Cockney rhyming slang for 'cunt', albeit rather more tangentially. The 'Berkeley'/'cunt' connection stems from the rhyming slang term 'Berkeley Hunt', abbreviated to 'Berkeley' and also known as 'Berkley Hunt', 'Berkshire Hunt', 'Burlington Hunt', and 'Birchington Hunt'. It is from this that the mild insult 'berk' (also 'birk', 'burk', and the Australian 'burke') is abbreviated, thus, as Jonathon Green explains, "when [people] say 'You're a right berk', what they're actually saying is 'You're a right cunt', which is much more obscene" (Kerry Richardson, 1994). In this sense, 'berk' is similar to 'Charlie', as both are common, mild insults whose origins as rhyming slang for 'cunt' have been forgotten. Total Film created the derogatory portmanteau word "Craftberk" (Hollywords, 2003), and The Sun punned on the coffe-shop company 'Starbucks' with the headline Starberks (6/10/2008). In a spoof article supposedly written by Boris Johnson, Private Eye (2007) defined "Berkely Hunt" (a mis-spelling of either 'Berkeley Hunt' or 'Berkley Hunt') as "Darius Guppy", in a reference to Johnson's association with Guppy tarnishing his public image; the magazine also combined 'Berkeley Hunt' and 'cunning stunts' to create the headline Berkeley Stunts (2009); later that year, it punned on the name Anton du Beke with "Anton Du Berk" (2009); and it also punned on Sally Bercow's surname: "don't make your husband look like a berc!" (Glenda Slagg, 2013). The Two Ronnies punned on 'berks' with the homophone "Burke's", in their Mastermind sketch (Paul Jackson, 1980).
Other Cockney rhyming slang 'cunt' euphemisms are 'all quiet' (from All Quiet On The Western Front; extended to 'all quiet on the breast an' cunt'), 'eyes front', 'Grannie Grunt', 'groan and grunt', 'gasp and grunt', 'growl and grunt', 'sharp and blunt', and 'National Front'. Roger's Profanisaurus (2011) added "Kenny Lunt" and "Tessa Munt" to the Cockney rhyming slang 'cunt' lexicon. The Cockney pronunciation of 'cunt' was evocatively captured by Clark Collis ("You cahnt!", 2001) and Irvine Welsh ("CAHHNNTTT", 2002), and by the headline Facking Cants ("You like the word cunt, huh?"; Anita Crapper, 2005). The Yorkshire equivalent is "coont" (Peter Silverton, 2009), and in Jamaican patois it is "cohnnnt" (Marlon James, 2014).
Like rhyming slang, limericks also rely on rhyme for their effect:
'There was a young squaw of Chokdunt
In backslang, 'cunt' is 'tenuc' and 'teenuc' (the extra letters being added to facilitate pronunciation), and 'cunt' in pig Latin is 'untcay'. (In 1992, on the television comedy show A Stab In The Dark, David Baddiel pronounced the word backwards: "It is a brilliant insult. A word with so many hard consonants in it in short a short time: un, tuh, cuh".) Anagrams of 'cunt' include the Latin term 'tunc', the Viking King Cnut, and Jake and Dinos Chapman's Ucnt (2003). A feminist pressure-group called 'Cunst', an anagram of 'cunts' and a pun on 'kunst' (German for 'art') campaigned in 1996 against male domination of the Turner Prize. In a Top Gear episode (Phil Churchward, 2010), Jeremy Clarkson noted that there were "a lot of anagrams going on here" on various car registration plates, followed by a shot of his own plate, CTU 131N.
The euphemism 'see you next Tuesday' utilises each letter of 'cunt' individually, with 'see you' sounding like 'c u', and 'n t' being the respective initial letters of 'next' and 'Tuesday'. The online group PrideTShirts sells 'See You Next Tuesday' t-shirts, and See You Next Tuesday (2005) is also the title of an album by Fannypack. Ke$ha released a song titled C U Next Tuesday (2010). Time Out magazine created posters with the slogan 'See you next Tuesday' in 2012. See You Next Tuesday is also the title of a play adapted from the film Le Diner De Cons, thus both the play and the film have 'cunt'-related titles. Ruth Wajnryb's book Language Most Foul was retitled C U Next Tuesday when it was published in the UK in 2005. The Guardian punned on Azealia Banks's song 212 with "SEE YOU NEXT 212-DAY" (The Populist, 2011). Similar to 'see you next Tuesday' is "see you in Toledo" (Brooke Gladstone, 2004), though in this case the letter 'n' is provided by a contraction of 'in'. Other variants are "catch you next Tuesday" (Brent Woods, 2005), "See you when tea is hot" (Robert Anton Wilson, 1981), and "See you, Auntie" (Tool, 1996). In November 2012, Sight And Sound magazine punned on 'see you next Tuesday' with the headline See You Last Tuesday, a reference to Tuesday Weld. Similarly disguised references are "See you when tea is hot" (Robert Anton Wilson, 1981) and See You Next Time, Sisters! (a 2009 episode of the TV series Greek). The Australian clothing company NT Official (2016) sold a range of t-shirts, singlets, and stickers with the slogan 'CU IN THE NT', a pun on 'see you in the Northern Territory'.
'Cunt' acronyms include:
In a 2007 journal paper about nanotechnology, the chemical symbol for copper ('Cu') was combined with the initial letters of 'nano tube' to create "CuNT" (Dachi Yang, Guowen Meng, Shuyuan Zhang, Yufeng Hao, Xiaohong An, Qing Wei, Min Ye, and Lide Zhang). 'Cunt' has also appeared as an accidental acronym, for example in Private Eye's headline "Cameron Urged Not to Take Any More Holidays" (The Eye's Most Read Stories, 2011).
Almost a 'cunt' acronym is the "Kuwait Union for New Teachers", abbreviated to 'KUNT'. This spoof organisation placed a classified advertisement in the Kuwait Times: "Teacher? New to Kuwait? Then you need the Kuwait Union for New Teachers. Become a KUNT, your friends can be KUNTs too" (2001). They have also printed the text onto a t-shirt.
'KUNT' can perhaps be regarded as a sly joke by an English-speaking writer in Kuwait. (Madonna made a similar joke in 2006 by creating a fake radio station, with a DJ announcing: "You're listening to KUNT".) Similarly, embedded within an article by Sally Vincent is the line "Point A moved to point B to point C until" (2003), which is arguably an intentional reference. There is no ambiguity whatsoever surrounding "-cunthorpe", a deliberate truncation of the Humberside town Scunthorpe on the back cover of a book by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie (1995).
Likewise, when a knight in Thomas Heywood's Wisewomen Of Hogsdon (16--) declares, in Latin, "Nobis ut carmine dicunt", he is described as "a beastly man" to highlight the embedded obscenity. 'Cunt' also appears surreptitiously in 'cuntur', the original Peruvian term for 'condor', and in the Latin terms 'producunt' and 'nascuntur'. Phonetically, it is contained within otherwise innocent words such as 'country', 'significant', 'contains' ("c*ntains strong language; Teresa Monachino, 2014), 'control' ("cunt-troll"; From The Message Boards, 2011), 'insignificant' ("You insignificunt little fuck!"; Troy Duffy, 1999), 'replicant' (Sadie Plant's From Viruses To Replicunts in On The Matrix, 1996), 'continuous' ("You're a raging cont- inuous love in my life"; Steve Robertson, 2015), 'continuing' ("Stan says you're a cont-, you're a cont-, Stan says you're a cont-, cont-, cont-, you're a continuing source of inspiration"; Trey Parker, 2003), 'contaminated' ("Balzac is a writer; he lives with Allen Funt. Mrs Roberts didn't like him, but that's 'cos she's a... Contaminated water can really make you sick"; Trey Parker, 2000) and 'applicant' (Dominic Brigstocke, 2007):
As John Hamilton explains in an 1899 letter quoted by Linda Mugglestone (2000), 'cunt' has "the same syllable as a contraction of Contra". The film Crank: High Voltage puns on the word's phonetic similarity to 'Cantonese': "What's that, fucking Cuntanese?" (Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, 2009). Oz made a similar pun on 'conjugal': "Oh, a cuntjugal" (Nick Gomez, 1997).
Matthew Parris once called 'cunt' "a word beginning with 'c', which I couldn't possibly repeat" (Rod Liddle, 2001), and in keeping with this is the commonest 'cunt' euphemism: 'the c-word' (not to be confused with 'crossword', which is sometimes abbreviated to 'c-word'). Simon Carr reports that his children confuse 'the c-word' with "the K-word" (2001). He also quotes their confusion over 'cunt' itself: "Mummy, clint! That's a rude word, isn't it? Clint!". Paul Merton joked about a similar misunderstanding on Have I Got News For You: "You should see how he spells 'Clinton'!" (John FD Northover, 1992[b]). Ruth Wajnryb writes "the 'SEE'-word" (2004), to distinguish it from the hard 'c' sound of 'cunt'.
If 'cunt' can be a 'c-word', can 'cock' be one, too? Sex And The City seems to think it can (Nicole Holofcener, 2000):
"his big, beautiful cock."
In the first episode of the sixth season of Have I Got News For You (Alik Sakharov, 2018), the character Claire Underwood is told that she has been verbally abused:
"Lots and lots of the c-word, unfortunately."
Jeremy Clarkson and Ian Hislop gave alternative examples of the c-word on Have I Got News For You (Lissa Evans, 2015):
"I am not allowed, on the BBC, to use the c-word."
'Cunt' may be the most notorious c-word, though there are, of course, many more: "There are 46,904 c-words as well as the c-word" (Deborah Lee, 2006). A surprisingly large number of these other words beginning with 'c' have also occasionally been called 'the c-word', usually for comic effect. The following is a representative selection. "Elon Musk of Tesla, with his investments in electric cars and space exploration, and gloomy, perhaps prophetic, warnings about the coming age of artificial intelligence, is another epochalyst. No surprise, then, that he is a fan of the c-word. In fact, not only is Musk a regular player of the computer game known as Civilization, which is all about husbanding resources to build an epic human community, but that word peppers his public utterances" (BBC World Service, 2018); "Catholicism: the c-word. Not the c-word, a c-word" (Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, 2005); "They definitely had the c-word: they had chemistry" (Katy Takatsuki, 2016); "two other C-words: Conscience and Cyclothymia" (Alexandra Mullen, 2012); "[Christopher] Nolan's script, co-authored with his brother Jonathan, never deigns to use the c-word: Catwoman" (Robbie Collin, 2012); "non-carcinogenic [...] Non-cardiogenic [...] avoid confusing C words" (Ivan Marples, 2011); "Ah, the c-word: context" (Tom Shone, 1994); "I'm confused. Uh oh, the other dreaded c-word." (Nicola Hurst and Melanie Crawford, 2013); "Credibility [...] the c-word" (Gavel Basher, 2011); "the c-word - class" (Dea Birkett, 2001 [also Dominic Cooke's Why My Theatre Will Always Use The C-Word in The Observer (16/9/2007), and The C Word in The Guardian (18/1/2010)]); "the 'C' is for 'Campbell', but we're a bit wary of using the c-word on air" (Abiola Awojobi, 2001); "they said the C word. Cut" (The Sun, 2003); "the c-word: 'cuts'" (Victoria Derbyshire [BBC Radio 5 Live], 2009); "another c-word: 'contextualise'" (Dymphna Flynn, 2013[a]); "the c-word: 'compliance'" (Dymphna Flynn, 2013[b]); "Clunge (a slang word for female genitalia) is the new C-word" (Liz Hoggard, 2011); "try to avoid mentioning the crowd [because] they hate the C-word here" (Charlie Wyett, 2002); "he was anxious to avoid the c-word: 'corporate'" (Annie Dunkinson, 2003); "In went the c-word - c as in crisis" (Catherine Donegan, 2012); Yesterday In Parliament quoted David Cameron saying "Why's he so chicken when it comes to the Greens?" and then commented: "That use of the c-word was the cue for shouting, jeering, flapping of arms, and, of course, chicken noises" (Alicia McCarthy, 2015); 'constraint': "The Labour C-word" (Ann Treneman, 2009); 'creativity': "you may recognise the real creators by the fact they seldom use the c-word" (Susannah Herbert, 2003); "the real unknown is the 'C' word, corruption" (Tim Butcher, 2003); "whether the c-word crossed his vivid lips. [...] What [Alex] Ferguson cannot be allowed to do is call a referee's assistant a "cheat" as he apparently did" (Henry Winter, 2003); 'comprehensive': "their party is still in thrall to the c-word" (Daily Telegraph, 2003); 'Christian': "President [George] Bush may slip the C-word into his press conferences" (John Adamson, 2003); 'climate change': "President George Bush [...] has acknowledged climate change in his annual State of the Union address" (Bush Utters The 'C' Word, 2007); ; 'Coren': "the subs neglected to call Giles by the C-word - and [called him] Giles Goren" (Street Of Shame, 2008); "the c-word: 'cocaine'" (Ray Herbert, 2010); 'clay': "A devotee of the C-word" (Grace Glueck, 1996); 'capitalism': "Capita [...] reckons the C-word could double the size of its business" (Andrew Cave, 2003); "hasn't content become the new c-word?" (Tyler Brule, 2011); "the C word is never far away [...] the collonial past lives on" (Michael Henderson, 2000); "Smiths is looking distinctly like a conglomerate. [...] The dreaded C word is enough to smash any company's rating" (Neil Bennett, 2000); 'civil war': "All because of the use of the C-word?" (Howard Kurtz's The C-Word, 2006); 'caravan': "What annoys park-home owners about the "C" word is [the implicit] rootlessness that it carries" (Christopher Middleton, 1999); "the dreaded "c" word: avoid [...] consolidation" (Edmond Jackson, 2001); "Don't mention the C word. These are not conservatories" (Jon Stock, 2001); "Could you make it more celebratory? Could you compromise? [...] that softer word, collaboration [...] because - a lot of c-words here, of a different kind - because of control" (Ellie Bury, 2012); "the dreaded c-word, complacency" (Rob Steen, 2001); "never ever using the c-word: child" (Allison Pearson, 2001); "The labour party conference was abuzz with the C word. [...] Compulsion is back on the agenda" (Liz Dolan, 2003); "they wouldn't even allow the c-word - chainsaw" (Jamie Graham, 2001); 'chips': "People come in and ask for [fries] and we have to tell them that we use the 'C' word not the 'F' word here" (Simon Brooke, 2004); 'challenging': "Blue Circle slipped the "c" word into yesterday's trading statement" (Ben Potter, 1999[a]); "conglomerate. [...] the much-unloved "c" word" (Ben Potter, 1999[b]); "thrown the c-word back into the mix - convergence" (Greg Howson, 2004); "the C-word so often fallaciously slung at him: caricature" (Peter Bradshaw, 2002); "saying his stuff was crap... he used the c-word. Not the really bad c-word" (Kermode And Mayo's Film Review, 2020); "I'm gonna say the c-word [...] Clarkson!" (Katie Tyrll, 2003); "Predicting the effects of London's upcoming C-word (Congestion Zone)" (John Hind, 2003); "avoid the c-word [...] and rule out compensation" (Neil Collins, 2004); "I'm reclaiming the c-word [...] I deliberately use the word conspiracy" (Rose George, 2003); 'constitution': "we won't be hearing too much about the c-word" (Kevin Marsh, 2004); 'compulsion: "it seems he is not going to shun the "C" word" (Patience Wheatcroft, 2004); 'cazzo': "the Italian C-word" (Benjamin K Bergen, 2016); "craft, the dreaded C word of the art world" (Chuck Close, 2006); "Like "culture," another high-profile C-word these days, "community" is admittedly a catchall" (Doreen B Townsend Center for the Humanities, 1999); "we're talking about the c-word: collusion" (Talkback, 25/6/2011); "In our world, the c-word is contamination" (Investigating OJ Simpson, 2016); 'cocaine': "[Ed Giddins] is always going to be [the] player who was done for the big 'C' word" (Marcus Armytage, 1999); 'cuckoo-head': "She is a total C-word. Hey, we're all guys here, I'll say it: cuckoo-head" (Pam Cooke, 2006); 'championship': "Stevie Craigan is running scared of an ear-bashing from John Lambie for mentioning the 'C' word" (Andy Devlin, 2001); 'crash': "We don't mention the C-word" (Tim Ross and David Gordois, 2001); "uttering the C word - as in "choke"" (George Kimball, 2004); "building momentum off three c-words: crowds showing up in bigger numbers than ever before, more cash in the bank than any other GOP candidate, and a confidence in the campaign strategy of turning out conservatives in Iowa and the South" (NBC Nightly News, 2015); "Is Caitlyn the new c-word? (Paul Casey, 2015); "isn't that Italian "champagne"? No, no, please don't mention the C-word" (Johnny Morris, 2003); 'Curle': "Carlton Palmer banned the C-word" (The Sun, 2004); "censorship [...] talk of the C-word" (Rachel Donadio, 2004); 'condom': "The 'C' word has come out of the closet" (Dick Thompson, 1988); "Cellulite. The "C" word" (Fiona Phillips, 2004); 'comradely': "an exceedingly rare [Tony] Blair use of the c-word" (Andrew Rawnsley and Gaby Hinsliff, 2004); "'There are good comrades who have fallen,' he said, an exceptional use of the c-word from [Tony Blair]" (Andrew Rawnsley, 2010); "conservation [...] I saw the "c" word" (Alistair McGowan, 2003); "the c-word's out, isn't it? Cricket!" (Barbara Wiltshire, 2012); "choice [...] both parties were obsessed with the same c-word" (Peter Barron, 2004); "it was the "C" word that was on everyone's lips. Mr Clinton had charisma" (Patrick Barkham, 2004); 'Clinton': "I have that uneasy feeling that the C word has echoed behind me in the corridors of corporate America" (Kathleen Deveny, 2008); 'coup': "In his only public statement since Mr. Morsi's ouster, Mr. Obama carefully avoided using the "c-word," as some in Washington termed it, though his description of events certainly sounded couplike" (Peter Baker, 2013); 'Clegg': "If I wanted to use an offensive "c-word" I would just use the most obvious one - Cl*gg" (The New Coalition Academy, 29/11/2013); "the dreaded "C" word is doing the Washington rounds again. [...] people are saying it out loud. Carter" (Mark Hosenball, 1989); "I would include Emanuelle And The Last Cannibals other than just, you know, because the title uses the c-word" (Calum Waddell, 2015); "I don't want to use the 'C' word, chokers, so I am not going to" (Commentatorballs, 2015); "[He] looked like someone who didn't even know what the C-word might be. Confidential? Cocoa?" (Simon Hoggart, 2003). The revue show The C Word (2005) revolved around three c-words: 'comedy', 'clits', and 'cake'. Kelly A Fryer's book Reclaiming The "C" Word (2006) is subtitled Daring To Be Church Again. Mark Mason's novel The C Words (2005) discusses 'commitment', 'coupledom', and 'children'. Grace Chin wrote a play about commitment titled The C-Word in 2009. Craft Scotland launched the advertising campaign slogan 'THE C WORD' in 2009, to promote craft. T-ShirtHumor sells a range of 'the C word' shirts, mugs, mouse mats, aprons, caps, and posters (punning on The L Word) featuring the slogan 'Cranky Covert Controlling Crusading Christian Corporate Compassionate'. The comic strip Dave Snooty And His Pals featured a discussion on the c-word (2010):
"DON'T MENTION THE 'C' WORD!"
A BBC World Service discussion on HIV treatment (2019) also coined a new c-word:
"They can't say he's cured, but it's looking very positive."
There was even a c-word reference in a TV commercial for Phileas Fogg crisps (2013):
"These crisps are great."
After it was reported that Donald Trump called a woman a word beginning with 'c' and ending with 't', Stephen Colbert misunderstood for comic effect: "He called her a cat?!" (Jim Hoskinson, 2017). Top Gear presenters Richard Hammond and Jeremy Clarkson discussed an alternative c-word (Phil Churchward, 2011):
"This is the perfect car for the job."
Graham Norton substituted a milder word when Sharon Horgan referenced the c-word on his chat show (Steve Smith, 2020):
"I did an interview once, and the journalist said that I used the c-word."
The most frequent word, other than 'cunt', to be termed 'the c-word', is 'cancer': "The C-words Cancer and Comedy" (Allen Klein, 1998) and "students talk about the Big C word. They don't mean Cancer. They mean Commitment" (John Allen Lee, 1998). There have been several books about cancer whose titles include references to 'the c-word': The C Word Cancer The C Word Christ by Mabel Olson (2004), The C-Word by Elena Dorfman (1993), The C-Word by Jean Taylor (2000), and A Lighter Look At The "C" Word by Steve Gould (1997). A cancer-awareness comedy event titled The 'C' Word was held in Toronto in 2010. A drama about a woman dealing with cancer, The C Word, was broadcast by BBC1 in 2015.
Newspaper headlines often use the phrase 'the c-word' to pun on other contentious terms beginning with that letter: "the phrase 'the c-word' is sometimes deliberately used to mean something else, while exploiting the intertextuality of the original meaning" (Ruth Wajnryb, 2004); for example The Guardian's headline Kick-Ass 2 Star Chloe Moretz On Carrie, Controversy And Other C-Words (Andrea Hubert, 2013), in which Moretz compared the c-word in America and the UK: "cunt is a funny word. It's a strong word, sure, but more so in America. In England it's just like any other curse word". The most common example of this is 'Christmas', which, like 'cancer', can be seen as an alternative 'c-word'. The 2001 headline Don't Mention The C-Word, for example, is about the removal of the word 'Christmas' from secular greetings cards. In the article, Richard Littlejohn asks, rhetorically: "Who, exactly, is offended by the C-word?". He has fun inventing phrases such as "Father C-word", "C-word Eve", and "C-word Day", all attempts to highlight the absurdity of banning the word 'Christmas'. Less festively, he also bemoans the culture of liberalism, 'political correctness', and 'Guardianistas' (in other words, his usual targets), asking: "How on earth do you describe these New Scrooges? Difficult, I know. But try the other C-word". As if that wasn't enough, Littlejohn went on to essentially repeat himself two Christmases later, in another article also headlined Don't Mention The C Word ("the dreaded C Word [...] Christmas", 2003). Catherine Bennett, in an article also headlined Don't Mention The C-Word (in The Guardian, 2003), also criticised the censorship of 'Christmas'. Tim Rider's article C-Word Ban (2004) was also about the contentiousness of 'Christmas': "They do not want any mention of what they call the C-Word because they are worried it will offend followers of other faiths" (2004), as was the article Merry C-Word (in Los Angeles Times, 2004) which urged readers to say 'Christmas' despite its controversy. Yet another article, headlined Just Don't Mention The C-Word (2004) also concerned the festive season: "Ditch the dreams of a white Christmas", as did Jay Nordlinger's article December's C-Word ("people could not bring themselves to utter the C-word", 2003). Time Out used the headline The C-Word on the front page of its 2013 Christmas gift issue (13/11/2013). After TV presenter Andrew Strauss called Kevin Pietersen a 'cunt', Private Eye punned that he had been called "charming": "Kevin Pietersen was described live on air by Piers Morgan as "charming". Cricket experts were aghast at the "inappropriate use of the c-word"", in a spoof article headlined Kevin Pietersen In C-Word Drama (2014).
Other headlines punning on 'the c-word' include The C Word ('celebrity') by Stephen Fry (in The Daily Telegraph, 199-), The C Word ('competition') (in The Sydney Morning Herald, 2003), Just Don't Mention The C Word ('crowd') by Charlie Wyett (in The Sun, 2002), The C Word ('cellulite') by Diane Taylor (in The Guardian, 2002), Calling The C-Word The C-Word ('censorship': "You've got to admire a man who's willing to call the c-word the c-word") by James Poniewozik (2002), The Other C-Word ('cunnilingus') by Susanna Forrest (in The Guardian, 2005), Confidence Is Growing As Cookson Banishes 'C' Word ("eliminating the hated "c" word [...] conglomerate") by Andrew Clark (1999), Like It Or Not You Are Going To Hear The C-Word A Lot ('choice') by Peter Riddell (in The Times, 2004), Salmond Dares To Use The C-Word ('coalition') by Kenny Farquharson (in The Sunday Times, 1999), Let's Not Fear The F-Word Or The C-Word ("Some of my continental European friends will have stumbled over the second part of my formula: federal Britain in a confederal Europe. [...] All I wish to indicate by using this C-Word is that the EU of 28 member states is a looser structure than those normally described as federal, and one in which national governments still largely call the shots"; Timothy Garton Ash, 22/9/2014), My Shame At Falling Victim To The Dreaded C-Word ('choking') by Matthew Syed (in The Times, 2002), The C Word ('colleagues') by Martin Waller (in The Times, 1998), Conservative Candidates Told To Avoid The C Word ('conservative') by Andrew Grice (in The Independent, 2001), Come On Mr Clegg Say Your Own C-Word... ('coalition') by Rachel Sylvester (in The Times, 2009), Breakthrough As Hu Says The C Word ("The C word entered the vocabulary of a Chinese president for the first time yesterday, as Hu Jintao promised his country would set its first carbon target") by Jonathan Watts (2009), and Brown Blurts C-Word Five Times ("Gordon Brown used the C-word five times yesterday - as he vowed to CUT state spending") by George Pascoe-Watson (2009). That final example, from The Sun's coverage of a speech by Gordon Brown, also resulted in a Sun leader column headlined C...onfession and a Gordon's C Word cartoon by Andy Davey, in a pun on Gordon Ramsey's The F Word; Patrick Wintour's report of the same speech in The Guardian was headlined At Last, Brown Says The C-Word, But Swears To Save Services (16/9/2009); and The Sunday Times noted that Brown's usage had led to other politicians using the word: Rejoice! All Parties Dare To Use The C-Word (20/9/2009). Ironically, after David Cameron goaded Brown for not saying 'cuts', when Cameron himself became Prime Minister, he used the euphemism 'difficult decisions' to avoid saying 'cuts'. Brown has used the real c-word, as the Evening Standard reported (No 10 Denied Naked Brown Called Aide The C-Word; Joe Murphy, 18/2/2010); and Brown has been a called a cunt by Jeremy Clarkson, according to The Guardian (Clarkson Crashes Into Trouble With C-Word Attack On PM; Leigh Holmwood and Chris Tryhorn, 25/2/2010).
A To Z: The Cunt Lexicon
The sheer extent of the 'cunt' lexicon supports Scott Capurro's assertion that it is "plainly the most versatile word in the English language" (2000). Capurro also notes the variety of reactions provoked by the word: "the reaction can be so varied. Some people will try to be smug about it and think, "Well, that does nothing for me". And the person sitting right next to that person could be completely moved by the word, emotionally drawn to somebody who uses that word, you know. And the person sitting next to that person could be someone who's completely disgusted by it. It's one of those great words that can get many, many different reactions from people." (Pete Woods, 2007).
Its versatility is demonstrated by the following 'cunt'-related slang words and phrases, listed in slang dictionaries such as The Cassell Dictionary Of Slang (and its second edition, Cassell's Dictionary Of Slang), A Dictionary Of Slang And Unconventional English, and Profanisaurus Rex; many of them also appear in Talking Cunt, part of the 'cunt' chapter in Jonathon Green's Getting Off At Gateshead:
Gender: Repression And Reappropriation
'Cunt' may be the most offensive word in the English language, though there have been many attempts to reappropriate it. This ideology, which was originally termed cunt-power, sought to invert the word's injurious potential - to prevent men using it as a misogynist insult, women assertively employed it themselves: "The old cunt was patriarchal, misogynist. The new cunt would be matriarchal, feminist" (Peter Silverton, 2009).
The feminist Cunt-Art movement incorporated the word into paintings and performances, and several female writers have campaigned for its transvaluation. In my evaluation of the ideology of cunt-power, I discuss the extent of its practicality, popularity, and longevity.
Words As Weapons
Children are taught this traditional mantra:
'Sticks and stones
However, words do hurt us, and they can be used as weapons. Walter Kirn has called 'cunt' "the A-bomb of the English language [...] my verbal fragmentation bomb" (2005), Lucas M McWilliams calls it "the c-bomb" (2006), Nick de Semlyen calls it a "C-shell" (2010), and Germaine Greer sees it as a word that "men throw at one another [...] you can use it like a torpedo" (Deborah Lee, 2006). Verbal weapons cause intense emotional pain. GQ has noted that "No word is more hurtful or destructive than the C-word" (2005). Catherine MacKinnon cites numerous examples of abusive language provoking distress and resulting in litigation. Asserting that "A woman worker who was referred to by a [presumed male] co-worker as a 'cunt' could present a strong case for sexual harassment" (1994), she quotes "Cavern Cunt", "stupid cunt", "fucking cunt", and "repeated use of the word 'cunt'" as phrases resulting in convictions for sexual harassment. Just as 'cunt' can be a violent word, its use can also have violent repercussions: it is "a word so offensive that it would earn you a slap if you called someone it in a bar" (Adam Renton, 2008).
By contrast, however, a more recent case was dismissed when it was ruled that the word 'cunt' did not constitute sexual harassment: the court concluded that the word, while being "one of the most derogatory terms for a woman", could also be regarded as complementary (Kevin Vaughan, 2004). A female student at Colorado University had alleged that another student called her a 'cunt'. Meanwhile, the University's President, Betsy Hoffman, citing Geoffrey Chaucer, defended the word as "a term of endearment" (John C Ensslin, 2004). Hoffman was ridiculed by the press, not least because the name of her university is commonly abbreviated to 'CU': "In CU President Betsy Hoffman's world [...] CU is halfway to CU**, which is just so CUte" (Mike Littwin, 2004; the article was headlined To Hoffman CU Halfway To A New Meaning).
When men use the word 'cunt' to insult women, courts have deemed the act to be unlawful. When men use it to insult other men, as Julia Penelope demonstrates, their usage is still inherently insulting to women: "[words] used by men to insult other men, motherfucker, son-of-a-bitch, bastard, sissy, and cunt insult men because they're female words" (1990). 'Cunt' insults men because it acts as a verbal castration, removing their masculinity by denying them their penis, implying that having a cunt is inferior to having a cock: Signe Hammer explained that to call a man a 'cunt' "is to call him a woman: castrated" (1977).
The other male insults cited by Penelope are also tangential insults to women: to call a man a 'motherfucker' implicates both him and his mother, 'bastard' implies a man's mother is a slut, 'sissy' insults a man by likening him to a woman, and 'son-of-a-bitch' can be seen as an indirect insult to a man though a direct insult to his mother.
Walter Kirn wrote The Forbidden Word (2005), a lengthy article for GQ exploring the emotional impact of 'cunt'. He calls it "the four-letter word a man can use to destroy everything with a woman [...] and possibly the last word in the English language that keeps on hurting even after it's spoken". Kirn explains the offensiveness of 'cunt' with reference to its plosive phonetics and its semantic reductionism: "The word is an ugly sonic package, as compact as a stone [...] The word obliterates individuality. It strips away any aura of uniqueness". (A character in the Hungarian film Taxidermia also notes the ugliness of the word, or rather its Hungarian equivalent.)
Somewhat insensitively, Kirn feels that women over-react to the word when it is used against them: "It doesn't bruise. It doesn't leave a mark. Yet women treat its deployment as tantamount to an act of nonphysical domestic violence". He also ignores the word's feminist reclamation, stating incorrectly: "you'll never hear someone call herself a cunt, let alone call another woman one. [...] The only time it's acceptable for a woman to speak such vileness is when she's quoting a man and seeking empathy for the wounds he has caused her". Essentially, Kirn's article is a macho defence of what he sees as the male privilege to call women cunts: "I'm grateful for the C-bomb, and thankful that women have nothing with which to match it. When a man has already lost the argument and his girl is headed out the door [we] have one last, lethal grenade to throw".
Unsurprisingly, women wrote to GQ to take issue with Kirn's article. Kim Andrew stressed that Kirn's definition of 'cunt' as "the A-bomb of the English language" does not apply to the UK, where it is used more freely than in America: "The word cunt is only an "A-bomb" in American English. [...] My many British friends and I toss the word around so frequently that our American friends have begun to use it in the same silly fashion" (2005). M Restrepo's reaction was that, provided 'cunt' is not used insultingly (as Kirn employs it), it should not be tabooed: "What era is Walter Kirn living in? Cunt is no longer taboo. [...] Perhaps his woman is insulted not at being called a cunt but at the thought that he would deem it such an insult" (2005).
In welcome contrast to Kirn's article, Jonathon Green criticises the inherent patriarchy of the slang lexicon: "Slang is the essence of 'man-made language', created by men and largely spoken by him too" (1993). This is a trend which has noticeably increased over time, as Germaine Greer explains: "The more body-hatred grows, so that the sexual function is hated and feared by those unable to renounce it, the more abusive terms we find in the language" (1970[a]).
Specifically, the status and deployment of 'cunt' as "The worst name anyone can be called [and] the most degrading epithet" (Germaine Greer, 1970[a]), and especially as the worst name a woman can be called, serves to reinforce the tradition of cultural patriarchy, as Jane Mills points out: "the use of 'cunt' as the worst swear word that anyone can think of says a great deal about misogyny in our society, and I think it reveals fear, disgust, and also [a] denial of female sexuality" (Kerry Richardson, 1994). Joan Smith agrees: "It is impossible not to make a link, as lexicographers and feminist writers have done, between the [...] decline [of 'cunt'] into obscenity and illegality, and fearful attitudes towards women and their sexuality" (1998).
Smith calls 'cunt' "the worst possible thing - much worse than ['prick'] - one human being can say to another" (1998) and Simon Carr calls it "the worst thing you can say about anyone" (2001). As Deborah Cameron notes, "taboo words tend to refer to women's bodies rather than men's. Thus for example cunt is a more strongly tabooed word than prick, and has more tabooed synonyms" (1985). Jonathon Green concurs that "the slang terms for the vagina outstrip any rivals, and certainly those for the penis [...] They encompass what is generally acknowledged as the most injurious of monosyllabic epithets [and] that ultimate in four-letter words" (1993), by which, of course, he means 'cunt'. William Leith notes that "We may have equality of the sexes but we do not have equality of sexual organs [...] Female sexual organs carry a powerful taboo. I can print the words prick, cock and dick as much as I like", adding coyly: "but I know I have to be careful with the c-word" (2000). Ed Vulliamy makes the same point: "the c-word is different. 'Cock', 'dick' and 'prick', and elaborations thereof, are fine - but not the female equivalent" (1999).
The inequality of 'prick' and 'cunt' is also explored in the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm (David Steinberg, 2001), after the central character uses 'cunt' as an insult towards another man:
"They think you're a misogynist."
According to Brigid McConville and John Shearlaw, 'cunt' "reflects the deep fear and hatred of the female by the male in our culture. It is a far nastier and more violent insult than 'prick' which tends to mean foolish rather than evil. This violent usage is a constant and disturbing reminder to women of the hatred associated with female sexuality and leaves women with few positive words to name their own organs" (1984). The 'cunt' taboo is but the most extreme example of a general taboo surrounding the lexicon of the female genitals: "Mild, non-specific [...] euphemisms are employed to not name that part of women's bodies" (Virginia Braun and Sue Wilkinson, 2001).
The word 'vagina' is also subject to this taboo: "Even the word vagina has not easily entered public space". Braun and Wilkinson cite examples of the term being banned from billboards ("the London Underground banned a birth control advertisement - deeming it 'offensive' for including the word 'vagina'") and theatrical posters ("Promotional material for theatrical pieces whose titles contained the word vagina has been censored [...] so that the word vagina need not be on public display"). In such example, The Vagina Monologues was renamed "The Hoohaa Monologues" in Florida (No Vaginas Please, We're Floridian, 2007), following a complaint from a female resident. Indeed, after surveying women's own attitudes, Sophie Laws discovered that they even felt obligated to self-censor their own discourse: "[women do not] refer to their sexual and reproductive organs in any way except in the most private of interactions" (1990). Virginia Braun and Celia Kitzinger published a 'survey of surveys', revealing the extent to which 'vagina' is a tabooed word: "Many people appear to consider women's genitalia to be unmentionable. In one study, only 7% of respondents (10% of men, 5% of women) considered the vagina a body part that is freely mentionable [...] A more recent survey found that 53% of women "felt some discomfort using the word vagina" [...] Women and gynecologists have been shown to rarely mention the word vagina (or even a synonym) during gynecological consultations [...] Female participants in focus groups looking at sexually explicit magazines "avoided referring to the genitals of the models" [...] Despite public debate and discussion about sex and sexuality, the vagina remains a taboo or private topic" (2001[a]).
'Cunt' has a long history of abuse, though the standard terms 'vagina' and 'pudendum' themselves are far from neutral. 'Pudendum' is derived from the Latin 'pudere', meaning 'to be ashamed', thus 'pudendum' describes the vagina as a shameful organ. 'Vagina' is Latin for 'sheath', 'scabbard', and 'quiver', protective coverings into which one slides swords or arrows, and is thus closely linked to pejorative conceptions of sex as a violent, male stabbing act: "In fact, "vagina" is the nastiest kind of name for the female genitalia [...] There is more to the female sex than accommodation of a male weapon" (Germaine Greer, 2002). The German equivalent is even more demeaning: 'Schamscheide' ('vagina') translates literally as 'sheath of shame'.
Word-meanings are dictated by consensus and contemporary usage, thus negative meanings can be reversed when pejorative terms are systematically reappropriated: "There have been several recent instances of a particular group explicitly reclaiming a taboo word previously used against them" (Susie Dent, 2004). Melinda Yuen-Ching Chen and Robin Brontsema have both described the specific reappropriation of 'queer', though they also discuss the concept of reappropriation in general. Brontsema provides a succinct definition of the terminology: "Linguistic reclamation, also known as linguistic resignification or reappropriation, refers to the appropriation of a pejorative epithet by its target(s)" (2004). He views the process as a harnessing and reversal of the original invective: "[the] injurious power is the same fuel that feeds the fire of its counter-appropriation. Laying claim to the forbidden, the word as weapon is taken up and taken back by those it seeks to shackle - a self-emancipation that defies hegemonic linguistic ownership and the (a)buse of power". Chen defines reclamation as "an array of theoretical and conventional interpretations of both linguistic and non-linguistic collective acts in which a derogatory sign or signifier is consciously employed by the 'original' target of the derogation, often in a positive or oppositional sense" (1998).
The focus here is primarily on feminist reappropriations, specifically on feminist attempts to reclaim 'cunt' and other abusive terms: "Girls and women can thus reclaim the words in our language that have been used against us" (Gloria Bertonis, 2003). The mainstream success of reappropriations, however, depend upon the consensus of the population as a whole: "you cannot demand the word ['cunt'] be used only as a hallelujah to the flower of your womanhood; like all words, its meaning had been decided through collective use" (Andrew Billen, 2007). The commonest derogative term for a woman - 'bitch' - is on the road to reclamation. The BITCH Manifesto (written by Jo Freeman under the pseudonym Joreen) prompted a positive reassessment of the word: "BITCH does not use this word in the negative sense. A woman should be proud to declare she is a Bitch, because Bitch is Beautiful. It should be an act of affirmation by self and not negation by others" (1968). Casey Miller and Kate Smith discuss this transvaluation of 'bitch' and also cite "Groups of feminists who choose to call themselves witches [...] to rehabilitate that word in the same way" (1976). 'Bitch' has also been converted into positive acronyms: 'Babe In Total Control of Herself' and 'Being In Total Control of Him', as seen on badges, t-shirts, and other items; in this way, not only the meaning of the term has been changed but even its constituent letters are appropriated to positive effect.
Other formerly derogatory terms for women have also been reclaimed: "The feminist spirit has reclaimed some words with defiance and humor. Witch, bitch, dyke, and other formerly pejorative epithets turned up in the brave names of small feminist groups" (Gloria Steinem, 1979). Mary Daly has attempted to reverse the negative associations of words such as 'spinster', 'witch', 'harpy', 'hag', and 'crone'. Where she is able to demonstrate non-pejorative etymological origins of these terms, she advocates a reversal of their current definitions. Daly does readily admit that not every modern negative term was originally positive ('crone', for example, has always implied old age), though in these cases she assert that negative connotations are a patriarchal perception: "ageism is a feature of phallic society. For women who have transvalued this, a Crone is one who should be an example of strength, courage and wisdom" (1978). (In an episode of the sitcom Veep, 'crone' is confused with the c-word: "I called the president the c-word... I was like, 'What an old crone!'" (Brad Hall, 2016).)
'Dyke' was used in the title of the New York lesbian newspaper Big Apple Dyke News, demonstrating that a word can be reclaimed when it is used consciously by the group to which its vehemence was previously directed. 'Dyke' was also reappropriated by Catherine Opie, who photographed a lesbian with the word tattooed onto her neck: "Opie [...] embarked on a particularly assertive series of self-portraits and portraiture designed to re-appropriate and re-inscribe the names she and her friends were called" (Bill Kouwenhoven, 2008). 'Lesbian' has also been reappropriated: "radical feminist groups reclaimed the word 'lesbian'. Regularly used as a pejorative term [...] the word was rehabilitated as both an accurate descriptive term and as a source of pride" (Will Barton and Andrew Beck, 2005). As Roz Wobarsht wrote in a letter to the feminist magazine Ms: "I think a female's use of words abusive to females defuses them. Our use takes away the power of the words to damage us" (1977). Jane Mills adds that "crumpet has recently been appropriated by women to refer to men [and] women today are making a conscious attempt to reform the English language [including] the reclamation and rehabilitation of words and meanings" (1989). Maureen Dowd (2006) notes the "different coloration" of 'pimp' and charts the transition of 'girl' "from an insult in early feminist days to a word embraced by young women".
A less likely pioneer of reclamation is the self-styled 'battle-axe' Christine Hamilton, though her celebratory Book Of British Battle-Axes nevertheless marked a re-evaluation of the term. Julie Bindel cites 'bird' and 'ho' as "blatant insults [...] co-opted by the recipients of those insults and turned into ironic terms of endearment and empowerment" (2006). Patrick Strudwick praises Bint Magazine for "reclaiming the term "bint" from the huge slag heap of misogynist smears and turning it into something fabulous" (2004).
The offensive term 'slut' has also been reclaimed as an epithet of empowerment: Kate Spicer suggests that 'slut' is "a term of abuse that has been redefined by fashion to mean something cool [...] A fashionable woman can take those phallocentric terms of abuse like slut and slag and nasty girl and turn them into labels of postfeminist fabulousness" (2003). In the 1960s, Katharine Whitehorn famously used her column in The Observer to self-identify as a 'slut', using the term in its original sense meaning a slovenly woman. In the 1990s, Kathleen Hanna performed with her band Bikini Kill with 'SLUT' written on her torso, influencing the Riot Grrrl movement. In 2017, Bea Miller released the song S.L.U.T., using the word as an acronym for "Sweet little unforgettable thing". In 2011, the campaigning group SlutWalk Toronto organised a series of 'slutwalks' - demonstrations in which women marched while wearing sexually-provocative clothing and holding banners reappropriating the word 'slut'. The SlutWalk campaign provoked considerable feminist debate, with Gail Dines and Wendy J Murphy arguing that the protesters were fighting a lost cause: "The organisers claim that celebrating the word "slut", and promoting sluttishness in general, will help women achieve full autonomy over their sexuality. But the focus on "reclaiming" the word slut fails to address the real issue. The term slut is so deeply rooted in the patriarchal "madonna/whore" view of women's sexuality that it is beyond redemption. The word is so saturated with the ideology that female sexual energy deserves punishment that trying to change its meaning is a waste of precious feminist resources" (2011). Germaine Greer (2011) was more enthusiastic about the SlutWalk phenomenon, though she cautioned that "It's difficult, probably impossible, to reclaim a word that has always been an insult" (and she should know).
Here, the principal is the same as that pioneered by Madonna: sexual aggression, feared by men and characterised by them in disrespectful terms such as 'slut', can be redefined as an assertive and positive attribute. It is not simply the word 'slut' that is being redefined, it is the lifestyle that the word represents - the meaning of the term 'slut' has stayed the same, though the cultural acceptance of its characteristics has increased. As Chinese is a tonal language, the same word can have multiple meanings depending on its pronunciation; this has been used subversively by women to reappropriate the pejorative term 'shengnu' ('leftover women'), which can also mean 'victorious women' when pronouced with a different tone. This "pun that turns the tables on the prejudicial description" gained popularity following the television series The Price Of Being A Victorious Woman (Tatlow, 2013[a]).
It is important to note the distinction between changing a word's definition and changing its connotation. Women have sought not to change the definitions of (for example) 'cunt' or 'slut', but instead to alter the cultural connotations of the terms. Thus, the reclaimed word 'cunt' is still defined as 'vagina' and the reclaimed 'slut' still means 'sexual predator'. What have been reclaimed are the social attitudes towards the concepts of vaginas and sexual predators: whereas these once attracted negative connotations, they have been transvalued into positive concepts. In a sense, this is true of a large number of terms which are regarded as positive by some yet as negative by others: for example, 'liberal' is used as an insult by conservatives, and 'conservative' is used as an insult by liberals. Salman Rushdie gives examples of older political terms which have also been reclaimed: "To turn insults into strengths, Whigs [and] Tories [both] chose to wear with pride the names they were given in scorn" (1988). Also, in Thailand, poor farmers protesting against the aristocratic political system wore t-shirts with the word 'prai' ('commoner') as a symbol of pride, in "a brilliant subversion of a word that these days has insulting connotations" (Banyan, 2010). In a similar case, UK politician Andrew Mitchell was accused of calling a police constable a 'pleb', prompting FunkyShirts to produce 'PC PLEB" and 'PC PLEB AND PROUD' t-shirts (2012). After Republicans derided Barack Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as 'Obamacare', Obama himself began using this more concise though originally derogatory term, professing that he liked it.
Richard Herring notes the paradox that, while the vagina should be celebrated, 'cunt' is an inexplicably offensive term: "it describes quite a nice thing. If you give words the power then they are nasty. But you can turn things around and use them in a different way" (Anthony Barnes, 2006). Thus, reclaiming abusive language requires a change not in meaning but in attitude. Whereas Madonna is perhaps the most significant embodiment of this transvaluation - female sexual empowerment being asserted as liberating and subversive - the theory behind it has been articulated most dramatically by Germaine Greer in her essay for Suck on the word 'whore'.
Germaine Greer - who instigated the cunt-power movement, of which more later - wrote I Am A Whore, in which she consciously identified herself with the word 'whore', attempting to show that it can be positive rather than negative: "Whore is a dirty word - so we'll call everybody whore and get people uptight; whereas really you've got to come out the other way around and make whore a sacred word like it used to be and it still can be" (1971[b]). (In the same issue as I Am A Whore, on the opposite page, was an article titled Dry Cunt.)
Greer's biographer fundamentally misjudged her suggestion, calling it "a direct betrayal of what feminism was supposed to be about [...] it takes a truly eccentric and bizarre kind of feminism for one to identify as a prostitute" (Christine Wallace, 1997). In fact, far from identifying as a prostitute, Greer was implying that the word 'whore' could be removed from its pejorative associations. More recently, Karen Savage produced t-shirts with the slogans 'WHORE' and 'BITCH', encouraging women to make an instant visual statement of reclamation.
A term with similar status is the racially abusive 'nigger', which has been reclaimed (or 'flipped') by African-Americans (such as Richard Pryor's Supernigger), and is used in this context as a term of endearment. 'Nigger' has been reclaimed by the group against which it was used as a means of subjugation and oppression, and its reappropriation serves to dilute its potential to offend. Jonathon Green suggests that this use "as a binding, unifying, positive word" dates from as early as the 1940s (Jennifer Higgie, 1998). Its reappropriation is not universally accepted, however: Spike Lee has criticised what he perceives as Samuel L Jackson's insensitivity towards the word's history. Similar attempts to reclaim other racially abusive terms such as 'paki' (notably the PAK1 clothing brand) have been equally contentious: "even now this "flipping", as it is called, has not been totally successful" (Sarfraz Manzoor, 2004). In his article A Bad Word Made Good (2005), Andrew Clark notes the reappropriation of 'wog', formerly a term of racist abuse though later used self-referentially amongst Australia's Greek community: "the term has metamorphosed in the Antipodes. Greek[s] happily refer to themselves as wogs [...] Some time during the 80s, the word was adopted as a badge of pride by the people to whom it referred". Furthermore, Todd Anten cites the increasing transvaluation of 'chink', noting that "Virtually any word that is or has been a slur can be reappropriated by the target group" (2006).
Lenny Bruce made the point that the social suppression of taboo words such as 'cunt' and 'nigger' serves to perpetuate and increase their power: "the word's suppression gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness" (1970). He argued that only through repetition can we remove the abusive powers of taboo words: "If [you said] niggerniggerniggernigger [...] till nigger lost its meaning - you'd never make any four-year-old nigger cry when [they] came home from school".
In Monty Python's Life Of Brian, the eponymous character reclaims a whole host of anti-Semitic epithets: "I'm a kike, a Yid, a hebe, a hooknose [...] and proud of it!" (Terry Jones, 1979). The film's director later explained that he was consciously attempting to "take everything that's negative in the language and turn it into a positive thing" (Criterion, 1997). The editor of the Jewish magazine Heeb intended its title as a transvaluation of the term, a variant of 'hebe': "We're reappropriating it, but with a twist of pride" (Peg Tyre, 2002). Annie Goldflam self-identified as both a 'kike' and a 'dyke', in Queerer Than Queer: "I am both a kike and a dyke, derogatory terms for Jews and lesbians, respectively, but which I here reclaim as proud markers of my identity" (1999)
The homophobic term 'queer' has also been positively - yet contentiously - reappropriated, for example by Queer Nation: "In recent years 'queer' has come to be used differently [and this] once pejorative term [is] a positive self-description [...] Proponents of the new terminology argue that to redeploy the term queer as a figure of pride is a powerful act of cultural reclamation" (Annamarie Jagose, 1996). Ratna Kapur and Tayyab Mahmud cite 'fruit' amongst other terms "appropriated by the gay community as words denoting pride, self-awareness, and self-acceptance" (2000). The gay-oriented cosmetics brand FAG: Fabulous And Gay has helped to reclaim 'fag', and Todd Anten cites the company's mission statement: "to abolish the negative connotation of the word fag and reposition it [...] We all have the power to change the perspective of this word and transform it into a positive vision" (2006). Larry Kramer's book Faggots began the transvaluation of another homophobic term. (Another book title, Christopher Frayling's Spaghetti Westerns, was also intended as a positive reappropriation of a negative term: "The book's title was deliberately polemical, seeking to turn what had initially been a put-down into a badge of honour" (Edward Buscombe, 2005). The similar film term 'chop-socky' has also been "repurposed" (David Kamp and Lawrence Levi, 2006).)
The various epithets used to insult mentally handicapped people represent a further lexicon of reclaimed pejoratives. Mark Radcliffe profiles "people with mental health problems tak[ing] the sting out of stigma by reclaiming pejoratives" (2003), citing 'Crazy Folks' and 'Mad Pride' as groups whose names "reclaim some of the stigmatising language". This consciously humorous appropriation of 'crazy' and 'mad' must, however, avoid being misinterpreted as a trivialisation of those whom it seeks to empower.
The term 'punk' has become associated with a musical genre, though it also has an insulting definition, as it is used to describe men who are raped by fellow prisoners in jail. Robert Martin, who was repeatedly gang-raped in prison, has now spoken out against jail-rape while also celebrating the term 'punk': "He has taken the word "punk," which in its nonmusical context has always been a term of derision, and turned it into an emblem of honor. He has performed the same etymological magic trick that others have done with [...] "white trash." [He] even wears a "PUNK" belt buckle" (Jim Goad, 1994[f]).
Finally, we should consider 'otaku', 'geek', and 'nerd', all of which are negative terms implying anti-social obsessive behaviour. Increasingly, people are self-identifying as geeks, otakus, and nerds, using the terms proudly: a computing magazine called Otaku was launched in 2005, David Bell cites 'geek' as "Originally a term of abuse for people overly-obsessed with computers - though now reappropriated as a badge of pride" (2001), and 'GEEK' and 'nerd' t-shirts are on sale. The 1984 comedy film Revenge Of The Nerds celebrated the atypical victory of nerds against jocks in an American school.
It is clear that "The conversion of a derogatory term into a battle cry by radicals is not uncommon" (Hugh Rawson, 1989), though 'cunt' itself has yet to emerge as a fully reclaimed term. Presently, the initial stages of its reappropriation are more contentious and complex than those of the epithets dicussed above.
Todd Anten (2006) categorises slurs into two types, to distinguish between words in different positions along the road to reclamation: 'close' words "which are at the end stages of reappropriation", and 'clear' words "which are at the beginning stages". He also notes that it is not only words that can be reclaimed: "The power of reappropriation is not limited to textual slurs; visual slurs may also be reappropriated". He cites as an example the pink triangle used by the Nazis to identify homosexuals: "[it] evolved from a mark of Nazi hatred into a symbol of gay pride".
An especially intriguing aspect of reappropriation is that of trademark applications. Aware that potentially disparaging words are denied trademark status, Todd Anten argues that such restrictions should be lifted for "self-disparaging" terms: "The reappropriation of former slurs is an integral part of the fostering of individual and group identity [...] it not only removes a slur, but it also cultivates self-definition in the target group - the recipients of the label actively choose to incorporate it into their identities rather than having it passively thrust upon them". He also cites Joe Garofoli's comment that "[S]elf-labeling defuses the impact of derisive terms by making them more commonplace". Anten notes trademark applications for various contentious terms, all intended to be reappropriated as positive acronyms: 'spic' ("SPANISH PEOPLE IN CONTROL"), 'nigga' ("NATURALLY INTELLIGENT GOD GIFTED AFRICAN"), and 'jap' ("JEWISH AMERICAN PRINCESS"). In the latter case, 'jap', Anten notes that the term "may disparage multiple groups": it was intended as a reclaimed term in a Jewish context, though it may still offend Japanese people. Reappropriation is indeed a minefield.
Linguistic & Cultural Genital Inequality
The marginalisation of the feminine is apparent not only in relation to language but also in cultural attitudes towards the sexual organs themselves. A large penis is equated with potency and sexual prowess: 'size matters' has become a cliche, though it is still perceived as an index of masculinity by men. Phrases such as 'well hung' maintain the male obsession with penis size, and John Holmes became one of the world's most famous porn stars thanks to his fourteen-inch erection.
Size and the female reproductive organs, however, have a reversed relationship: "while men want their pivotal organ to be as big as possible, women want theirs to be small" (Arusa Pisuthipan, 2005). A large vagina is seen as indicative of copious copulation, prompting accusations of prostitution or nymphomania. Or, as Germaine Greer puts it: "The best thing a cunt can be is small and unobtrusive: the anxiety about the bigness of the penis is only equalled by the anxiety about the smallness of the cunt. No woman wants to find out that she has a twat like a horse-collar" (1970[a]). Corrective surgery - namely a laser vaginal rejuvenation operation - is available in such circumstances, to make "the vaginal canal smaller and the opening of the vagina smaller" (Nicola Black, 2002), whereas male genital surgery serves to enlarge the organ rather than reduce it.
Crude terms such as 'big cunt', 'bushel cunt', 'bucket cunt', 'bucket fanny', 'butcher's dustbin', 'spunk dustbin', 'bargain bucket', 'billposter's bucket', 'Big Daddy's sleeping bag', 'ragman's trumpet', 'ragman's coat', 'turkey's wattle', 'raggy blart', 'pound of liver', 'club sandwich', 'ripped sofa', 'badly-packed kebab', 'stamped bat', 'wizard's sleeve', 'clown's pocket', 'Yaris fanny', 'fanny like a easyjet seat pocket', 'a fanny like Sunderland's trophy cabinet', 'cow-cunt', 'double-cunted', 'sluice-cunted', and "canyon-cunted" (Jim Goad, 1994[b]), equate dilation with repulsion: "Here, the rule is to imply the owner of the vulva is unhygienic; that it has sustained so much sex it has lost its shape" (Matthew de Abaitua, 1998). Thus, alongside the linguistic suppression of 'cunt', the vagina is also physically suppressed: "The importance of [vaginal] size is evident in contexts as diverse as slang, comedy, and surgical practices to tighten the vagina" (Virginia Braun and Celia Kitzinger, 2001[b]). The penis is an external organ whereas the vagina is an internal one, therefore the penis is naturally the more visible of the two; there is, however, a cultural emphasis placed upon this difference that acts to reinforce and extend it.
The bulging male groin ('lunchbox') is identified as sexually attractive, whereas women are encouraged not to emphasise their groins but to camouflage them: "the vagina is a culturally obscure little organ. Phallic references and penis jokes litter daily discourse, whereas vulval imagery is seemingly limited to pornography" (Joanna Briscoe, 2003). The (venerated) male 'lunchbox' can be directly contrasted with the (condemned) female equivalent, the 'cameltoe'. The female group Fannypack released a single called Cameltoe in which they criticised women for "grossin' people out with your cameltoe[s]" (2003):
"Take these words of advice
Similarly, the male codpiece's exaggeration of penile protrusion can be contrasted with female chastity belts that lock away the vagina. Also, excessive female pubic hair (the 'bikini line') is shaved to render the area indistinguishable from any other part of the body: "If we do receive any information about the triangle between our legs, it is almost entirely negative; the [...] beauty industry encourages us to remove it for aesthetic reasons [because] it draws attention to the unremarkable-looking female genital area, making it stand out [...] Almost all sexualised images of women show them totally shaved, from pornography to paintings of Venus in high art" (Dea Birkett, 2003). Oliver Maitland contrasts artistic representations of the vagina with those of the penis: "For thousands of years, the vulva in art was sculpturally, graphically and pictorially erased [whereas] the male member [...] is well proportioned, if not downright outsized" (2000).
The physical differences between the male and female sexual organs are central to Sigmund Freud's theory of penis envy. This is the notion that a girl perceives her clitoris to be the result of her castration, and, faced with what Freud terms an "inferiority" (1924), develops a desire for the visible, external symbols of virility possessed by men. Joan Smith answers this with the proposition that "it's time to start talking, pace Freud, about the terrible problems men have in overcoming their cunt envy" (1998), a timely riposte to Freudian phallocentricity.
Germaine Greer's key feminist text is titled The Female Eunuch, though accusations of penis envy serve merely to trivialise the feminist feeling of physical and linguistic marginalisation. The 'female eunuch' is symbolic of the desexed representation of the female sexual experience, rather than representing a literal desire for a male organ. Patriarchal marginalisation is not, therefore, a literal neutering of women, though it does generate this metaphorical effect; while the penis is exaggerated, the vagina is rendered subordinate. This is graphically illustrated by Tom Cruise's character in Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, whose mantra is: "Respect the cock and tame the cunt" (1999).
Male attempts to marginalise the vagina (lexically, physically, and pictorially) can be seen as symbolic attempts to suppress female sexuality. The myth of the vagina dentata (discussed in more detail later) is appropriate in this regard, as there are many mythological instances of toothed vaginas being blunted by male weapons: "Gruesomely, it is the removal of vaginal teeth (symbolising the devouring aspect of female sexuality) by brave male heroes that is a core component of many dentata stories. [...] rocks and rods that are as thick or long as a penis, are all used as excision tools in a bid to tame the toothed vagina and create a compliant woman. [...] In this sense, pulling vaginal teeth is a metaphor for how some men would like to make women meek and biddable, remoulded in a shape defined by them" (Catherine Blackledge, 2003). A Mimbres bowl drawn by Pat Carr from a Zuni Pueblo original depicts a man's club-like penis inside a vagina dentata to illustrate a myth involving two men who meet eight women with vagina dentatas: "their grandmother warned them specifically to stay away [...] saying, "Don't go there. They have teeth in their vaginas. They will cut you and you will die." Of course, the twins decide to visit the girls despite the warning, and in preparation make themselves false penises of oak and hickory. [...] They broke the teeth from the women's vaginas. The blood ran. When the oak members were worn out, they put them aside and took the hickory ones. By daylight the teeth of these women were all worn out" (Pat Carr and Willard Gingerich, 1983). Symbolically, this male domination over female sexuality - using a tool to cut vaginal teeth - clearly represents the power of the phallus and the weakness of the vagina, or, in other words, the Magnolia mantra quoted above. According to Pueblo mythology, the Ahaiyute would "break girls' toothed vaginas with false wooden penises" (Marta Weigle, 1992). A Jicarilla Apache Indian myth describes four 'vagina girls' who swallow men with their vaginas, until a medicine administered by the male 'Killer-of-Enemies' neutralises their power: "When Killer-of-Enemies had come to them, they had had strong teeth with which they had eaten their victims. But this medicine destroyed their teeth entirely" (Catherine Blackledge, 2003). In a similar example, "There was a Rakshasa's [demon's] daughter who had teeth in her vagina. When she saw a man, she would turn into a pretty girl, seduce him, [and] cut off his penis" - the only way to neuter her was to "make an iron tube, put it into her vagina and break her teeth". Pueblo Indian artwork depicts "efforts to remove a woman's vaginal teeth with a false penis made out of oak and hickory", and this ceremony is now symbolically re-enacted: "Re-enactments of vagina tooth smashing can be found in some culture's rituals. [...] the Pueblo and other native North Americans use a carved wooden phallus to symbolically break a vagina woman's teeth".
In Venerating The Cunt-Demon-Conquering Metal Penis God (2009), Colin B Liddell describes a similar legend, in which a metal penis is used to blunt the teeth of a vagina-demon: "According to the legend, a demon, escaping from a Buddhist priest, hid out in a young girl's vagina. [...] on her wedding night, the demon found himself disturbed in his cosy abode by the husband fulfilling his matrimonial duties. Provoked by the sudden intrusion, the demon responded by biting off the young man's pecker". The woman's "cock-chomping beaver" was subdued by an iron dildo, an object which is still celebrated on the first Sunday of every April at the Kanamara Matsuri event in Kawasaki, Japan.
Our environment is becoming increasingly saturated with sexual images, justified by the maxim 'sex sells'. This situation, which Brian McNair terms "The sexualization of the public sphere" (2002), predominantly involves images of women, appealing to heterosexual male desires at the expense of heterosexual female ones. Significantly, however, they represent a "tit-and-arse landscape" (Barbara Ellen, 2001), with the breasts and buttocks over-exposed and the genital area airbrushed away.
As Germaine Greer notes, these images are "poses which minimize the genital area" and "The vagina is obliterated from the imagery of femininity" (1970[a]): the imagery may be sexualised yet it de-emphasises the vagina as an erogenous zone. Greer returned to the subject in The Whole Woman, her sequel to The Female Eunuch: "Male genitals are drawn on every wall, female genitals only on doctor's blotters [...] Though Freud makes much of the fact that boys' genitalia are visible and little girls' are not, mere invisibility cannot account for the absence of any imagery of the womb from our general culture [...] wombs are out of sight and out of mind" (1999). Catherine Blackledge ascribes this prejudice to Christian misogyny: "the emphasis in the western world post the advent of Christianity has mainly been on hiding or veiling the vagina, rather than revealing or celebrating it" (2003).
Albert Ellis explains that our culture's obsessive interest in breasts and buttocks and disinterest in the vagina is the result of subconscious displacement: "Males in our culture are so afraid of direct contact with female genitalia, and are even afraid of referring to these genitalia themselves; they largely displace their feelings to the accessory sex organs - the hips, legs, breasts, buttocks, etc. - and they give these accessory organs an exaggerated interest and desirability" (1951). Germaine Greer's explanation is more direct: she blames the linguistic and cultural marginalisation of the vagina on "centuries of womb-fear" (1970[a]). She has actually incorporated a drawing of female ovaries into her signature, in a personal attempt to increase their visual representation.
Cunt-Hatred: Fear & Loathing
Germaine Greer's term 'womb-fear' highlights the underlying reason for both the cultural suppression of the vagina and the linguistic suppression of 'cunt'. At the heart of the abusive impact of 'cunt', and the paranoid marginalisation of the vagina, is the implication that the female genitals are disgusting and fearsome: Mark Morton describes the vagina as "a part of the female body that has traditionally been considered shameful or menacing" (2003). Andrea Dworkin writes despairingly of the "repulsion for women [...] directed especially against her genitals [...] It is a goose-stepping hatred of cunt. [...] For the male, the repulsion is sexually intense, genitally focused" (1987). Indeed, such is the level of disgust with the "monstrous female genitals" that, as Eric Partridge notes, the abusive term 'cunt face' is "even more insulting than the synonymous shit face" (1961) - the vagina is regarded as even more disgusting than excrement. The clinical sterility of tampon advertising, for example, paradoxically demonstrates a profound disgust for the vagina: "The conception of women's genitals as dirty - indeed untouchable - is reinforced by tampon advertisements which advocate an 'applicator' on the basis that fingers do not need to touch the vagina" (Virginia Braun and Sue Wilkinson, 2001).
In their paper Socio-Cultural Representations Of The Vagina (2001), Virginia Braun and Sue Wilkinson identify several "persistent negative representations of the vagina", dividing them into categories such as The Vagina As Disgusting ("The vagina is often represented as part of the female body that is shameful, unclean, disgusting") and The Vagina As Dangerous ("The (Western) construction of women's bodies as a source of horror, fear, and danger [...] is manifested in the (mythological) concept of the dangerous vagina"). After many conversations with women, Betty Dodson reported that a great number of them viewed their own genitals in negative terms: "[women] feel that their genitals are ugly, funny looking, disgusting, smelly, and not at all desirable" (1974). This attitude is instilled during childhood, as David Delvin notes: "many women are brought up to believe that the vagina is "nasty", "dirty" or "not nice"" (1983). Jane Ussher describes the cyclical process whereby childhood confusion leads to cultural phobia: "girls mainly develop a sense of shame, disgust and humiliation about [their vaginas]. In this way, social stereotypes which define women's genitals as unpleasant, [mal]odorous and unattractive, are internalized by the female child" (1989). Judith Seifer suggests that the prejudice is actively instilled at a very early age: "girl babies are given a constant message of contamination, that what you have down there is dark, it's dirty" (Nancy Friday, 1996). Even a scientific programme on the Discovery Channel demonstrates cultural womb-fear: their Human Mutants series included an episode about foetal cyclopia titled The Dangerous Womb, though cyclopia is a genetic condition unrelated to the womb itself.
The reductive usage of 'cunt' as a term of unparalleled abuse reflects both a fear of the vagina and a misogynist hatred of it. This hatred manifests itself in ingrained cultural representations of the vagina as an abject organ: "Given representations of the vagina as smelly, dirty, and potentially diseased, it is not surprising that women's genitals are a source of shame or embarrassment [and are] a part of their bodies many women can't bear to even look at" (Virginia Braun and Sue Wilkinson, 2001). Slang terms such as 'dirtbox', 'claptrap'/'clap-trap', 'siffed-up cunt-hole', 'pox-ridden cunt', 'burning bower', 'burning passage', 'dirty lolly', 'firelock', 'fireplace', and 'cemetary gates' also reflect this, equating the vagina with disease (as 'clap', 'siff', and 'fire' refer to venereal infections), as does this example of underground pornographic prose: "I kept licking and sucking on her cunt even though I knew it was riddled with the deadly curse of syphilis [as] I buried myself in Ilena's stinky snatch" (Ramona, 1998). The t-shirt slogan 'salty yoni sweet dick' unfavourably contrasts the tastes of the vagina and penis. [Screw challenged male perceptions of cunnilingus, and promoted it as a form of non-procreative sex, with the headline Is Cunt-Lapping Better Than The Pill? (22/3/1970).] Thomas Strohm has written Stinky Coochie, a song about a girl with a dirty vagina: "Girl, you got a stinky coochie" (2004). Stanley Kubrick's film Full Metal Jacket (1987) uses "Mary-Jane Rottencrotch" as a typical girl's name. The film Souffrances d'Un Oeuf Meutri depicts "[a] girl's pudenda seething with maggots" (Mike Wallington, 1970). The slang terms 'site box', 'fanny like a rabid dog', 'gorilla's armpit' and, especially, 'gorilla autopsy', present the vagina as an abject organ. The slang phrase 'smells like a pile of dead fannies' is used as a simile for something malodorous, and the barrack-room ballad The Ballad Of Lupe (also known as Down In Cunt Valley) is equally unpleasant in its imagery:
"Down in Cunt Valley where the Red Rivers flow, [...]
Also, compare this monologue by Jim Goad, from his morally ambiguous and provocative zine Answer Me! (1994[a]):
The issue of Answer Me! quoted here, the Rape issue, was seized as obscene in the UK, a rare example of contemporary literature being legally suppressed. It was felt that many of the articles in Goad's zine condoned and even encouraged the rape of women. More poetic than Answer Me!, though no less misogynist, is this monologue from King Lear, described by Pauline Kiernan as "one of the most shocking and harrowing invectives against the female vulva in all literature" (2006):
"Down from the waist they are Centaurs,
In "The Darke And Vicious Place: The Dread Of The Vagina In "King Lear", Peter L Rudnytsky notes the bifurcation of the female body as described in Lear, with "the human or divine region above and the bestial or demonic below" (1999). He also, perhaps less convincingly, finds further pejorative references to the vagina in the play, including "the female genitals as a place of [...] foul odor". Furthermore, he cites a play by George Wilkins, apparently inspired by Lear, in which another scholar has detected a genital allusion: Wilkins's line "in hope shee can open her teeth" (1607), inspired by Shakespeare's "face between her Forkes" (1605) from Lear, has been interpreted by Frank Whigham as a vaginal reference ("vagina dentata, the fiendish face between her forks", 1996).
John Weir divides attitudes towards the vagina into two opposing viewpoints: "It's smelly, it's bottomless, it's devouring; or it's mystic, it's divine, it's nirvana" (1997). It is the former of Weir's two categories that is reflected in slang terms such as 'nasty', 'stink', 'stinkhole', 'stench trench', 'smelly cunt', 'smelly pussy', 'slime hole', 'smell-hole', 'stinky cunt', 'stink-pit', 'something crawled in and died', 'dirty cunt', 'rotten crotch', and 'scabby cunt'. Similarly, a traditional Chinese insult has been translated as "I WILL FUCK YOUR MOTHER'S BROKEN-DOWN STINKING CUNT" (Guerrilla Girls, 2003). These words and phrases all equate the vagina with filth and dirt: "Inescapably, a woman's body incarnates shame, her genitals especially signifying dirt and death" (Andrea Dworkin, 1987). One of the interviewees in Shere Hite's sex survey described how her male partner "thinks the vulva area smells ghastly", and Oliver Maitland even cites a female comment that vaginas are "Dirty, smelly things" (2000). Boyd Rice (1994) cites a quotation (usually attributed to the Latin writer Tertullian) which defines 'woman' as "a temple... built over a sewer". A scene in the film The Shawshank Redemption, in which a man emerges from a sewage pipe, has been interpreted as a metaphorical rebirth, with the sewage pipe symbolising a birth canal: "going through the sewage pipe [represents] a new birth" (Andrew Abbott, 2001). In On Mrs Willis, John Wilmot wrote of the eponymous prostitute that "her cunt [is] a common shore" (1680). It is this viewpoint that seemingly inspired many traditional limericks, drawing their imagery from "[the] filth down there, between the legs, in the hole" (Boyd Rice, 1994):
'There was an old hooker from Grotten
'A scrofulous woman from Chester,
'There was a young novice called Bell
'An unwashed girl from the Klondike
Comic strips such as It's Jemima And Her Smelly Vagina (in Gutter, 199-) and Dirty Annie And Her Smelly Fanny (in The Trout, 199-) position the vagina as an organ of abjection, an attitude exemplified by the slang phrase 'Billingsgate box', which compares the vagina's odour with that of a fishmarket. Similar terms include 'ling' ('vagina'), 'fish' ('vagina'), 'fish-market' ('vagina'), 'bit of fish' ('vagina'), 'fishpond' ('vagina'), 'fishtank' ('vagina'), 'tench' ('vagina'), 'trout' ('vagina'), 'tuna' ('vagina'), 'fish-cunt' ('woman'), 'fish-fanny' ('woman'), 'tuna taco' ('cunnilingus'), 'ling-grappling' ('sex'), 'have a bit of fish on a fork' ('sex'), 'fish fingers!' ('fingers inserted into a vagina'), and 'pussy in a can' ('sardines', because "pussy stinks" like canned sardines; Jonathon Green, 2008). This long-standing belief, that "the vagina resembles a fish because like a fish it stinks", is the commonest example of what was described in 1996 as the "historical cultural connection between women's genitals and filth and disease" (Celia Roberts, Susan Kippax, Mary Spongberg, and June Crawford). The connection is evoked in these song lyrics:
"ass gin and cunt juice
In a slight variation, Jim Goad smeared a dead squid over his magazine Chocolate Impulse: "we "stink-wrapped" each copy, allegedly with Faith Impulse's acrid vaginal juices. We used a [...] squid instead, smearing malodorous sea creatures onto the editorial page, making our zine smell like a CUNT" (1994[g]).
Criticising these attitudes, Alix Olson (2001) reminds us how advertising distorts reality, creating 'feminine intimate hygiene' products that are completely un-necessary:
"We'd carry passports made from a giant Cunt Mold
Not only are vaginas "continually denigrated" (Laura Kipnis, 2006) as dirty and diseased, they are also literally demonised, regarded as a 'chamber of horrors', as "the deadly genitals of woman" (Barbara Creed, 1993), and as hellish 'cunnus diaboli': "the womb is still represented in cultural discourses as an object of horror". "The myth about woman as castrator", explains Barbara Creed, "clearly points to male fears and phantasies [sic.] about the female genitals as a trap, a black hole which threatens to swallow them up and cut them into pieces. The vagina dentata is the mouth of hell - a terrifying symbol of woman as the 'devil's gateway'". Indeed, Jonathan Prown and Richard Miller cite "Gate of Hell" and "Mouth of Hell" as two "widely understood allegories for female genitalia" (1996). The title of Catherine Breillat's film Anatomie De L'Enfer is a reference to the vagina, and Breillat's objective in making the film was to confront viewers with vaginal images: "if hell has an anatomy, it is surely a woman's genitalia. [...] genitalia shot in close-up provokes a kind of horror in all of society, though society can't explain why. In the end, who is horrified by women's genitalia? Traditionally, men. Yet they slowly get used to this horrific vision" (Lisa Ades, 2007). (Breillat's observations are confirmed anecdotally by Stephanie Zacharek: "a lot of people that I've talked to just can't deal with it. Particularly a friend of mine, a critic, wrote: "Ew!". He just, like, didn't wanna look at that".) Furthermore, the vagina is also known as the 'devil's kitchen', the clitoris as the 'devil's doorbell', and the cervix as the 'seal of Hades'. Pauline Kiernan writes that "Hell is a term frequently used [...] for female genitals" (2006). Jelto Drenth (2005) cites Christian vagina-phobia - "The vagina is seen as the devil's stigma" and warns that "Anyone tempted to enter a vagina should be aware that great dangers lie in wait for him". Barbara G Walker's feminist interpretation of classical mythology - The Woman's Encyclopedia Of Myths And Secrets - gives a detailed account of this: "women's genitals [were likened] to the "yawning" mouth of hell, though this was hardly original; the underworld gate had always been the yoni of Mother Hel [...] To Christian ascetics, Hell-mouth and the vagina drew upon the same ancient symbolism[,] as if [one] was being drawn into the womb and destroyed there" (1983). Andre Schwarz-Bart cites the expression "Wash your devil" ('wash your cunt') and young Ifaluk women at puberty are traditionally told of "the "devil" beneath [the] skirt" (Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove, 1978). An illustration by Eugene Le Poitevin (Les Diableries Erotiques, 1832) depicts a group of (seductive) female devils, with skulls on their chests, inside a vagina. Slang terms for 'vagina' such as 'mark-of-the-beast' perpetuate this association, as in the drama Witchcraze: "you have the devil's mark on your cunt!" (James Kent, 2003). In the film Linkeroever, a black hole is nicknamed "the Devil's Vagina" (Kim Newman, 2010). Barbara Creed, in a chapter titled Woman As Monstrous Womb, asserts that "From classical to Renaissance times the uterus was frequently drawn with horns to demonstrate its supposed association with the devil" (1993). Ruth Wajnryb links this association of femininity with monstrosity directly to 'cunt' itself: "CUNT remains the closest synonym for evil in the modern world. It is part of [...] 'the feminisation of the monstrous'" (2004).
Medusa, the female demon, is also evoked in vagina mythology, leading Orlan to display images of her vagina "[alongside Sigmund] Freud's text on the head of Medusa [which] read: 'At the sight of the vulva the devil himself flees[']" (1995). Barbara Creed's book The Monstrous-Feminine includes a chapter titled Medusa's Head: The Vagina Dentata And Freudian Theory (which itself features a section called The Castrating Female Genitals). Elaine Showalter also cites Freud's equation of Medusa with a deadly vagina: "According to Freud, the decapitated head of Medusa with its snaky locks is a "genitalized head," an upward displacement of the sexual organs, so that the mouth stands for the vagina dentata, and the snakes for pubic hair. For men to unveil the Medusa is to confront the dread of looking at the female sexual organs" (1992). Freud's equation of Medusa with the vagina is significant as it presents the vagina as an organ capable of castrating the male penis: "in its horrifying aspect [Medusa] would resemble [...] the castrating genitals, the terrifying vagina dentata" (Barbara Creed, 1993).
Thus, the "fearsome female genitals" (Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove, 1978) are repeatedly associated with diseases and foul smells, regarded as abject, disgusting organs, stinking and pox-ridden - "that disgusting sick hole down there", as Jim Goad puts it (1994[a]). Furthermore, they are also equated with demonic and Satanic figures such as Medusa and the devil, damned as a "daemonic womb" (Camille Paglia, 1990). Such imagery can be found in contemporary popular culture, for instance The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring includes the fiery Eye of Sauron, which has been interpreted as a vaginal symbol representing "ultimate evil" (Duncan Tucker, 2005). Another film with an evil entity interpreted as vaginal is Kiss Me Deadly; its apocalyptic atom bomb, a reference to Pandora's Box, can be seen as "an atomic female orgasm" (Graham Fuller, 2006), a reading initially proposed by Carol Flinn: "women's sexuality (her own 'hot box') is constructed as the film's final object of inquiry and ultimate source of terror" (1986).
These misguided male associations perpetuate male anxiety about women's genitals, and thus also perpetuate the avoidance of them in male-dominated language and culture: "Men desire access to the vagina, but also fear it and are disgusted by it. They see it as a gaping maw, at times toothed, frighteningly insatiable. [...] It is when vaginas are accessible that they evoke disgust and horror in their own right. It is then that male fears make them monstrous, hellish, and vile, disgust-evoking places" (William Ian Miller, 1997).
We have seen how the word 'cunt' and the vagina itself - the signifier and the signified - are both suppressed in language and culture. They are associated with uncleanness ('cunt' as a 'dirty word' and the vagina as 'smelly'), and this false projection of abject qualities is rooted in a fear of "the demonic bodies of women" (Edward Shorter, 1982). Fundamentally, fear of the vagina leads to its symbolic and linguistic representations being suppressed and its physical characteristics being demonised. Censorship of 'cunt', obliteration of vaginal imagery, and association of vaginas with disease all stem from a primal fear of the vagina itself.
It Won't Bite: The Vagina Dentata
Central to the discussion of male cunt-hatred and womb-fear is the myth of the vagina dentata, "a motif occurring in certain primitive mythologies, as well as in modern surrealist painting and neurotic dream, which is known to folklore as 'the toothed vagina' - the vagina that castrates" (Joseph Campbell, 1976). The vagina dentata evokes the male castration complex, which in this instance is the fear that, once it has entered the vagina, the penis will be bitten off and consumed - the fear of "witches stealing men's penises with their vaginal teeth", as Catherine Blackledge puts it (2003). The vagina dentata myth is the most potent symbol of male "dread of the female genital" (HR Hays, 1964).
There are several possible explanations for the persistence of the vagina dentata myth, all of which relate to male fears of (symbolic) post-coital death: "man's fear of sexual intercourse with woman is based on irrational fears about the deadly powers of the vagina" (Barbara Creed, 1993). An illustration by Alfred Kubin is a clear example of this fear, depicting a man with an erection diving into an oversized vagina as if it were a swimming pool. Kubin's title, Todessprung (1902), suggests that the male figure is leaping to his death. Semen can be said to symbolise life, thus the release of semen into the vagina may represent the transference of life from the penis to the vagina. Likewise, when the penis has ejaculated and withdrawn from the vagina, its flaccid state is perhaps symbolic of death when contrasted with its pre-penetration tumescence. The connection between sex and death is a well-established one: 'die' was an Elizabethan synonym for 'orgasm', 'go' was a Victorian colloquialism meaning 'orgasm' and 'die', and an orgasm is known as 'la petite mort' in France. Also relevant here is the previously discussed notion of the vagina as a harbinger of disease: perceived infections contracted from the vagina are perhaps symbolic of death. The central fear, however, is that of castration, that the vagina will bite off the penis during intercourse: "In the sexual act, the phallus is 'endangered' by the vagina. [...] The amorous act is the castration of the man" (Simon Reynolds and Joy Press, 1995). Stephen King (1988) admitted that his greatest sexual fear was "making love to a woman and it just slammed shut and cut your penis off", and a character in 44 Inch Chest dreams that his wife's "cunt had dentures" (Malcolm Venville, 2010). Exploiting the vaginal slang term 'beaver', Stewart Ferris notes that both beavers and vaginas can "bite your fingers off" (2004), with the finger here being a clear substitution for the penis. Basic Instinct, Body Of Evidence, and GoldenEye all exploit these fears, depicting women (played respectively by Sharon Stone, Madonna, and Famke Janssen) who either murder their partners during sex or literally fuck them to death (as do the mermaids in the film Empires Of The Deep). (A 2009 Madonna song featured the line "My sex is a killer".) Such behaviour amongst widow and redback spiders, praying mantises, midges, horned nudibranchs, and Photuris fireflies, is well-documented, and male honey bees are prone to sudden death shortly after ejaculation. (Such coital cannibalism actually has evolutionary advantages, as the body of the male, if eaten, provides nutrition for the gestating offspring.) This is a logical extension of the 'femme fatale' Film Noir archetype, the mythical succubus, and the 'honey trap' entrapment strategy.
The fact that the vagina extracts semen, induces penile flaccidity after orgasm, and is perceived as a source of disease, contributes to the vagina dentata myth, the fear of the vagina as a murderous, violent demon. More potent than any of these explanations, however, is the male castration complex, the fear that the penis will be removed during intercourse: "The boy discovers the fear of castration [...] through the disappearance of his penis in coition" (Juliet Mitchell, 1974).
Closely related is the penis captivus complex, the fear that the penis cannot be withdrawn from the vagina after penetration: "the penis captivus myth [...] reflects the fear that, during coitus, the penis will get lost or captured, and removal will be impossible" (Virginia Braun and Sue Wilkinson, 2001). In his journal paper on the subject, F Kraupl Taylor (1979) described a medieval case of penis captivus in which "sinners who had indulged in clandestine intercourse in churches and were discovered only the following day, when prayers or a splash of water brought liberation", though the incident is presumably either exaggerated or apocryphal.
A Piltz (1931) gives an account of a more recent and credible case: "We remember a case of vaginismus with penis captivus which occurred in 1923 at Warsaw [...] In the midst of their amorous sport a violent spasm occurred imprisoning the penis. The keeper alarmed by the desperate cries of the young man ran up. The doctor of the municipal ambulance after giving anaesthetic to the woman separated the couple". Iwan Bloch (1908) gives a similar example: "One of the dock labourers was having sexual intercourse in an out-of-the-way corner of the docks, when the woman became affected with this involuntary spasm, and the man was unable to free himself from his imprisonment. A great crowd assembled, from the midst of which the unfortunate couple were removed in a closed carriage, and taken to the hospital, and not until chloroform had been administered to the girl did the spasm pass off and free the man". Another example is provided by EH Kisch (1910): "All the endeavours of the pair thus surprised to separate proved ineffectual, and their attempts to draw apart caused them intense pain. [...] Release was impossible until the woman had been placed under chloroform. The swollen and livid penis exhibited two strangulation-furrows". In each case, anaesthetic administered to the woman apparently relaxed the vaginal muscles and released the penis.
Walter Stoeckel (1933) recognised penis captivus as a bona fide medical condition: "Just as in animals (dogs), there are also cases of so-called 'penis captivus' in human beings". He gave a physiological explanation for the phenomenon, explaining that "[vaginal] contractions can suddenly turn into spasms which imprison the penis and cause it to swell up excessively". However, he concluded rather moralistically: "The cases encountered all concerned illicit coitus, performed furtively (behind bushes or standing in doorways). [...] The event evokes ridicule, sneers, and scorn in bystanders and naturally puts those affected into a shocking position from which they can often be released only by a narcosis of the woman. Even then it is frequently still difficult to free the thickly swollen and dark-purple penis from its imprisonment".
FW Scanzoni (1870) identified the 'constrictor cunni' as the muscle that contracts during penis captivus: "At the moment of orgiastic excitation, there usually are quite obvious fast and strong contractions. Several observations have shown that, in certain clearly known circumstances, these may become so intense as to be painful for both man and woman. They may end in a spasm of the constrictor cunni which occasionally lasts rather long and makes the withdrawal of the penis impossible".
In the world of the arachnids, there is an even more alarming variation on penis captivus. During redback spider reproduction, the male is willingly consumed by the female, as his death ensures that he remains stuck inside her, thus preventing impregnation by other males: "In death, its sexual organ becomes stuck in the female's receptacle. Even if she feeds on the rest of his body, the organ remains, preventing her from receiving more sperm" (Carl Zimmer, 2006).
The reason men feel threatened inside the vagina is that they regard the vagina as a displaced mouth, poised to eat their penis: "myths and cults attest to the fact that the vagina has and retains (for both sexes) connotations of a devouring mouth" (Erik H Erikson, 1968). Jonathan Prown and Richard Miller (1996) note that "female genitalia [are] associated with death or consumption", citing the mythological Greek lamiae, who were "lustful she-demons whose name meant both mouth and vagina". There is an undated medieval French tale of a talking vagina, Du Chevalier Qui Fist Parler Les Cons, which also equates the functions of the two organs, as do Denis Diderot's novel Les Bijoux Indiscrets and Frederic Lansac's films Le Sexe Qui Parle and Le Sexe Qui Parle II. Carlton Mellick III's novel about a "violent-cunt world", Razor Wire Pubic Hair (2003), part two of which is titled Something Living Inside Of Cunts, also features a talking vagina - and this vagina even uses the c-word: "'What is a significant feature?' asks the narrator. '"A cunt," replies the giant cunt'". Tom de Simone's softcore film Chatterbox features a singing vagina, and the South Park episode A Million Little Fibers features Oprah Winfrey's talkative vagina. Finally, Dominic Bolla's film Angel Above - The Devil Below features a talking vagina possessed by the devil. Vaginas and mouths are both denoted by lips, thus, by extension, men fear that they also share teeth: "Vulvas have labiae, "lips," and many men believed that behind the lips lie teeth" (Barbara G Walker, 1983). As the vagina is considered a displaced mouth, fears of the penis being bitten, eaten, or swallowed manifest themselves. Susan Lurie cites the male perception of vagina as a "devouring mouth", into which the penis disappears (1981). Indeed, as Barbara Creed notes, the connection is so entrenched in the male psyche that even without references to teeth or consumption, the castration fear is still evoked: "Reference to other teeth is not necessary in order to construct the vagina as a place of castration. The image of a mouth - the gaping maw of nightmares and horror scenarios - is probably enough on its own to instil[l] dread" (1993). There are many illustrations which visually link mouths and vaginas, such as the poster for the film Le Sexe Qui Parle (also known as Pussy Talk), a Terry Richardson photograph of Jessica Stam holding a cup depicting a pair of lips between her legs (in Purple Fashion Magazine, 2009), and the many "vaginal mouths" in Pablo Picasso's paintings (Hilary Spurling, 2007). John Richardson (2007) identifies the motif in three Picasso paintings: La Danse ("Picasso has punched a hole in her pelvis and reassembled her face as a vagina dentata"), La Crucifixion ("the Virgin Mary [...] is depicted as a virago with the vagina-dentata mouth"), and Tete De Belier ("The artist likens the menacing mouth of the scorpion fish and the spiky sea urchin to a vagina dentata. Everything looks ready to bite, cut, sting, or poison."). The most famous example is Rene Magritte's 1934 Surrealist painting Le Viol, in which a woman's body becomes her face. (The concept was also used for the poster of the Rolling Stones' 1973 European tour.) Nisa Sirisre's installation Body Openings (2011) includes sculptures with displaced mouths, including female figures with mouths in place of their vaginas. The effect is most readily achieved by rotating the female mouth into a vertical position - this motif has been used as the cover image of Barbara Creed's book The Monstrous-Feminine, a reprint of Louis Aragon's Irene's Cunt, a collage by Robert Delford Brown (Kiss Kiss, 1963), a poster for the Exhibitionism Rolling Stones exhibition (2015), and a poster for the film Deadgirl. In the animated series Family Guy (the Stewie Loves Lois episode, 2006), a character feels his son's mouth and assumes it to be his wife's vagina.
Barbara G Walker calls the vagina dentata "the classic symbol of men's fear of sex, expressing the unconscious belief that a woman may eat or castrate her partner during intercourse" (1983) and HR Hays explains that "the cleft between a woman's thigh is felt to be a castrating scissors" (1964). Andrea Dworkin evocatively encapsulates male apprehensions: "the death connected with sex is held to be the death of the penis, trapped in the castrating cave, the vagina" (1987).
There are several journal articles and papers exploring the concept of the vagina dentata. Pat Carr and Willard Gingerich conducted an illustrated (though limited) study of vagina dentata mythology: The Vagina Dentata Motif In Nahuatl And Pubelo Mythic Narratives: A Comparative Study (in Smoothing The Ground, 1983). Jill Rait has anaylsed The Vagina Dentata And The Immaculatus Uretus Divini Fontis (Journal Of The American Academy Of Religion, 1980). Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi discusses the Dangers Of The Vagina (British Journal Of Medical Psychology, 1985). Solimar Otero's Fearing Our Mothers provides An Overview Of Psychoanalytic Theories Concerning The Vagina Dentata Motif (American Journal Of Psychoanalysis, 1996). An article in the Journal Of Reproductive And Infant Psychology (Sue Wilkinson and Virginia Braun, 2001) explores the various positive and negative Socio-Cultural Representations Of The Vagina.
The vagina dentata is an all-pervasive image of terror, occurring throughout ancient mythology: "Vagina dentata - the vagina with teeth - is an ancient anxious image that flows through folklore, mythology, literature, art and humankind's dreamworld. [...] Snapping and snarling, emasculating and mutilating men, the myth of the vagina dentata is to be found from North to South America, across Africa, and in India and Europe too. The omnipotence of this motif of the devouring vagina has also survived millennia, with many cultures' creation mythology imbued with castrating and deadly images" (Catherine Blackledge, 2003).
In New Zealand Mauri mythology, Hine Nui Te Po, the goddess of death, is a clear manifestation of the vagina dentata: "in the place where men enter her she has sharp teeth of obsidian and greenstone" (Antony Alpers, 1964). The Witchita Indians of North America described witches who "had teeth in their vaginas which would cut off [the] penis. [...] You will hear the gritting of the teeth in their vaginas" (Elaine Showalter, 1992). The Toba Indians spoke of an equally fearsome woman who "cut off [a] penis and testicles with her vagina". The White Knife clan of the Shoshone Indians "believed that a glimpse of the female genitals would result in blindness and disease" (Jelto Drenth, 2005). The Yanomamo equivalent of Eve was a woman whose vagina "became a toothed mouth and bit off her consort's penis" (Barbara G Walker, 1983). Early Christians believed that witches used magic spells to "grow fangs in their vaginas". A sultan of Damascus was struck blind by "the dread powers [of] a vulva". There was a Malekula yonic spirit that "[drew others] near to it so that it may devour [them]" (Erich Neumann, 1963). According to Hindu mythology, "the demon Adi assumes the form of Parvati and attempts to kill Shiva with the teeth inside "her" vagina", and Shiva in turn "created a horrible woman with a mouth like a great cavern, with teeth and eyes in her vagina" (Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty, 1980). The Navajo Indian monster Heaped Vagina, created by Snapping Vagina, would "throw her vagina over [her victims] and kill them" (Marta Weigle, 1992). Philip Rawson cites the ancient Chinese belief that vaginas were "executioners of men" (1968). An Indian myth describes "a young man trying to seduce a faithful wife. However, to his dismay, the man discovers that the woman has a saw above her vagina, with which she cuts off his penis" (Catherine Blackledge, 2003). The Polynesian goddess Hine-Nui-Te-Po "uses her vagina to slay Maui, the Polynesian hero. [...] he is bitten in two by her vagina's snapping, lightning-generating flint edges". A Mehinaku tale describes "a woman [who] took many shells - they looked just like teeth - and put them in her inner labia. Later, when it got dark, [a] man wanted to have sex. [...] The vagina cut his penis right off, and he died right there". In Navajo and Apache folk takes, vaginas "are describes as detached organs, walking around independently and biting as they go". Elaine Showalter (1992) quotes the diary of Edmund de Goncourt, in which he describes his surreal fantasy/nightmare: "I dreamt last night that I [...] saw a woman [who] was completely naked [...] Then she started to dance, and while she was dancing took steps that showed her private parts armed with the most terrible jaws one could imagine, opening and closing, exposing a set of teeth".
The mythology of the fatal vagina is not only limited to castrating teeth, however: "teeth are not the only terrifying object to be found in woman's extra orifice". Symbolically, a Muslim belief attests that "the vagina can 'bite off' a man's eye-beam, resulting in blindness for the man who is brave enough to look deep into its depths" (Catherine Blackledge, 2003). Deadly vaginal snakes, eels, and dragons have also been described: "vagina snakes, so these stories relate, can bite off a man's penis, poison it, or kill the man. [...] In Polynesia, where there are no snakes, voracious vagina eels come into play. In one tale from the Tuamotos Islands, the eels in a woman called Faumea's vagina kill all men. [...] Men of Malekula talk mysteriously of a vagina spirit, called 'that which draws us to it so that it may devour us'. Hungry dragons too are often to be found inside the vagina of folklore and myth". In William Shakespeare's description of a woman "whose tongue more poisons than the adders" (1592), "tongue" has been interpreted as 'clitoris', translating as: "whose clitoris is more poisonous than the adder's tooth" (Pauline Kiernan, 2006). The goddess Scylla is represented as a beautiful woman above the waist though "[her] lower parts consist of three snapping hellhounds" (Barbara Creed, 1993). A North American Indian myth describes "a meat-eating fish inhabit[ing] the vagina of the Terrible Mother", Salvador Dali has depicted the vagina as a lobster with sharp claws, a cartoon by Michael Leunig shows the vagina as a dog's head with sharp teeth, "Mundurucu (Brazilian) men called the vagina the 'crocodile's mouth' [...] In the Madhya Pradesh region of India, a myth of the Baiga people tells of how a woman is unaware that she has three teeth inside her vagina" (Emma Rees, 2013), Verrier Elwin cites numerous examples from Indian mythology in his journal paper The Vagina Dentata Legend (The British Journal Of Medical Psychology, 1943), and the Angmagsalik Inuits feared "a dangerous woman who carries a dog's head between her legs which bites off male organs" (Elaine Showalter, 1992).
Catherine Blackledge discusses the vagina dentata at length in her book The Story Of V: "For many the most powerful of all vaginal myths and superstitions, the vagina dentata is also, perhaps, the most common. Its prevalence around the globe is stunning. [...] sexual folklore seethes with stories of snapping vaginal teeth" (2003). She defines the vagina dentata as "an emasculating, castrating fearsome toothed organ [...] A hungry maw. A gluttonous gullet. A toothed, varoacious, ravenous, greedy chasm". She refers to 'cunt' both directly ("The catalytic cunt") and indirectly ("A cunning stunt") in subtitles, though ignores significant cultural landmarks such as Cuntpower Oz and The Vagina Monologues thus her book cannot be viewed as quite the definitive study it was proclaimed to be by some initial reviews. The most extensive study of the vagina dentata is the German book Die Vagina Dentata In Mythos Und Erzaehlung by Sonja Brigitte Ross. The Dangerous Sex, by HR Hays, is a fascinating study of the negative attitudes towards women embodied in ancient mythology, and Barabara Creed wrote a similar study concerning modern visual culture titled The Monstrous-Feminine.
The vagina dentata myth has been appropriated in contemporary cinema by the "killer vagina" (Tammy Oler, 2009) film Teeth, in which the central character "bit[es] off penises with the inside of her vagina" (Jonny Brown, 2010). Yoju Toshi includes a female character "with a chomping, teeth-filled vagina" (Matt Coyte, 2004) who is capable of "spin[ning] webs out of her fanged vagina" (Todd Tjersland, 1995). The J-Sploitation film Kiseichuu: Kiraa Pusshii features a lead character who develops a vagina dentata during sex, and the similar film Kyonyu Doragon: Onsen Zonbi Vs Sutorippaa V features a woman with a flame-throwing vagina. Gokudo Sengokushi: Fudoh features "a high-school girl shooting poison darts from her vagina" (Howard Hampton, 2005). Rabid features "a porn star with a man-eating vagina in her armpit" (Duncan Bell, 2005[a]). Zuma features "[a] horrible creature that has a vagina dentata instead of a face" (Pete Tombs, 1997). Brain Dead features "an alien bursting out of a possessed vulva" (Kim Newman, 2011). Prometheus features a "vagina-mawed" alien monster (Ian Nathan, 2012). Peter Biskind (2004) identifies vagina dentata motifs in both Star Wars VI: Return Of The Jedi ("The Jabba episode culminates in an explicit vagina dentata fantasy, as Luke and his pals have to walk a phallic gangplank into the pulsating maw - festooned with long, curved teeth - of the giant Sarlacc") and Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom ("another vagina dentata sequence in the underground Spike Chamber"). In Blue Velvet, a carved sculpture of a vagina dentata was used as a set decoration. The film M features a "vagina dentata of a diamond formation of steel knives" (David Rakoff, 2009). In the Starz television drama series American Gods (2017), the character Bilquis swallows her sexual partners with her vagina. Emma Rees cites two further cinematic examples: "From the sailor-consuming vagina dentata flowers in Peter Jackson's lavish 2005 remake of King Kong to the chomping Kraken of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest a year later, we are invited to gaze on the primordial cunt" (2013). She also notes that Judy Chicago's Dinner Party installation contains a vagina dentata allusion: "cowry shells are stitched onto it, their angry little spiny teeth conjuring up stories of the vagina dentata". The Predator title character in Predator (John McTiernan, 1987) has a face resembling a vagina, and is called "pussy-face"). There is a "vagina monster" in the film Schramm (David Kerekes, 1994). Kekko Kamen III features "Nude lady superheroes [who] fly through the air with kung-fu glowing vaginas! They land on your face and kill you!" (Todd Tjersland, 1995). A tooth is placed inside a vagina during a scene in Novo.
There are also vagina dentatas throughout contemporary popular culture. There is a band, for example, called VaggieMonsters, and Mighty Sparrow recorded a song titled Ah Fraid Pussy Bite Me. In the animated television series Drawn Together, Princess Clara has "a monster for a vagina" (Dwayne Carey-Hill, 2004). The novel Riddley Walker features a character with "teef be twean her legs" [sic.] (Russell Hoban, 1980). The Blue Noses Group's video Sex Art II includes an image of a woman wearing knickers featuring an image of a tiger's mouth. To promote safe sex, SuperSom magazine photographed a naked woman holding a mousetrap in front of her vagina. The film Movie 43 features an MP3 player that looks like a naked woman, with a cooling fan in place of a vagina, and male purchasers cut their penises on the fan while attempting to have sex with the device. Sarah Silverman photographed Conan O'Brien's mouth with her iPhone, then put the phone between her legs, on O'Brien's Conan TV show on 5th November 2012. The Thai poster for the film Teeth features rose thorns arranged to resemble vaginal teeth. The Illustrated Book Of 'Country Matters' includes a Photoshopped image of a vagina with teeth. The sexist comic Smut has a strip titled Guillo Tina, the name equating the female character with a deadly blade, as in the figure of Mme Guillotine during the French Revolution: "SHE HAD A GUILLOTINE FOR A VAG" (200-). Colette Thurlow's zine Taxidermy includes the ode Vaginas Don't Bite (the Bitches With Brains issue, 2007). Bangkok illustrator TRK exhibited an ink drawing of a face with a vagina dentata as a mouth, called Cunt Face (2014), alongside an untitled woodcut print of another vagina dentata. The woodcut closely resembled an illustration of a monstrous vagina dentata by Roberto Matta, created for the cover of the final issue of the Surrealist journal VVV in 1944. A painting by Noshpash Chaturongkagul, Love Machine II (2014) depicts a monstrous insect with a vagina dentata. Karel Teige's collage 129 has been described as a depiction of "a graphically aggressive vagina dentata on all fours" (Brandon Taylor, 2004). Photographer Andres Serrano (who specialises in provocative and taboo-breaking images) has photographed a vagina with teeth (from a shark) stuck inside it, in a literal interpretation of the photograph's title Vagina Dentata: Vagina With Teeth: "The fears of the Other from a male perspective have been crystallised in Serrano's staged photograph of a vagina with teeth, the vagina that bites off and swallows the (erect and penetrating) penis. The vagina is the hidden orifice that castrates 'post-coitus' [...] female sexuality is constructed as an untamed and uncanny site of danger and horror not least as it is hidden from sight [...] it drastically shouts out 'cunt-hate' and 'womb-fear'" (Kerstin Mey, 2007).
David Sedaris's You Can't Kill The Rooster includes a limerick about a vagina dentata: "A woman I know who's quite blunt / had a bear trap in her... Oh, you know. It's a base, vernacular word for the vagina" (2000). In Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash (1992), a character wears "a very small hypodermic needle" in her vagina as an anti-rape device. By affixing a spike to a tampon, Leif Lindell created a prototype model she called Femdefence (2003). Ira D Sherman's Impenetrable Devices series includes several similar rape-prevention mechanisms, including Intimate Electric Fence (capable of giving an electric shock to a rapist's penis), and the self-explanatory Saber Tooth Speculum and Bear Trap Corset. Sonette Ehlers designed a similar product, called Rapex (2005, later renamed Rape-aXe), which was a female condom containing fish-hooks "that embed themselves in the penis in the event of penetration" (Duncan Bell, 2005[b]).
The motif has also been represented in more abstract manifestations. It is indirectly personified by the Etruscan demoness Culsu (who carries scissors) and the Alawan goddess Kunapipi (who swallows men with her womb), both of whom have names etymologically related to 'cunt'. Pablo Picasso painted a woman holding a tray of sea urchins, with the creatures as representations of the vagina dentata. A sea urchin in Un Chien Andalou has also been interpreted as a vagina dentata symbol. In L'Etoile De Mer, a vagina dentata is represented by a starfish which wraps itself around a sea urchin. Even a Ford Edsel car grille has been likened to a vagina dentata, in Steven Bayley's book Woman As Design. Barbara Creed (1986) identifies the "monstrous vagina" in a diversity of film images: "the gaping, cannibalistic bird's mouth in The Giant Claw; the terrifying spider of The Invisible Man; the toothed vagina/womb of Jaws; and the fleshy, pulsating womb of The Thing and the [sic.] Poltergeist. What is common to all of these images of horror is the voracious maw, the mysterious black hole which signifies female genitalia as a monstrous sign which threatens to give birth to equally horrific offspring as well as threatening to incorporate everything in its path". Creed also notes the "malevolent womb" and "the all-devouring vagina, the toothed vagina, the vagina as Pandora's box" symbolised in Alien, and the "evil womb" suggested by witches' grottoes in Inferno and Suspiria.
Just as the iconography of the vagina dentata is still present in contemporary culture, the myth itself also survives. During the Vietnam War, for example, Vietcong prostitutes were rumoured to construct their own vagina dentatas: "American servicemen in Vietnam recounted hearing tales of prostitutes with razors, sharp glass, or even grenades in the vagina" (Virginia Braun and Sue Wilkinson, 2001). A fictional short story by Emily Prager, The Lincoln-Pruitt Anti-Rape Device, reverses this military urban myth, describing "an American servicewoman in Vietnam who engaged the 'enemy' in coitus and killed them with an intra-vaginal spike". Jelto Drenth (2005) cites similar examples from World War II: "American soldiers in Germany told stories about German prostitutes with razors in their vaginas".
There have also been several positive appropriations of vagina dentata mythology by women, such as that of the Dragon Ladies performance group. The Dragon Ladies wear costumes with gaping, fanged mouths over their crotches, "exaggerat[ing] and mutat[ing] the ordinary into something fantastic and mythological" (David Kerekes, 1998). One of the most direct, and most positive, appropriations of the myth is that of the post-feminist Riot Grrrl zine titled Vaginal Teeth. There is also a feminist group in Denmark called Vagina Dentata.
The spectre of the vagina dentata is also evident in much of our contemporary slang vocabulary. Tim Healey cites 'fool's trap', 'venus fly trap', 'pencil sharpener', 'suck and swallow', 'fly cage', 'mousetrap', and 'cat' "that catches the mouse" (1980), a lexicon of metaphors which presents the vagina as a place of no escape. Similarly, James McDonald cites 'dumb glutton', 'biter', and 'vicious circle' as "expressions which humorously disguise an element of male apprehension about the vagina" (1988). Jonathon Green writes that "male fear and even hatred of the vagina persists unabated: emotions that are faithfully reflected in slang" (1993), citing examples such as 'snatch', 'snatch-blatch', 'snatch box'/'snatch-box', 'vacuum', 'sperm-sucker', 'wastepipe', 'fool trap', 'fly-catcher', 'bite', 'snapper', 'snapping turtle', 'carnal-trap', 'mangle', 'manhole', 'man-trap', 'prick-skinner', 'eel-skinner', 'eel-trap', 'mouse-trap', and 'skin-the-pizzle'. The perception here is of the vagina as an organ with "hidden dangers lurking within" (Erica Jong, 1973), ready to trap, snap, swallow, skin, or otherwise incapacitate the penis. Other examples include 'bite', 'pig's bite', 'Bermuda Triangle', 'beaver-trap', 'bear trap', 'paper cut', 'oyster', 'serpent socket', 'shark's nose', 'predator's face', and 'man-entrapment'. Jane Mills cites 'snatch' as "at first meaning bite [thus associating] the vagina with a snapping jaw" (1989), and Mark Morton notes that it "implies that a woman's genitals will grab hold of a man and devour him" (2003). Vicky Featherstone's BBC Radio 4 series Snatches: Moments From Women's Lives (2018) was an attempt at "reclaiming the word" (E Jane Dickson, 2018). The slang word 'clacker' compares to the vagina to a children's snapping toy. Barbara Creed (1993) finds the influence of the vagina dentata in the language used to describe women in general: "The vagina dentata also points to the duplicitous nature of woman, who promises paradise in order to ensnare her victims. The notion of the devouring female genitals continues to exist in the modern world; it is apparent in popular derogatory terms for women such as 'man-eater' and 'castrating bitch'" (however, she is perhaps too broad in her assessment, as she implies that any representation of women juxtaposed with teeth, - or, indeed, any representation of teeth at all - is also an allusion to the vagina dentata).
Cunt-hatred is prevalent in vagina dentata mythology, popular culture, and slang, as we have seen, and these negative representations must be reversed: "the vagina has commonly and persistently been represented as [...] dirty, smelly, shameful, and even dangerous. These representations could be seen as encapsulating (Western) society's attitudes towards, and responses to, the vagina, as well as attitudes to women more broadly. It is a depressing portrayal, and one that needs to be challenged" (Virginia Braun and Sue Wilkinson, 2001). A feminist movement promoting positive exhibitionism and celebration of the vagina, and positive usage of the word 'cunt', is attempting to challenge negative attitudes towards femininity.
Male abuse of the word 'cunt' is compounded by male control of the reproduction of cunts in visual form, namely the pornography industry. Inspired by feminist critiques of pornography, some women have become proactive in creating and distributing pro-feminist porn, and are confounding male expectations by turning full-frontal exhibitions of the vagina into acts of empowerment. More traditional feminists, who cannot bring themselves to use either the vagina or the word 'cunt' as positive tools of empowerment, do not share these attitudes.
The most outspoken anti-porn feminist is Andrea Dworkin, who views 'cunt' as "the most reductive word" and sees porn as "the debasing of women" (1981). By contrast, Deborah Orr contends that "exposure of female bodies has been transmogrified into an expression of female freedom and power" (2000).
Female sexual assertiveness has a long history, though perhaps its most influential personification is Madonna, who appropriates the conventional tropes of male fantasy (posing naked for her book Sex and wearing a conical bra) yet does so for her own pleasure, subverting the expectations of her straight male audience: "In our society, a woman who is overtly sexual is considered a venomous bitch, or someone to be feared. So what I like to do is [to] take the traditional [...] overtly sexual [...] image and turn it around, and say, 'Well, yes, I can dress this way, or I can behave this way, but I'm in charge'" (Omnibus, 1990). With the names of her 'Slutco' video company and 'Siren' film company, Madonna also reappropriated two negative feminine terms, and her What It Feels Like For A Girl video features an "OL KUNTZ" sign punning on 'old cunts' (2000). (As in Madonna's "KUNTZ", 'cunt' is also occasionally spelt with a 'k' - 'kunt' - in graffiti, and Private Eye (Those All-Time Great Alastair Campbell Advertising Campaigns, 2005) spelt 'cunts' with a 'z' in "Beanz Meanz C[u]ntz!", a pun on 'Beanz Meanz Heinz'.)
This post-feminist sexual provocation, analysed by Brian McNair in Striptease Culture, has specifically increased the cultural visibility of the vagina, counteracting the sexist tits-and-ass landscape discussed earlier: "Whatever the reasons for its concealment (and male fear could underlie it), feminists think that it is symptomatic of the way women themselves are disregarded and undervalued. It follows that by making the vagina visible, by defying the taboos, a woman can reaffirm her identity" (Lynn Holden, 2000).
Annie Sprinkle, in a performance entitled Public Cervix Announcement, allowed members of the public to crouch between her open legs and view her vulva. Sprinkle was attempting to remove the stigmas of fear and ignorance attached to the vagina: "One reason why I show my cervix is to assure the misinformed, who seem to be primarily of the male population, that neither the vagina nor the cervix contains any teeth [...] Lots of folks, both men and women, know very little about female anatomy and so we are ashamed and/or afraid of the cervix. That's sad, so I do my best to lift that veil of ignorance" (1998). (The lecture Cunt: The Facts at the 2006 Stockholm Pride festival was a similar, though less sensational, attempt at vaginal demystification.)
Heavily influenced by the Public Cervix Announcement were Orlan and Diamond Lil, who also presented their vaginas as performance art. Whereas Sprinkle's performance constituted a series of intimate and interactive moments in which each audience-member would encounter her cunt on an individual basis, Orlan and Lil used mirrors and magnification to display their cunts to audiences collectively. For her Amazing Cunt Show (2001), Lil used a mirrored box to give audiences a view of her cunt, and Orlan used a magnifying glass to display her vagina.
In the 1960s, Fluxus artist Shigeko Kubota performed Vaginal Painting, for which she held a paintbrush between the lips of her vagina and painted whilst squatting over a canvas. A decade later, Carolee Schneemann unravelled a scroll of paper from her vagina and read from it, in a performance titled Interior Scroll. This directly inspired Babe, during her concerts with Rockbitch, to pull a rolled-up sheet from her vagina on which was written a speech celebrating 'cunt': "it's not disgusting. It's not shameful. It's fucking beautiful" (Hull, 2003).
The sole male equivalent of these performances is Puppetry Of The Penis, in which penises are manipulated into unusual shapes. This genital origami is clearly a comedy act, however, whereas Annie Sprinkle and the others had a serious agenda. This division between comedy and seriousness applies not just to the performances mentioned here but also to general attitudes towards male and female genitalia. Whereas male genitals are seen as mildly amusing (with jokes about one-eyed trouser-snakes, for instance), vaginas inspire only loathing and fear, with any jokes about them confined to misogynist references to disease or dirt.
Directly confronting this loathing and fear, Germaine Greer edited an issue of Oz in which she extolled the virtues of cunt-power, her manifesto of female sexual empowerment. The issue was introduced with the words "Welcome to Cuntpower Oz" (1970[b]), though its title was officially Female Energy Oz. It included light-hearted elements, such as a "cunt-thatch woollen bikini" (1970[d]), though its most important feature was Greer's editorial, The Politics Of Female Sexuality.
Greer exposed the systematic cultural sublimation of female sexuality, and specifically the sublimation of the vagina: "One of the chief mechanisms in the suppression of female humanity is the obliteration of female sexuality. [...] In order that the pork sword might be seen to rule the world unchallenged, women obligingly hid their sex, at first with a hand [though later the] devices for minimising the organs of femaleness became more sophisticated; women began to wear knickers, then to deodorise their genitals, douche them, shave them, pluck them. Modesty rotted their innocence. They learned to prize smallness, inaccessibility. Their rich juices were prevented from flowing" (1970[c]).
Greer's solution was to foster an awareness of the positive power and significance of 'cunt', the word and the organ: "Revolutionary women may join Women's Liberation Groups [...] but did you ever hear of one of them marching the public street with her skirt high crying 'Can you dig it? Cunt is beautiful!' The walled garden of Eden was CUNT. The mandorla of the beatified saints was CUNT. The mystical rose is CUNT. The Ark of Gold, the Gate of Heaven. Cunt is a channel drawing all towards it. Cunt is knowledge. Knowledge is receptivity, which is activity. Cunt is the symbol of erotic science, the necessary corrective of the maniacal conquest of technology. Skirts must be lifted, knickers (which women have only worn for a century) must come off forever. It is time to dig CUNT and women must dig it first. [...] The only [words women] may employ have been deformed by centuries of sadistic male use. You CUNT, gash, slit, crack, slot... Women have no names of their own for what is most surely their own. It ought to be possible to establish a women's vocabulary of cunt, prideful, affectionate, accurate and bold".
Honing her theme in an essay titled Lady Love Your Cunt (1971[a]), Greer further clarified the problem of vaginal oppression: "Primitive man feared the vagina [...] It looks bad. Shave it. Pluck it. Cover it with your hand [...] It smells bad. Wash it. Scour it. Douche it. DEODORIZE it. It tastes bad. Wash it some more. It's sloppy. Mop it. It's dry. Lubricate it. The language of pornography is full of cunt-hatred. [...] If you doubt that the cunt is hated and feared by most of the population, how will you explain the hundreds of pounds spent in persuading women that they have an intimate deodorant problem? [Women are told] that cunts smell bad, not just when dirty or menstruating, but all the time".
As The Politics Of Female Sexuality had called for "a women's vocabulary of cunt" (1970[c]), Lady, Love Your Cunt likewise demanded: "we must regain the power of the cunt. CUNT IS BEAUTIFUL. [...] Give it your own loving names, not the fictions of anatomy books, or the condescending diminutives that men use [...] or the epithets of hate [...] What we need is a genuinely descriptive terminology of cunt".
Cunt-power as a feminist movement was initiated by Germaine Greer in 1969. In her "first-ever cunt-power piece" (1986), an open letter to John Gorton, she wrote: "cunt power is black, baby, black, and it's my cunt is telling me to write this letter, white man. [...] One day the women of the world will fill their cunts with razor blades for the likes of you". Many years later, she memorably persuaded an embarrassed Jonathan Dimbleby to say 'cunt' on live television: "try to say it! It'll do you good!" (Sheree Folkston, 1991), a tactic later employed by Whoopi Goldberg in Boys On The Side.
Greer also co-edited the porn magazine Suck in the early 1970s, and asked of her female readers: "WHY NOT SEND US A PHOTOGRAPH OF YOUR OWN CUNT, WITH YOUR NAME LABELED ON?" (1971[a]), thus she can be credited not only with the origination of cunt-power (both the term itself and its philosophy) but also as one of the inspirations for the liberating exhibitionism of Annie Sprinkle, Orlan, and Diamond Lil. The ultimate origin of vagina exhibitionism, however, is the ancient custom of skirt-raising - the display of the vagina as an act of aggression.
Bellerophon, for instance, "fled in terror from Lycian women advancing on him with genitals exposed, and even the sea god Poseidon retreated, for fear they might swallow him" (Barbara G Walker, 1983), or, as Catherine Blackledge succinctly puts it: "Bellerophon retreats in shame, vanquished by vulvas" (2003). Blackledge cites several examples of "the power of the exposed vagina to repel foes", and female genital displays warding off evil: "Driving out devils, averting vicious spirits, frightening carnivores and scaring opposing warriors and threatening deities away - all these heroic and dangerous deeds are reputed to form part of a woman's genital might. [Pliny and Plutarch] described how great heroes and gods will flee in the face of female genitalia. Elsewhere, the report of a sixteenth-century traveller in North Africa records the belief that lions will turn tail and run from this sexual sight. At funerals, women were hired as mourners, with the express aim of exorcising demons via vaginal display. Delightfully, Russian folklore relates how when a bear appears out of the woods, it can be put to flight by a woman raising her skirt at it". Blackledge describes (and reproduces) an engraving by Charles Eisen which depicts "a young woman [...] displaying her sexual centre for Satan to see. And in the face of her naked womanhood, the devil reels back in fear". She argues that when the vagina is employed to repel foes it is demonstrating its inherent feminine power. However, she also problematises this position, recognising that if enemies flee from the vagina then it must be perceived as an object of terror and/or revulsion. This perception is clearly apparent in illustrations by Charles Eisen (Le Diable De Papafiguiere 1674) and Thomas Rowlandson (Le Regard Du Diable, 1817), both of which depict a devil recoiling in horror from a woman exposing her genitals.
Cuntlovin': Reclaiming Cunt
The embracing of pornographic imagery by liberal feminists such as Germaine Greer was fundamentally an attempt to utilise the vagina as a symbol of female empowerment ('cunt-power' or 'pussy-power'), to reverse the cultural position of the vagina as a repulsive and frightening organ. The vagina is marginalised by social phallocentricity, and this is subverted by feminist attempts to increase its visibility in such a way that control is maintained of both the organ itself and the reproduction of its image - a shift from "phallocentrism to gynaecentrism" (Graham Fuller, 2006).
The vagina is also, in the form of the word 'cunt', employed as a tool of linguistic misogyny, and it is here that radical feminists such as Andrea Dworkin reveal their truly illiberal ideology. Dworkin employs male terminology by referring to porn models as 'cunts' and 'whores', whilst simultaneously noting the reductivist implications of the words. This reminds us of the cruelty inherent in male usage of the terms, though it also appears defeatist, seeming to wallow in the injustice of the status quo. Jeanette Winterson even equates pornographic modelling with "being turned into a stupid cunt" (2000); she seemingly feels so betrayed by such women that, startlingly and regressively for a feminist writer, she resorts to unironic and abusive usage of the ne plus ultra of linguistic misogyny.
Robin Brontsema, who views 'cunt' as "an unrivalled misogynist epithet" (2004), provides a detailed explanation of the function of reclamation, both in a general sense and also in direct relation to 'cunt': "value reversal is the transformation of a negative value into a positive one. To reverse a word's value is to completely turn it around 180 degrees to its opposite, to steal it from its injurious trajectory to send it on the opposite path - to reverse value is to exchange opposites. Value reversal is largely assumed to be the goal of linguistic reclamation. Certainly, it is a - even if not the only - goal of many movements to reclaim a word. This value reversal, for example, is at the heart of the contemporary feminist movement to reclaim cunt. Today cunt could be considered the most abusive, misogynist epithet used against women, derogatively signifying not only female genitalia but women in general [...] to reclaim cunt is to reverse its value, to replace its negative connotative value with a positive one. This value reversal channels the power that the word already contains, tapping this source of energy in order to create its very opposite. It is nothing less than a revolutionary reversal of opposites".
'Cunt', deemed a "vile insult" by Joan Smith (1998), unequivocally "tops the tree [of offence]" according to Matthew de Abaitua (1998), and, while radical feminists cling to its abusive male sense, an increasingly influential liberal feminist campaign, gathering momentum since the cunt-power days of the 1970s, seeks to reclaim it as a term of endearment. Thus, Minnie Bruce Pratt sees 'cunt' as "the universe reduced to one part of a woman's body, cursed on the street" though also as "[a] word caught and caged" (1995), implying that reappropriation of the word will remove its reductivism and simultaneously uncage it. Deborah Orr outlines the respective positions of liberal and radical feminists, though ultimately lends her own support to the radical position: "Maybe it's time to wake up to the fact that the radical feminists were the ones who got it right" (2006).
Ruth Wajnryb, in her essay A Cunt Of A Word (2004), argues that usage of 'cunt' must shift from its implicit negative associations to a clear and neutral descriptive function: "The way to win this battle is to use the word denotatively and so over time defuse its connotative message. We are urged to 'begin to like the word. It's a good word... It doesn't have to describe people you don't like, jobs you hate, cars that won't go... Use it gladly, rather than shamefully'" (2004). She stresses that reappropriation of the word 'cunt' is necessary in order to eradicate the negative childhood and cultural attitudes towards the organ it represents: "If women reclaim the word as part of 'womenspeak', they can subvert the male-endowed perniciousness of the word. Some feminists argue that 'the way to change some of the false and undermining messages is to change the usage of the word... Defuse it, and in doing so we subvert the culture that prescribes negative meanings to words that don't deserve or need them'. [...] Some women actively cultivate a use of CUNT that they hope will shift usage and attitudes, most especially so that girls don't grow up 'believing they possess something disgusting in their bodies and young boys... believing that what they were born from is the most offensive thing they can call another person".
The earliest recorded female reappropriation of 'cunt' is surely that of the Wife of Bath in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales: "she is certainly remarkably free in thought and speech, given the general constraints on women of her status in the Middle Ages. Indeed, the broadness of her language makes her virtually unique as a literary figure in her times" (Geoffrey Hughes, 1991). A bawdy and down-to-earth character who espouses the power women can gain over men through sex, she assures her betrothed that he will 'get his oats' (Geoffrey Chaucer, 1400):
"For certeyn, olde dotard, by youre leve,
'Queynte' should be seen not as a 'cunt' euphemism but rather as a phonetic variant, retaining the bluntness of its source. It can be contrasted with the Wife's coy euphemism 'quoniam':
"And trewely, as myne housbondes tolde me,
'Quoniam' is Latin for 'whereas', and is used here euphemistically (due to its phonetic similarity to 'queynte') to mean 'thingy': she is boasting that she has the best 'thingy' ('cunt') in Bath. As James Winny writes, "The Wife is understandably pleased to repeat this basic complement. Her Latin euphemism quoniam [...] is probably used for its alliterative likeness to the blunter term she has previously used" (1965).
Several contemporary feminists have followed the Wife's example, challenging male monopolisation of sexual discourse and seeking specifically to reappropriate the word 'cunt' itself, "reinvesting [it] with a more positive meaning" (Deborah Cameron, 1985) to counteract its "anachronistic slur on female sexuality" (Joan Smith, 1998). For example, 'A CUNT IS A USEFUL THING' was used as a placard slogan at lesbian-rights marches. (In Cunt, a chapter from their 1996 book Nothing But The Girl, Susie Bright and Jill Posener write that "Lesbians have actually made the world a safer place to say cunt".) 'Cunt positive' writer Jane Mills explains that she is keen to reclaim the word: "to use the word 'cunt' in a positive way, to say 'Right, this is a sexual organ, and we're proud of it', would be no bad thing" (Kerry Richardson, 1994). Whoopi Goldberg's character in Boys On The Side also advocates reappropriation: "I have to hear you say it! Oh, come on. C-u-n-t, go on, please! Please! It'll free you!" (Herbert Ross, 1995). This encouragement prompts Mary-Louise Parker's character first to whisper "Cunt" and then to shout and sing it aloud.
Eve Ensler, who has said that "c[unt] has the possibility to be a great word" (Andrew Goldman, 1999), wrote The Vagina Monologues, adapted from interviews she conducted with women about their vaginas. The Monologues include a poem called Reclaiming Cunt (1996) that "play[s] around with [the word,] tak[ing] the different letters of the word and break[ing] down the sound of it with colours and images" (Richard Brooks, 1999). Ensler's aim was to encourage women "to re-appropriate 'cunt' in order to empower both the word and themselves" (Susie Dent, 2004), and she explained that she was motivated by male misuse of the word: "the way it's been used is in a fairly demonising, denigrating way" (Pete Woods, 2007). Ensler has certainly turned 'vagina' and 'cunt' into buzzwords, though this begs the question: why celebrate the word 'vagina' when, as discussed earlier, it is a word she so dislikes? (Perhaps she should call it 'The Cunt Monologues' instead?)
Ensler's ability to encourage an entire audience to chant "cuntcuntcuntcuntcuntcunt" (Peter Silverton, 2009) makes for an entertaining evening at the theatre: "The entire auditorium conjoins in a mass chant, reclaiming 'cunt' [which is] a detested word in most female vocabulary. [Ensler] demonstrated how it was only vulgar because of the way we associated it largely due to male usage of the term. As a result of this re-education, most of the audience were not embarrassed when they were asked to shout it out" (Natalie Ingham and Jonathan Haynes, 2002). The Monologues have been performed at universities around the world, performed with 'Cunt' flash-cards and advertised with 'Cunt' flyers. In China, it inspired the play Our Vaginas, Ourselves: "The localization is spelled out in the very first scene. "I'll say it: vagina!" two actresses, called A and B, say in Mandarin, on a stage with minimal props. "I'll say it in the Shanxi dialect: vagina," B says. "In the Wenzhou dialect: vagina," A says. Then it's the Hubei dialect, and so on until they have uttered the word in 10 dialects, the audience reacting with delight to the shock of the familiar, yet rarely heard word, spoken in their hometown tongues" (Didi Kirsten Tatlow, 2013[b]).
However, many women have problems with the central message of the Monologues. Ensler seems to feel that women should be defined solely by their vaginas ("Your vagina is the story of your life", 2001), yet this is, unwittingly, dangerously close to the sexist, reductivist notion that the vagina is the only significant part of a woman: "by talking about their vaginas as if they were defined by them alone, women are in danger of objectifying and fetishising their bodies as much as men" (Barbara Ellen, 2001). Thus, Ensler's concentration on the vagina has been interpreted as regressive: "Actually, the struggles of the past 40 years have been an attempt to show that we are so much more than just cunts" (Lynn Gardner, 2001). This highlights the key distinction between the word 'cunt' in its literal, insulting, and reductivist senses - it is increasingly acceptable to use 'cunt' as a synonym for 'vagina', though it remains unacceptable to use the word as a pejorative: "calling a woman a cunt is far more taboo than talking about her cunt" (Mark Morton, 2003).
The Reclaiming Cunt poem itself is flawed because, in it, Ensler seeks to extract a non-existent erotic potential from the phonetic components of the word. 'Cunt' sounds fundamentally abrasive: "The harsh, unsibilant C, then the grunt of the U and that N, finished off with the contemptuous spit of the final T" (Deborah Orr, 2006). The title of Martin Samuel's article From The Hard 'C' To The Sharp 'T' It's A Sensational Word (2007) neatly encapsultes the word's abrasive phonetics. In Reclaiming Cunt, Ensler energetically attempts to soften the word's inherently harsh phonemes: "C C, Ca Ca [...] ugh, ugh, u [...] n-, cun, cun, then t [...] tell me, tell me "Cunt cunt," say it" (1996). Her moans of pleasure when enunciating the individual letters do not convince: "The attempt to reclaim and beautify the word 'cunt' is embarrassing" (Kate Kellaway, 2001[b]). This problematic beautification is redeemed, however, by Ensler's subsequent conversational examples of reclamation ("did you just call me a cunt? Thank you so much!", 1996), which are far more persuasive. As she herself notes, context and 'cunt' are inseparable: "It's all about intention, isn't it? I would never use the word 'cunt' as a put-down" (Pete Woods, 2007).
The most grating element of the Monologues is Ensler's self-congratulatory hyperbole regarding the show's impact. It seems as if she "believes she has been mystically called upon to enlighten us" (Catherine Bennett, 2001), as, for example, when she begins her introduction to the show by saying "I am not sure why I was chosen" (2001). Gillian Anderson's comment, "Eve Ensler is the Pied Piper. She's leading women and the world to a different consciousness of the essence of women" (Kate Kellaway, 2001[a]), is the apogee of this vagina hyperbole.
Perhaps more provocatively, Inga Muscio has written Cunt: A Declaration Of Independence, in which she calls 'cunt' "a venerable ally in my war against oppression" (1998). Writing 'cunt' with a capital 'C' as a mark of status and respect, she foresees an end to the word's negative connotations: "When viewed as a positive force in the language of women - as well as a reference to the power of the anatomical jewel which unites us all - the negative power of Cunt falls in upon itself". She sees it as a source of unity for womankind: "we are suddenly equipped with a word that brings all women together [...] besides global subjugation, Cunts are the only common denominators I can think of which women irrefutably share".
Cunt: A Declaration Of Independence is a personal account, drawing on Riot Grrrl influences, of issues relating to women's bodies (menstruation, contraception, prostitution, and rape). Thus, chapters include Blood And Cunts, Reproductive Control For Cunts, Orgasms From Cunts, Acrimony Of Cunts, Rape Not Cunts, Cuntlovin' Guide To The Universe, and, in the second edition (2002), Women With Dicks, Men With Cunts. Muscio also devotes sections to topics such as Cuntlovin' Ovulation Alert, Cuntjuices, Misc. Cuntlovin' Enterprises, Cuntlovin' Consumerism, and Cuntlovin' Investment Portfolio. Furthermore, she coins terms such as "Cuntlovin' Public Retaliation", "Cuntlovin' Women's Art Movement", "Cuntlovin' Women's Economic System", "cuntdreams", and "cuntlove".
Clearly, 'cuntlovin'', namely women's respect for their own bodies, is Muscio's major theme. She proclaims herself to be "the Cuntlovin' Ruler of My Sexual Universe", and is eager to reclaim 'cunt' (she has fun imagining it as a "Raging Cunt" monster-truck, and distributes 'Cunt' stickers and t-shirts), though unfortunately she devotes very little space to the word itself. Instead, she uses it merely as a segue into a long account of her sexual self-exploration. Her discussion of 'cunt' is too brief to justify her book's attention-grabbing title, and is too generalised to be of serious interest.
Muscio's cuntlovin' philosophy and Germaine Greer's Lady, Love Your Cunt essay (a title punned by Sleeper in 1995 for their track Lady, Love Your Countryside) inspired a group called Ladies Art Revival to distribute knickers bearing the slogan 'I Love My Cunt'. Another feminist group, T-ShirtMamas, also sells 'I Love My Cunt' t-shirts.
An online shop, Cafe Press, sells t-shirts, mouse mats, boxer shorts, mugs, bags, and caps all emblazoned with 'I Love My Cunt' (all by Cuntlove, 199-). Not Kid Friendly (200-) also via Cafe Press, sells 'I LOVE CUNT' t-shirts, hats, mugs, and bumper-stickers; they also sell a range of 'CONNETICUNT' items: various t-shirts, tank-tops, creepers, sweatshirts, magnets, thongs, hoodies, golf shirts, stickers, bumper-stickers, and registration-plate frames. (Cafe Press also retails a similar range of 'C.U.N.T.' t-shirts, mugs, boxer shorts, and caps by Trailervision (2001). They also sell a range of t-shirts, caps, thongs, magnets, boxer shorts, mouse mats, and teddy bears by Love Is A Cunt, all featuring the slogan 'LOVE IS A CUNT' (2004).)
Written pseudonymously in the zine Bust, an essay by Jayne Air celebrates the shock-value of 'cunt': "CUNT. So many hate it. They say, "We've reappropriated 'bitch' and 'girl' but cunt is just going too far." [...] Somebody else isn't going to own that word. I figure it's so fucking dangerous, and it's so intimately about my anatomy, that it's going to be mine, too. [...] Cunt is a word that you just wouldn't say in front of your mother. Cunt is a word that can still make men suck in their breath uncomfortably and look down at the floor. It says, "There's nothing you frat boys can call me that I haven't already thought of myself, before you. And I'm using it my own way, thanks so much." [...] Cunt has all the power of a magic word" (199-).
This essay, titled A Vindication Of The Rights Of Cunt (a reference to the classic A Vindication Of The Rights Of Woman) is, like Germaine Greer's The Politics Of Female Sexuality, explicitly presented as a manifesto. Like Greer's essay, it was first published by the underground press, and is refreshingly direct, radical, and powerful. It has been reprinted, in abridged form, by C Magazine as That Cunt Has Balls: The Last Of The Four-Letter Words (2002). Fortunately, it has none of Eve Ensler's self-congratulations and none of Inga Muscio's over-generalisations. Indeed, The Politics Of Female Sexuality and A Vindication Of The Rights Of Cunt are probably the two most significant contributions to the cunt-power movement.
The poem Cunt Cuntry (2001) by Alix Olson (who refers to herself as "Jane Hancunt") has a similar theme to the cuntlovin' and cunt-power manifestos discussed above. It begins with an explicitly revolutionary call-to-arms:
"I've decided to start
Olson describes "Cunt Land", a utopia in which "Cunt-Liberators tossed Cunt-Traitors into the sea", with the parodic motto "My Cunt tis of Thee". She refers to women as "Cunted Creatures" and "the Cunt Cuntry Army", and accepts men provided that they are gynaecologists (the "Cunt Commander in Chief") or are pro-feminist (having a "Cunt Mentality").
Whereas Germaine Greer, Eve Ensler, Inga Muscio, Jayne Air, and Alix Olson seek to alter the meaning of 'cunt', transforming it from a negative word into a positive one, Kathy Acker and Jane Gallop highlight the word's harshness by employing it repetitiously and forcefully. Acker recreates masculine usage of it, using exaggeration to draw attention to its misogynism. The first part of her novel Algeria is titled CUNT, and chapter titles include CUNT, The Next Crazy CUNT, and A CUNT Does Not Belong To Any Man.
Acker replaces each of her female characters' names with "THE CUNT" and "it", the substitutions drawing attention to male objectification of women: "There is no such thing as a woman. Henceforth a woman is A CUNT" (1984). The novel is "cunt-littered" (Deborah Orr, 2006), and the viciousness of the term is revealed by Acker's deliberate over-use of it. For example, she writes about the suicide of her mother: "THE CUNT ate at the most expensive restaurants in New York [...] It stole money and jewelry from THE CUNT its mother [...] THE CUNT'S THE CUNT mother had made two million by marrying a rich man when it was thirty years old. On Monday THE CUNT asked THE CUNT its mother for money. THE CUNT mother refused. Now THE CUNT had driven itself as close to suicide as it could get [...] In the hotel room THE CUNT ate down all its Librium and died". By harshly objectifying her mother in this way, she reveals the cruel impact of similar male objectifications. Eurydice Kamvyselli uses a similar strategy in her novel f/32: The Second Coming (1993), in which the central character's vagina is cut out by an attacker, an act described as "decuntation", leaving her with an "ex-cunt".
There are also more light-hearted methods of reclamation. Comediennes Jenny Eclair ("hahahaha, cunt, cunt, cunt"; Francis Hanly, 2002) and Jackie Clune, for example, both use 'cunt' openly in their stand-up routines, their "liberal use of the word indicat[ing] that its novelty hasn't quite worn off" (Fiona Sturges, 2001). They provide a welcome contrast to the revolting comedians Roy Chubby Brown and Bernard Manning, who use 'cunt' in an exclusively insulting sense.
Another comedienne, Lucy Porter, explains her own usage of the word: "I sort of get away with it a bit more [...] because I have a cunt" (Pete Woods, 2007). She feels that reappropriation is necessary: "clearly it has its roots in misogyny in that it's the lowest thing you can call someone [...] I think it should be [part] of the repertoire of words we can use [because] as a woman I think we may as well just try and sort of come to a point where we're okay with it". Porter's audiences have somewhat polarised reactions to the word: "If I come on stage [...] and then I say the word 'cunt' [...] it will either shock an audience into laughter, or relax them".
In her show Bland Ambition, Lucinda Cowden combines comedy with feminist theory. This culminates in a celebratory 'cunt' monologue in which she discusses her positive usage of the word: "I use it a lot. I really enjoy the word, actually [...] I've got one, so why the hell can't I say it? You know, men are allowed to talk about their dicks [so] why aren't girls allowed to say 'cunt'?" (2001). Her performance concludes with a song called I'm Just A Girl Who Can Say Cunt:
"I'm just a girl who can say 'cunt',
In The C-Word (2006), an article for Vogue magazine - a clear sign of the word's increasingly presence in the zeitgeist - Deborah Orr writes of her own regular use of 'cunt': "I've been cunting away myself for several decades now. [...] It's a part of my vocabulary that is utilised in controlled situations - for emphasis, for comic effect, or even to shut down a discussion I'm bored with. Calling something or someone a cunt is oddly dismissive. It tops everything. For me, it's not a serious word. It's a word for playing with, but in a not-very-dangerous game. [...] Using the c-word, in the right company, is pleasingly wicked and funny. It shocks. It packs a punch. It grabs attention". Orr also recounts her friends' various senstitivities towards it: "My friends have mixed feelings about using the word. One close friend refers to it as: "That word I never say." The taboo is tumbling so fast, however, that she recently told me: "I was so furious that I said that word I never say." Another does use the word, but remains slightly pink-cheeked about it - very self-conscious and awkward, like a teenager teaching herself to smoke. [...] Another says she loves hearing women saying the word, and loves saying it, even though she cannot abide hearing men using it".
Zoe Williams criticises "People who object to the word cunt" (2001): "Get over it. Just because it makes a cute Anglo-Saxon explosive noise doesn't mean it's any worse than, say, willy". Her attitude towards the word is arguably more realistic than idealistic: "It's just incredibly orthodox and po-faced to say, "I'm gonna take the word 'cunt' and I'm only gonna use it to mean 'beautiful, flowering symbol of my womanhod'" (Pete Woods, 2007). Lisa Jardine "used to be offended by the word cunt, but not any more [...] For years it has been fine to call the male genitalia by names, but not the female ones. It should change" (Richard Brooks, 1999). Similarly, Natasha Richardson is "not offended by ['cunt'] at all" (Andrew Goldman, 1999) and Kate Moss is surprised that "People don't like the word". Kathy Lette seeks a reclamation of its original anatomical usage: "The c-word is only offensive when used derogatively. We can live with 'cunt' if we get equal pay". Ann Marie McQueen recalls that, when she first heard the word, she was deeply offended, though after attending a consciousness-raising workshop she "had become almost indifferent" to it (2004). Joan Smith reveals that "some of my friends use it quite deliberately when they talk about their own bodies. This is [an] effective way of removing its sting [...] and it makes me wonder what the lads will do if we succeed in taking away their worst insult" (1998).
At Wesleyan University there is an official Cunt Club whose sole goal is to reclaim 'cunt', and Penn State University hosted an empowering Cuntfest in 2000. In a conference paper at the University of Southern Maine, Megan Goudey and Ashley Newton argued that the original etymology of 'cunt', which defined it in positive terms, should be a contemporary inspiration to women who seek to reappropriate the word: "the etymology of the word "cunt" in its origins has more positive connotations associated with it than negative ones. By recognizing and reclaiming the etymological connotation of the word "cunt," women can take back part of the language that keeps them in their socially determined subordinate position. By recognising that words have socially created meanings, women can influence other women and inspire them to work collectively to bring back the positive imagery associated with "cunt" and other harmful words. By re-appropriating and converting the meaning of common slang, women can create a language for themselves" (2004).
The purpose of the reappropriation of 'cunt' is to reclaim it as a neutral or even positive anatomical term, replacing its persistently pejorative male usage. This is to return 'cunt' to its original status, to revert to its pre-taboo usage. The word's power can only be maintained so long as its taboo is maintained: "reappropriation by feminists may slacken its bite in time" (Mark Irwin, 2001[a]). Male usage of 'cunt' has created a climate of fear and disgust around the word, however, and the freeing of it from these associations is not an easy process: "The history of the C-word means that reclaiming the word will be an uphill struggle" (Rhonda Pietrin, 2001). As Robin Brontsema points out, reclamation necessarily harnesses the original power of the abusive term, and therefore some of this invective may be retained: "because it necessarily depends upon the word's pejoration for its revolutionary resignification, it is never without contestation or controversy" (2004).
For Andrea Dworkin, 'cunt' is an inherently violent word, and is symptomatic of society's inherent misogyny. She argues forcefully that 'cunt' cannot be successfully reclaimed until the general hatred of women is removed from society: "There have been radical efforts to make malignant words take on an innocent or benign meaning [however] the meaning[s] did not change. Change requires a change in power relations, a redistribution of power, an equality of worth that is socially true. The meaning of words that express derision of inferiors does not change [...] unless the hate and power they signify change[s.] Dirty words stay dirty because they express a hate for [...] women's genitals" (1987).
Dworkin's vehement opposition to reappropriation seems, as discussed earlier, defeatist and even self-pitying (as she highlights social misogyny yet denies women the capacity to change it). Furthermore, she declares that men who use 'cunt' in positive contexts are merely compounding their inherent misogyny - "Worshipping "cunt" and hating women [are] not, in real life, exactly distinguishable" - and, given my position, I find myself in considerable disagreement with her argument here. In her magazine article about the 'cunt' taboo, The Incredible Explosive Word, Jacqueline Maley (2012) notes that she once attempted to reappropriate the word: "At the uni bar one night, my buddies and I got talking about the C-word (which, for all the liberation our education provided, none of us liked to say) and we decided we would do our bit for the sisterhood by reclaiming it. We came up with the term "c[unt]puncher", which we decided we would employ as the worst possible insult for our enemies". (Oddly, she wanted to use it in a negative sense rather than a positive one.) However, she was unsuccessful: "We used the term enthusiastically for a few weeks but it never caught on".
The reappropriation of 'cunt' has not been widely accepted by women, as Jane Mills admits in Channel 4's documentary Expletives Deleted: "I can't go 'round saying 'cunt' all the time on my own, it doesn't go down very well!" (Kerry Richardson, 1994). Julie Burchill, in an article headlined The Unbearable Smugness Of Sandi Toksvig - And What The C-Word Really Means, wrote that people using the word reveal their own inadequacies: "Unlike other cuss words, the C-word says far more about the person saying it than the one it's directed at" (2011). The extent of our 'cunt' taboo has overshadowed its reappropriation. Since the cunt-power sexual liberalism of the 1970s, reappropriation has been repeatedly called for, though it has yet to be widely accepted: "Despite the best efforts of Eve Ensler and her posse, the c-word appears to be seeing off the feminist embrace" (Pete Woods, 2007). Inga Muscio, for example, has built upon the work of the previous generation, though she also covers the same ground, as her predecessors did not have a widespread impact. As she herself admits, she does not expect "to pluck on the heartstrings of [...] All Women" (1998). Editing a feminist issue of Hungappa, designed to pose questions such as "Why are we so bloody scared of Vaginas? [and] Why are we scared of the word cunt?", Bel (2005) noted that the same questions were being asked thirty years ago, and that, even now, they are no closer to being answered.
Germaine Greer, despite her passionate advocation of cunt-power, regretfully acknowledged that, thirty years later, the word's pejorative potential remained undiluted: "Nothing that any[body] can call anybody is worse than the word 'cunt'", and she even confessed to the failure of cunt-power to garner sufficient support: "Cunt-power as I defined it has still to manifest itself" (1999). Most recently, Greer has undergone a change of heart, now proclaiming herself pleased that 'cunt' remains the ultimate insult, as Anthony Barnes explains in his article The C Word (2006): "Thirty years ago, Germaine Greer set out to defuse the most explosively taboo word in the English language. But now she has reversed her position. The c-word, she insists, should still be X-rated". Greer announced her about-turn in The C-Words, an episode of the documentary series Balderdash And Piffle: "In the 1970s, I thought this word for the female genitalia shouldn't be abusive. I thought it should be an ordinary, everyday word. [...] I tried to take the malice out of it. I wanted women to be able to say it. [...] It didn't work. And now, in a way, I'm sort of perversely pleased, because it meant that it kept that power. You know, I don't think, now, that I want the c-word to be tamed. I love the idea that this word is still so sacred that you can use it like a torpedo [...] It is a word of immense power, to be used sparingly" (Deborah Lee, 2006).
For Linda Grant, cunt-power was theoretically enlightening though practically impossible: "The Cunt Power revolution would have required a massive realignment of our culture, our history, our mythology, our art" (1993). Indeed, even during the supposedly 'liberated' 1960s, the avant-garde itself was perceived as phallocentric: Carolee Schneemann described herself as a 'cunt mascot' (a 'token female'), and felt that her sexually explicit performances were misinterpreted as pure titillation. To this day, it remains the case that most women "find the c-word very, very objectionable" (The Eleven O'Clock Show, 1999) and "by and large, are not fond of using it" (Andrew Goldman, 1999). As a lexical weapon in the battle of the sexes, 'cunt' is still used to wound women rather than to empower them: "we're still a long way from a widespread denotative usage of CUNT by women as part of a larger anti-sexist movement. It remains an extreme term of abuse" (Ruth Wajnryb, 2004). For Andrew Billen (2007), this continuation of the offensive power of 'cunt' represents the complacency of contemporary feminism: "['cunt' has] replaced the f-word as the Worst Word Of Them All. The reason, of course, is that it offends two constituencies at once, the fuddy-duddy and the feminist. [...] it is being used more because it is gradually causing less offence and that is partly because we are becoming less fuddy-duddy and partly because feminism, a victim of its own success and apathy, is no longer the cause it was".
Even evaluating the success or failure of reclamation is problematic. By what criteria can it be judged? If 'cunt' is reclaimed by some women though not others, is this a success? If all women use it in a positive way, has it been fully reclaimed? Or does reclamation also require positive male usage? Two distinct groups can be identified: the in-group and the out-group. Geoffrey Hughes (2006) demonstrates a "double standard in currency" in his discussion of "insiders and outsiders", citing a religious example: "Jews will refer to themselves as yids, [...] but are offended if an outsider were to take such a liberty".
In the case of 'cunt', the in and out groups are divided by gender: women are the in-group and men are the out-group. Jayne Air has written about her own in-group usage of 'cunt': "There are things that make it okay for us to say cunt while men can't [...] cunt is such a powerful word, with so many associations, that if it's used incorrectly it can set you off in all your feminine, avenging fury. Now, don't you want a word like that at your fingertips? [...] cunt is about being an insider. Or making somebody one of you. My girlfriends and I use it with each other when we've done something particularly admirable" (199-).
So, some women use 'cunt' amongst themselves (within the in-group) and oppose male (out-group) usage. Furthermore, women seem to use 'cunt' only in reference to other women, whereas men use it primarily in reference to women: "['cunt'] would seem to remain a word that men mostly use to or about women. Anecdotal evidence suggests that women do use it to and about other women, but rarely to or about men" (Ruth Wajnryb, 2004).
Is it therefore appropriate for the in-group to use 'cunt' positively and the out-group to be forbidden from using it at all? Or can both groups use it? This issue depends significantly upon individual attitudes, and is better illustrated by the term 'nigger'. As discussed earlier, the racist word 'nigger' has been reclaimed by a large proportion of the African-American community, who use it extensively as a neutral or endearing term. However, this usage is strictly in-group: its use by the out-group (in this case, white people), either affectionately or abusively, is not tolerated, as demonstrated by Spike Lee's public criticism of Quentin Tarantino. Similar boundaries apply to the reclaimed term 'queer'. Personally, as a gay man, I feel reasonably comfortable using 'queer' as a positive term amongst other gay men (my in-group); however, I feel uneasy about straight people using the term in the same way.
While reclaiming 'cunt' is a valiant attempt to destigmatise the word, it alone cannot eradicate sexism from society. Even if 'cunt' were successfully reclaimed, and was used universally with only a neutral/positive and literal meaning, sexism would still exist in other forms and, of course, there would still be other negative sexist words. Reclamation is a never-ending quest requiring "a continuous state of reactionary response. If x is used against a group and is reclaimed, what about y? and what about z? If the word that wounds must be appropriated in order for its injurious trajectory to come to an end, then it follows that all such words must be reclaimed so that they no longer carry [negative] power. Other pejorative terms will always co-exist with the term being reclaimed [because] it is symptomatic of a social disease that cannot be cured with one single change [...] Linguistic reclamation is always a process without a clearly marked end. There is no specific final destination that can be found where all pejorative use of a word has ceded to positive use, where success and failure can be [determined]" (Robin Brontsema, 2004). Perhaps the solution to these problems is to change our approach to reclamation. It would be long-winded and fruitless to reclaim each insult one-by-one, as those further down the list would continue to be abused and new terms would be invented as replacements for the reclaimed words. Instead, it is important to view the reappropriation of 'cunt' as part of a general attempt to re-evaluate society's use of pejorative language: attitudes will not change if a single word (albeit the most negative word) is reclaimed, though if everyone gave more thought to the pejorative impact of their everyday language then discrimination would be reduced.
Case Study: Con & Cunt
Like Kathy Acker, Jane Gallop also emphasises the misogyny of 'cunt' by suffusing her writing with it, graphically demonstrating that, even within masculine discourse, the feminine retains a presence. She takes her cue from the appearance of the French term 'con' as an English prefix, replacing 'con' with 'cunt' to create "cuntvince [...] cuntaminates [...] cuntdemnable [...] cuntfiguration [...] cuntjunction [...] cuntstruction [and] cuntcerted" (1982). Aided by the alternate French spelling 'com', she also creates the hybrid "cuntprehending", and, tracing the suffix 'centric' back to the Greek 'kentrein' ('to prick'), she converts 'concentric' into 'cuntprick'. Other words created with the addition of 'cunt' prefixes include "cuntiousness-raising" (Marianna Beck, 1998) and "cuntspiritualising" (Cindy Patton, 1999). Most inventive and political is the hybrid term "CUNTIONARY", a feminist lexicon presented as a gynocentric alternative to 'dictionary' (Cheris Kramarae and Paula A Treichler, 1985).
Gallop was surely inspired by William Shakespeare, who also realised that an abundance of 'con' prefixes can have vaginal overtones. In Cymbeline (1611), a character mentions "confounded one the other [...] 'Twas a contention [...] without contradiction" within the space of only a few lines, and, compounding the allusion, the character is identified only by his nationality - he is French. A similar instance appears in Henry V, with another set of 'con' prefixes in suspiciously close proximity: "conjure in her [...] a hard condition for a maid to consign to. [...] I will wink on her to consent" (1599).
Shakespeare also uses 'conceit' and the sound-alike 'gown' as puns on 'con', in The Taming Of The Shrew (1596): "take up my mistress' gown [...] the conceit is deeper than you think"; he also evokes 'con' in Othello, with "continuate" (1622); in Henry VIII he uses "confessor" to similar effect (1613); he refers to 'con' with "continent" in Love's Labour's Lost (1588); it is evoked by "counsel" in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595); it is also referenced by "contented" in his Sonnet CLI (1609[b]). The opening line of Sonnet CLI utilises 'conscience' as a pun on 'con': "Love is too young to know what conscience is", and Stephen Clark has described this line as an "erotic charge of phonetic decomposition"; he traces the pun in 'conscience' as "'con-science', 'con-sense', 'cunt-sense'" (1995), while Pauline Kiernan translates it as "cunt-science" (2006).
'Con' is used in its literal French sense as a slang term for 'vagina' in the medieval Du Chevalier Qui Fist Parler Les Cons and Louis Aragon's Le Con d'Irene (1928). It has been extended to form 'conneries' ('nonsense') and 'connasse' ('whore' or 'idiot', translated as "cunt-person" by Joel and Ethan Coen in 2006). The English slang term 'con artiste' ('skilled cunnilinguist') is a pun on 'cunt artist' and 'con artist'. However, whilst 'con' does mean 'vagina', it is used far more commonly in France as a term of gentle mockery. It does not convey the same vehemence or taboo as 'cunt': "['con'] is quite acceptable and doubles in normal conversation for 'idiot'" (Graeme Donald, 1994), as in the phrase 'ne fais pas le con'. Ruth Wajnryb explains the relative impotency of 'con' in contrast to 'cunt': "If the worst swear word in English is CUNT [...] we can't presume that its dictionary translation (say, the French con or the Italian conno) works in parallel ways to the English word. While con is a swear word, it lacks the pragmatic force of CUNT" (2004).
Thus, Francis Veber's play and film Le Diner De Cons (1998), concerning a dinner party for idiots, translates not as 'The Dinner Of Cunts' but 'The Dinner Of Fools'. Likewise, Roland Lethem's Bande De Cons! (1970) translates as 'Band Of Fools!' and Gerard Lauzier's Petit Con (1984) is 'Little Fool'. To avoid confusion, Le Diner De Cons was released in Britain as The Dinner Game (with a Hollywood remake titled Dinner For Schmucks), and, in his article Con Trick, Peter Bradshaw comments on the translated title: "cunt isn't quite right [...] Its direct aggression, for so many the terminus of the Insult Line, does not generally convey the distinctly comic sense of con" (1999). In the film's English subtitles, 'con' is rendered inconsistently as 'asshole', 'dumbo', 'idiot', 'dummy', 'jerk', and 'dolt'. The subtitles for an earlier film, A Bout De Souffle, translate 'con' as 'son-of-a-bitch', and in the subtitles for Week End 'cons' is translated as 'twits'. It is rendered as 'dumbass' in the film Cache. When French President Nicolas Sarkozy called someone a 'con', his insult was translated as "you arsehole" and "you sad git" (Henry Samuel, 2008), amongst other terms. The French song Requiem Pour Un Con was retitled Requiem For A Jerk for its English cover version.
When Le Diner De Cons was adapted for the stage in England, it was titled See You Next Tuesday (2002), a reference to 'cunt' which therefore preserves the literal meaning of the original French title. Publicity material for the play styled it 'See U Next Tuesday', to make the allusion even clearer, although the word 'cunt' never actually occurs in the play's dialogue. Instead, the central premise is defined as "A dinner for twats" (Ronald Harwood, 2002), with 'twat' (slang for 'vagina', thus a literal synonym for 'con') used consistently throughout.
Andrew Sisson, in his essay Is French A Sexist Language?: Doing Cunteries In France, discusses the Gallic ubiquity of 'con': "In France nowadays, it is fashionable to call everybody a 'cunt'. Yes, a cunt, or con, meaning a stupid or dumb person of either sex. [...] Con is not an insult in our English sense. For us to call someone a 'cunt' or a 'dumb cunt' constitutes a crude sexist remark [b]ut most of the younger French who call each other con are apparently unaware of this fact" (199-). Sisson insists, inexplicably, that 'con' should be Anglicised phonetically as 'cawn', and his article is rather xenophobic, though it is of interest for its subtitle, Doing Cunteries In France. 'Cunteries' is Sisson's translation of the French term 'conneries', which is an extension of 'con' and means 'nonsense'. Jacques Lacan employs the term in a rather sexist manner while describing vaginal anatomy: "to refer to the vagina as having different zones of sensitivity is, [Lacan] suggests, to indulge in conneries, or nonsense and 'cuntishness'" (Malcolm Bowie, 1991).
'Cunt' has been reclaimed not only by feminist writers but also by feminist artists. Indeed, an American Cunt-Art movement emerged from the Womanhouse collective of Fresno State College in the early 1970s. Cunt-Art was initiated by Womanhouse artist Judy Chicago, who painted Small Starcunts (I-II, 1968), Click Cunts (I-V, 1969), The Cunt As Temple Tomb Cave Or Flower (1974), and Entering The Mystery Through The Blue Rock Cunt (1974). Like Germaine Greer, she seeks to promote both the word 'cunt' and the vagina itself, using a variety of media (such as embroidery and porcelain) to create vaginal imagery.
Chicago's play Cock And Cunt (1970) confronts male and female power-relations, through the two archetypal characters 'He' and 'She'. He refuses to help She wash the dishes: "a cock means you don't wash dishes. You have a cunt. A cunt means you wash dishes"; She replies: "I don't see where it says that on my cunt". She is thus fated to be "defined by the fact that [she has] a cunt" (Andrea Juno and V Vale, 1991). Similarly, a 2018 Peter Klashorst exhibition in Bangkok was called Cunt and Cock Show.
Chicago cites social patriarchy as amongst her reasons for employing 'cunt' in her art: "I use the word 'cunt' deliberately, for it involves society's contempt for women. In turning the word around, I hope to turn society's definition of the female around and make it positive instead of negative. Because I had a cunt, I was despised by society [...] I was trying to affirm my own femaleness and my own power and thus implicitly challenge male superiority" (Pat Caplan, 1987).
Her contemporary, Faith Wilding (who painted Peach Cunt, 1971), reveals how Chicago inspired her: "In her efforts to explore female sexual imagery Chicago was now working with us in the studio, making a cut paper "cunt alphabet." This inspired the idea of doing images of "cunts" - defiantly subversive, and fun, because "cunt" signified to us an awakened consciousness about our bodies and our sexual selves" (1994). Chicago's work, along with that of other feminist artists, has been exhibited under the collective title Female Imagery: The Politics Of Cunt Art, and her influence is discussed by Amelia Jones in Sexual Politics. Emma Rees also highlights Chicago's work in her book The Vagina, specifically the section headed "Cunt art and butterflies" (2013).
Also at Womanhouse, Cay Lang, Vanalyne Green, Dori Atlantis, and Sue Boud posed as Cunt Cheerleaders in 1970, each with a pink outfit emblazoned with, respectively, 'C', 'U', 'N', and 'T'. (They were photographed by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville for an Everywoman double-page spread in 1972.) There have been many other works influenced by Chicago and the Womanhouse group, including a feminist art collective named C.U.N.T. in the 1970s. Karen Le Cocq's Feather Cunt (1971) is a silk sheet forming an oval, surrounded by a feather boa. Tee Corinne's Cunt Coloring Book (1975) is a collection of drawings of women's cunts to be coloured in (similar in style to Tom Wesselmann's Shaved Cunt pencil drawing from 1966). Kris Grabowski's acrylic painting Cunt (1999), with broad, red strokes, is less anatomically precise though more evocative. Mira Schor's painting "Cunt" (1993) uses quotation marks to anchor the image as signifier rather than signified. Millie Wilson's Wig/Cunt (1990) juxtaposes drawings of Regency wigs with anatomical drawings of vaginas, highlighting the visual similarity of the two. "Bluntly spelling out the word cunt rather than attempting to symbolise it in visual form" (Amelia Jones, 1995) is Marlene McCarty's word-painting Untitled (CUNT) (1990), a technique later employed by Sam Taylor-Wood for Cunt (a Gothic word-painting, 1996), Fiona Banner for Concrete Poetry ('cunt' and other pejoratives sculpted from large polystyrene letters, 2002), and Alison Carmichael (a pink 'Cunt' poster with elegant calligraphy, 2005).
There are several examples in which the word became an artwork in its own right, by dominating the frame of a video/television screen or the page of a book. During the BBC2 Taboo documentary No Offence, Joan Bakewell held up a 'CUNT' flash-card which filled the screen. In Balderdash And Piffle, also on BBC2, Germaine Greer painted 'CUNT' in bright red letters onto a white wall. There have been large-screen projections of the word during a conference paper at Coventry University (Cunt: Swearing And Sexism, 2001), during a performance of XXX at Riverside Studios, and during a performance of Serious Money at Carnegie-Mellon University. 'Cunt' has a whole page to itself in both The Little Book Of Essential English Swear Words and The Little Book Of Essential Foreign Swear Words.
The consciousness-raising agenda of Judy Chicago and Womanhouse, and specifically the Cunt Cheerleaders concept, was parodied by Oriana Fox in her video Consciousness Understanding 'N' Trust (2004). While actually impersonating Chicago, Fox first outlined the traditional male fear of cunts ("Cunt is evil, demonic, will swallow you up"), and then recreated Cunt Cheerleaders with four women wearing yellow outfits.
Cunt-Art's purpose is to promote positive vaginal imagery and to reappropriate the word 'cunt', to advocate "cunt-centricity" (Will Gardner, 2005). It "attacks the idea of women's genitals as mysterious, hidden, and threatening, and attempts to throw off a resulting shame and secrecy" (Rozsika Parker, 1977). Judy Chicago and others have "attempted to change the significance of vaginal iconography from one in which it is either hidden in shame or else displayed for men in pornography, to one in which their descriptions of vaginas serve as condensed symbols of female power" (Pat Caplan, 1987). Faith Wilding explained the objectives of the movement: "Cunt Art, made for the female gaze, aimed to reverse the negative connotations of a dirty word with a defiant challenge to traditional depictions of submissive female sexuality" (Laura Meyer and Faith Wilding, 2010).
Tracey Emin's CV: Cunt Vernacular (1997) is a video of her describing the abuse she has suffered at the hands of men, and her No Chance is a patchwork of slogans including "THEY WERE THE UGLY CUNTS" (1999). For Weird Sex (2002), she embroidered "I'm Going to Get you, You Cunt You Bastard" and "YOUR BRAINS A FIRST CLASS CUNT" onto a pink sheet and hand-wrote it onto a canvas, the masculine harshness of the language contrasting with the symbolically feminine applique and colour scheme. The word also features in her neon signs My Cunt Is Wet With Fear (1998) and Your Name Try Cunt International (2004), and in the title of her anatomical print A Cunt Is A Rose Is A Cunt (2009), and Suzanne Cotter notes correctly that "The force of Emin's art lies in her uncompromising use of language" (2002). Naomi Leibowitz has also used the word in embroidery, producing three 'cunt'-themed works: My First Cunt, My Cunt Sur L'Herb, and My Tiny Cunt (all 2006).
Male artist Greg Wood has also produced work associated with Cunt-Art. His exhibition of vaginal sculptures, titled Cunts, was shown in 2008 and was retitled Cunts And Other Conversations in 2009. Taylor's aim was to reappropriate both the word 'cunt' and the vagina itself, asking rhetorically: "Why is it that in our culture the most vile and disgusting thing is perceived to be a c[un]t?" (Katherine Kizilos, 2008). Posters advertising the 2008 exhibition, featuring the title in large block letters, were removed from public sites in Melbourne, though Taylor defended the poster: "The word itself isn't offensive. It once was such a noble word and it's just been ... turned around into the most insulting thing on this planet" (Clay Lucas and Stephen Moynihan, 2008).
Aside from feminist Cunt-Art, the most significant artistic appearances of the word come in the works of Gilbert and George. Their Dirty Words series (1977) - including Cunt, Cunt Scum, and Bent Shit Cunt - is a study of "aggressive and brutally coarse" (Wolf Jahn, 1989) linguistic abuse, utilising the graffiti they encountered. The graffiti in Gilbert and George's Dirty Words is a realistic representation of the intolerance of modern society; A Magazine Sculpture: George The Cunt And Gilbert The Shit (1969), however, has no such legitimising context, and its derogatory epithets reflect "[a] schoolboyish sense of mischief and the wish to shock" (Daniel Farson, 1991). Tom Ormond wrote a graffito-style slogan over a map of London and called it Cunt Land (2006). Artist Adam McEwen created a parody of the 'open' shop sign, reading "Come in WE'RE CUNTS" (2004).
Rob Cover's 2002 paper Some Cunts, in the journal Social Semiotics, discusses "contemporary political graffiti, issues of globalisation and debates over the figurative term 'cunt'". He analyses the use of 'cunt' in graffiti in considerable detail (Cunt Abjection Intentionality And Ownership Of Signification), and writes from a unique perspective as he himself spray-painted "BRACKS = KENNETT: FASCIST CUNT" on a public wall in an act of political protest. The graffiti was photographed for the cover of a local magazine, though the two middle letters of 'cunt' were obscured by a female passer-by in the photograph. The writer then notes that another graffiti artist appended the original message with "CUNT IS A BEAUTIFUL WORD. DON'T USE IT ON BRACKS". Cover justifies his use of the word as it was his intention to insult Bracks as strongly as he could: "growing up [...] the word 'cunt' was the absolute forbidden utterance. Later, as an undergraduate when the word 'fuck' would more readily roll off tongues, 'cunt' was seemingly still reserved for those extremes in which one had been wronged so badly that no other insult or retribution was strong enough. [...] In the case of that specific graffiti usage, I 'intended' the term to be injurious - injurious to [Bracks, the male politician]. Not injurious to women". Of course, by employing a synonym for 'vagina' as a harsh insult, Cover intentionally offended Bracks and unintentionally offended women in general.
Gilbert and George's impulse to shock with their Dirty Words graffiti prompted Jake and Dinos Chapman (1997) to produce their grotesque, polysexual, genital "cockanalcunt" mutated child-mannequins with erect penises for noses and deliberately offensive titles, castigated by Liz Hoggard: "while I'm as keen as the next woman to reclaim the C-word, titles such as Two Faced Cunt and Def Cunt are not encouraging" (2003). Two Faced Cunt (1995) is a freakish mannequin whose two heads are both joined at the cheek by a displaced vagina: "[a] simple embodiment of the abusive term - two faces and a cunt" (Mark Holborn, 2003). In an etching for their Disasters Of War series (2000), the Chapmans transformed a missile into an "INTERCUNTINENTAL PENIS". In 2003 they used two full pages in Another Magazine to print the enormous anagram "ucnt".
Gilbert and George's Dirty Words Pictures were not widely shown at first, though to mark their silver jubilee in 2002 they were regrouped and even reproduced as postcards. 'Cunt' in contempory art now rarely raises eyebrows: Grayson Perry and Noble and Webster both use it in their work, drawing little comment. Both Perry and Noble and Webster depict vulnerable children surrounded by swear words such as 'cunt', their respective media being ceramic vases and neon light-sculptures. Like the Dirty Words Pictures themselves, 'cunt' has emerged from the censorship of the past to become commodified and omnipresent.
Swearing And Censorship
In some contexts, 'cunt' remained a socially acceptable word until very recently: "in rural areas [of England in the 1960s] the word was still being used as an ordinary everyday term, at least when applied to a cow's vulva" (James McDonald, 1988). Similarly, David Crystal (2007) notes that the word has a widespread, though not ubiquitous, forbidden status: "There is an English four-letter taboo word beginning with the letter c which is so sensitive still, in the minds of many, that if I were to print it in full in this book I would cause unknown quantities of upset and complaint. [...] In Caernarfon, this same word is used among some sections of the population as an amiable form of address". Indeed, Eric Partridge, writing in 1931, proclaimed 'cunt' "a very frequently used word - one used indeed by a large proportion, though not the majority, of the white population of the British Empire".
However, besides these location- and usage-specific exceptions, 'cunt' has been the primary English language taboo for over five centuries. I have attempted to ascertain approximately when the word first became taboo, and have also documented the history of its media censorship.
The censorship of 'cunt' is a cyclical process: initially, the word was socially acceptable, then it became taboo, and more recently it can be found with increasing regularity in both print and broadcast media. This gradual mainstream acceptance represents an erosion of the word's taboo status.
'Cunt' was used medically by Lanfranc, who, in the early 15th century, wrote: "In wymmen [the] neck of [the] bladdre is schort, [and] is maad fast to the cunte" (14--). Two hundred years later, however, the 'cunt' taboo was firmly in place: Minsheu rendered it "Cu [and] c" ('Cu etc.', 1617) and John Fletcher resorted to "They write sunt with a C, which is abominable" (1622). It is not possible to unequivocally identify the date from which 'cunt' first became taboo, though Mark Morton (2003) provides a rough guide: "Up until the fourteenth century or so, cunt appears not to have been a taboo word. [...] By the fifteenth century, however, the word cunt seems to have shifted toward the taboo. [...] Near the end of the seventeenth century, the word cunt was firmly ensconced in obscenity".
Southwark's 'Gropecuntelane' dates from 1230, indicating that, at that time, the word may have been bawdy but was not obscene. Similarly, the earliest example of a 'cunt' surname is that of Godwin Clawecunte from 1066, and the latest is Bele Wydecunthe's from 1328. Lanfranc, writing one hundred years later, does not disguise the word, though Geoffrey Chaucer does.
Chaucer, in his Canterbury Tales, employs the deliberately faux-archaic spelling 'queynte' (variants: 'queynt', 'qwaynt', 'quaynte', 'queinte', 'coynte', and 'coint'; modern spelling: 'queint') as a substitute for 'cunt'. Eric Partridge suggests that, to form 'queynte', "Chaucer may have combined Old French coing with Middle English cunte or he may have been influenced by the Old French cointe" (1931), and Mark Morton suggests a link to 'quaint', though the simplest explanation is that Chaucer added the 'nte' medieval suffix of 'cunt' to the feminine 'qu' prefix. William Shakespeare's "acquaint" in his Sonnet XX (1609[a]) is a disguised reference to both 'quaint' and 'cunt'. Andrew Marvell uses similar literary camouflage in To His Coy Mistress, with a reference to "quaint honour" (1653):
"Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Three hundred and fifty years later, an If... cartoon by Steve Bell also disguised 'cunt', this time by rendering it as the faux-French "QUEURNT" (2003). Perhaps this comic example adds a new dimension to Chaucer's 'queynte', which can be seen as a similarly exoticised rendering of 'cunt'.
The Canterbury Tales, which are full of more minor swear words such as 'shit' and 'piss' though not the tabooed 'cunt' (except in disguised form), were written at the very end of the 14th century, thus it seems that 'cunt' was an acceptable term throughout the Middle Ages, becoming taboo during the late 14th century. Peter Fryer contends that "it has been avoided in written and polite spoken English since the fifteenth century" (1963), and Jonathon Green's C Is For Cunt (a chapter in Getting Off At Gateshead, 2008) explains that, after circa 1500, "Cunt persisted, but now only in taboo". There was almost certainly a period of transition, during which the word's status gradually changed from acceptability to unacceptability, just as, five hundred years later, it is in transition again, from taboo to reacceptability.
The Cunt Taboo
The earliest recorded linguistic taboos are Middle English blasphemies such as ''slids' ('God's eyelids') and 'zounds' ('God's wounds'). It is interesting that these early curses were related to God's body - the eyelids and wounds - as contemporary swearing has become secularised though bodily taboos have remained: from eyelids and wounds we have moved to erogenous zones such as 'cunt' and 'cock'. Benjamin K Bergen contrasts the current ubiquity of 'cunt' ("Today, cunt is clearly in vogue", 2016) with the decline of 'zounds', using a line graph to indicate the rise in usage of 'cunt' since the 1960s.
Whilst the church exercised considerable power over society in the Middle Ages, its authority diminished following the Reformation of the 16th century. With this revolutionary iconoclasm came a reduction in the potency of religious profanity, thus, for example, the insulting term 'devil' was significantly weakened: "the first use of devil as 'merely a term of reprobation', sometimes playfully applied, [occurred] after the main ructions of the Reformation" (Geoffrey Hughes, 1991).
The transition from religious to secular swearing, reflecting the concurrent transition in society, changed the boundaries of linguistic taboo. Religious curses ('damn') were replaced by taboos relating to bodily functions such as sexual intercourse ('fuck') and excretion ('shit'). In the 20th century, these in turn were joined by new taboos relating to 'politically incorrect' language, including homophobic ('queer'), sexist ('bitch'), and racist ('nigger') abuse. Interestingly, when an Australian footballer hit the headlines for his use of the phrase "black cunt" (Keith Allan and Kate Burridge, 2006), he was condemned for his racist language rather than for his use of the c-word: "reports [...] of the incident made no reference to the use of cunt. It was the racial abuse that triggered the uproar".
In Swearing, his history of profanity, Geoffrey Hughes notes that "genital, copulatory, excretory and incestuous swearing" has now largely replaced religious oaths: "[the] great and obvious force behind most medieval swearing was Christianity [...] the grisly invocation of Christ's body, blood and nails in the agony of the Crucifixion seems as grotesque and bizarre to us now as modern [...] swearing would have seemed to medievals" (1991).
Jesse Schiedlower traces the history of swearing from religion to sex and beyond: "Throughout the centuries, different topics have been considered incendiary at different times. Several hundred years ago, for example, religious profanity was the most unforgivable type of expression. In more recent times, words for body parts and sexually explicit vocabulary have been the most shocking [...] Now, racial or ethnic epithets are the scourge" (1995).
In The Curse Of The C-Word (2001), Mark Irwin calls 'cunt' "THE ULTIMATE INSULT" and "the most obscene non-racial English curse" (2001[a]), though he also suggests that racist insults such as 'nigger' may eventually replace 'cunt' as the ultimate taboo: "Even in the 1970s, ['nigger' appeared in] TV sitcoms and in print - even in children's books - while the words fuck and cunt were never seen [...] The move from religious to sexually orientated [swear]words took place 300 or so years ago in English [and a] hundred years from now, words such as cunt and fuck may be viewed as quaint oddities" (2001[b]). In The Aristocrats, a fictional vaudville act is named "the Nigger Cunts" (Paul Provenza, 2004) precisely because 'nigger' and 'cunt' are, at the time of writing, the two most offensive English words.
After the Reformation, literary censorship was performed by the Privy Council and theatrical censorship was the portfolio of the Master of the King's Revels. Mindful of these restraints, William Shakespeare's references to 'cunt' are all in disguised forms. Thus, in Measure For Measure, we find 'counsellors' used as a pun on 'cunt-sellers': "Good counsellors lack no clients" (1603[b]). Similarly, in Henry V, Katharine confuses the English terms 'foot' and 'coun' ('gown') with the phonetically similar French 'foutre' ('fuck') and 'con' ('cunt'), calling them "mauvais, coruptible, gros, et impudique, et non pour les dames d'honneur d'user. Je ne voudrais prononcer ces mots devant les seigneurs de France, pour tout le monde" (1599).
In her analysis of Shakespeare's sexual puns, Pauline Kiernan (2006) has identified references to 'cunt' in the most innocent-sounding phrases: she translates Shakespeare's "tallow-face" (from Romeo And Juliet, 1597[b]) as "greasy-cunt", and his "vocativo [...] Genitivo" (from The Merry Wives Of Windsor, 1602[b]) becomes "vocative-Cunt [...] Genitiv-Cunt".
In Twelfth Night, Malvolio virtually spells out the word: "By my life, this is my lady's hand! these be her very C's, her U's, and her T's" (1601[b]). Sir Andrew Aguecheek understands the cheeky allusion: "Her C's, her U's, and her T's: why that-", though he is swiftly interrupted by Malvolio before he can state the obvious. 'C', 'U', and 'T', of course, spells 'CUT'; the missing 'n' is contained in the 'and' of "and her T's", with 'and' "no doubt be[ing] pronounced 'en'" (Peter Fryer, 1963) to heighten the similarity. Shakespeare's "carved" in The Taming Of The Shrew (1596) is an indirect reference to 'cunt', as the definition of 'carved' is 'cut'.
Four hundred years after Shakespeare, 'cut' and 'cunt' were still being confused. David Lodge punned on 'Silk Cut' with his phrase "Silk Cunt" (1988). John Spellar delivered a speech in the House of Commons, as reported by Simon Hoggart: "[Spellar tried to say] "We recognise that these cuts in the defence medical services had gone too far," but he inserted an unwanted letter "n" in the word "cuts". It still made perfect sense" (2000).
'Cut' was itself a recognised euphemism for 'cunt' in Shakespeare's time, and there are three reasons for this: firstly, its almost identical spelling; secondly, its meaning as 'water channel', alluding to the vagina and its fluids; finally, its meaning as 'wound', which alludes to the vagina as a gash. None of these reasons persuaded Dover Wilson, however, as he steadfastly maintained that Shakespeare's 'CUT' was merely "a typographical error for C-U-E" (Eric Partridge, 1947). A further 'cut'/'cunt' pun was provided by Thomas Middleton, whose A Fair Quarrel includes a reference to "callicut" (1617).
Case Study: Country Matters
Shakespeare's most famous 'cunt' pun is from Hamlet, when the Prince asks Ophelia: "Do you think I meant country matters?" (1602[a]), emphasising the first syllable of "country" to make the allusion clear. In the unlikely event that his audiences should fail to detect the 'cunt' in "country matters", Shakespeare qualified it with Hamlet's leery references to Ophelia's groin: "Lady, shall I lie in your lap? [...] my head upon your lap? [...] between maid's legs".
Ophelia, however, responds dismissively: "I think nothing, my lord". Undeterred, Hamlet describes "nothing" as "a fair thought to lie between maid's legs". Ophelia is fully aware of his double-entendres, commenting sarcastically: "You are merry, my Lord". The allusion in her 'nothing' reference is a little convoluted: 'nothing' can mean 'zero', which is represented numerically by the digit '0', which can also be seen as a graphical representation of a vagina. Furthermore, 'thing' is a euphemism for 'penis', thus "nothing" can indicate 'no thing' ('not a penis', thus 'a vagina').
Neil Taylor and Ann Thompson devote an entire paper to Hamlet's 'country matters' passage: Obscenity In Hamlet III.iii: "Country Matters" (1996). They recount the attempts to remove or weaken the passage in various theatrical productions of the play: "Hamlet lying on the ground at Ophelia's feet or between her legs [has] caused performers and audiences such anxiety and distress that sometimes some and at other times all of the lines associated with the image should have been cut in many eighteenth- nineteenth- and even twentieth- century productions. They were also cut in a number of expurgated editions of the play and continue to cause problems for recent editors who cannot choose to cut them and are moreover obliged to comment on them".
The 'problem' of the clear 'cunt' reference in 'country matters' has been dealt with historically either through emphasis or omission. Richard Burton, in his bold interpretation of Hamlet, "not only spoke the suggestive lines directed at Ophelia at the start of the play scene, but spotlighted their obscenity by giving exaggerated emphasis to the first syllable of 'country'" (John A Mills, 1985). Steven Berkoff (1989) went even further - he paused between the first and last syllable of 'country', and noted the suitably shocked reaction of the audience:
"Do you think I mean count-
Maison Bertaux went further still, as his production repeated the 'country matters' lines over and over, varying their delivery each time.
Scholars have always been cautious in embracing these most indelicate of the Bard's allusions: "editors of even scholarly editions frequently shied away from sexual glosses" (Stanley Wells, 2001). Laurie E Maguire writes that successive Shakespeare editors have relied upon "the safe refuge of Latin euphemism. Thus "pudenda" appears frequently in footnotes [though] it is not [...] pudend[a] but a slang word for the female pudendum, and we have an exact equivalent today: cunt" (2000). Typical of this evasive trend is William Blackstone's footnote to Twelfth Night's 'CUT' pun: he mentions that "some very coarse and vulgar appellations are meant to be alluded to by these capital letters" (1793), though he does not reveal exactly what those "coarse and vulgar appellations" are. Even the annotations of modern editions do not explicitly connect 'CUT' to 'cunt': Michael Davis merely notes that "These letters [...] can provide coarse amusement" (1966). Regarding 'country matters', Edward Dowden writes coyly: "I suspect that there is some indelicate suggestion in country" (1899). Writing almost a century later, Philip Edwards defines 'country matters' with misplaced literalism as "the sort of thing that goes on among rustics in the country" (1985), though he does go on to cite the "sexual pun in 'country'". Phyllis Abrahams and Alan Brody's somewhat bizarre explanation is that the phrase "probably refers to the sexual activities of barn-yard animals" (1968). The most specific notation is that of Harold Jenkins, who comments on "a popular pun on the first syllable" of 'country' (1982). Neil Taylor and Ann Thompson, in their survey of Shakesperian footnotes (1996), credit an annotated reprint of the Hamlet first quarto as the first version to explain the link to 'cunt' by printing the word in full: "1992 does see the culminating moment of editorial frankness when Graham Holderness and Bryan Loughrey finally print the word "cunt"". Pauline Kiernan has no reservations in translating the offending phrase as CUNT-RY MATTERS (2006).
Like Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer also suffered from posthumously euphemised annotations and translations: "in the Miller's Tale, a young Oxford don named Nicholas is making advances to a girl named Alison. Chaucer says forthrightly, "He caught her by the queynte." Robert Lumiansky, translating, says, "He slipped his hand intimately between her legs." This [...] is still bowdlerism" (Noel Perrin, 1969).
Prince Hamlet's phrase 'country matters' was actually rendered as "contrary matters" in the play's first quarto version (1603[a]), though 'country matters' has since become almost a household phrase, and its longevity endures in many punning newspaper headlines. For example, Jay Rayner's rural restaurant review in The Observer (2001) was headlined Country Matters, as was a letter in Private Eye (2010). There have also been several Country Matters headlines in The Guardian: one for a letter in 2001, a second for a review by Mark Lawson in 2001, and a third for a letter in 2002. Country Matters was also used as a chapter title in The Guardian Year 2000, as the title of a column in The Week magazine, and in the title of Oliver Maitland's book The Illustrated Book Of 'Country Matters' (2000). It was also the title of a BBC Radio 4 sitcom in 1994.
'Cunt' and 'country' (pronounced 'cunt-ry', 'cunt-ree', or 'cunt-er-ee') are phonetically rather than etymologically related, though, coincidentally, the Old French for 'country' and 'county' are 'cuntree' and 'cunte' respectively. Alan Bold has compared 'cunt' and 'country' in relation to Shakespeare's Hamlet pun: "'Cunt' is regarded as unlovely while the word 'country', which contains it, is the word for all things bright and beautiful. Even Shakespeare, hypersensitive to verbal sound, exploited the similarity of the two words" (1979).
The Bard's use of 'country' as a suggestive pun on 'cunt' was not limited to Hamlet. In The Comedy Of Errors (1590) we find: "she is spherical, like a globe; I could find out countries in her", and in Henry IV (1597[a]): "The rest of thy low-countries have made a shift to eat up thy holland". In this last example, "low-countries" is a reference both to the phonetics of 'cunt' and also to the vagina's position in the lower half of the body.
Outside the realm of literature, the similarity of 'cunt' and 'country' has been highlighted by Billy Connolly, who called himself "the man who put the 'cunt' in 'Country music!" (1979), and by Rowan Atkinson, who has been introduced as "the man who put the 'tree' back into 'Country'" (1980). Lily Savage once joked that she would release an album called "Total Country" (Terry Kinane, 2000), and Sarah Nelson recorded a song titled Cuntry Music (2004). The chorus of Hog Whitman's The 'C' Word Song includes the line "She put the 'cunt' back in 'country'" (2002). Hannah Wilke created a performance/installation titled My Count-ry 'Tis Of Thee in 1976. Shooter Jennings posed in a 'PUT THE O BACK IN C UNTRY' t-shirt and released an album called Put The O Back In Country ("Let's put the 'o' back in 'country'", 2005) because he felt that "country [music] is in a kind of cunty place right now" (Alexandra Jacobs, 2005). The Ike Reilly Assassination released a song titled They Really Put The Cunt Back Into Country (200-), a comment on American Country music's overt nationalism. Country music singers Rosanne Cash and Hank Williams III have both enlivened their concerts by calling for the 'cunt' to be put back into 'country'. Erotic Review published Rebecca Riley's Another Cuntry (2009), a pun on 'another country'. Stephen Fry punned on the imaginary word 'cuntricide' with the fake definition "'Countryside': to kill Piers Morgan" (John Naismith, 2002). A poster featuring comedian Jerry Sadowitz transformed 'Your Country Needs You' into Your C*nt He Needs You and, of the many slang phrases referring to the groin being 'down below', 'low-countries' and 'county down' also allude to the similarity of 'cunt' and 'country'.
In the Australian parliament in 2001 (reported by Simon Carr in 2005), Winton Turnbull announced: "I'm a Country member!", to which Gough Whitlam replied: "I do remember" (punning on 'Country member' as 'cunt, remember?'). A New Zealand MP, Marama Davidson, attempted to reclaim the word, leading to the headline Reclaim C-word in The New Zealand Herald (10/8/2018). English politicians are less linguistically liberated, as Alastair Campbell deleted all of Tony Blair's uses of the the word 'cunt' from his published diaries and Peter Mandelson self-censored his acerbic comment "total cunts" to the less caustic "total chumps" (Pedigree Chumps, 2010).
A missing 'O' caused problems in the headlines Protecting Thanet's Cuntryside (in Adscene, 2000) and Discunt Tickets For Russian Jet (in the Wilts And Gloustershire Standard, 2012), due to subeditors' typographical errors, and a similar misprint occurred when a Leicestershire Council press release was headed Cunty Councillor Ian Morris (2002). In an episode of Wheel Of Fortune (2007), the display once read "C UNT", as the featured phrase was "COUNTRY MUSIC AWARDS SHOW" and the contestants had not yet asked for an 'O'. A split-second example of a missing 'o' can be found in the title-sequence of Countryfile: the letters of the title are displayed in various computer-generated combinations, including "C untryfile" (Sarah Eglin, 200-). (In a pun on this, MovieMaker magazine once titled an article CLOSE ENC(O)UNTERS (2015). In a television commercial by Chevron (2005), the 'o' of 'countries' was replaced by a round magnifying-glass, rendering the word as "c untries". A company called 30pTones sells a telephone screen-saver featuring the slogan 'ORANGE COUNTRY CHOPPERS', with each 'O' replaced by a wheel to render the slogan as ' RANGE C UNTY CH PPERS' (2005). Country Music Plus magazine and Country Grain bread both employ logos in which the 'o' of 'Country' is enveloped inside the capital 'C', giving the appearance of 'Cuntry Music Plus' and 'Cuntry Grain' respectively. The logo of Town & Country Surf Designs renders the 'o' of 'Country' as a filled circle, resulting in 'C untry'. A Royal Porcelain billboard in Bangkok replaced the letter 'O' in its slogan with a globe, so 'OVER 60 COUNTRIES' became " VER 60 C UNTRIES" (2012). A Bangkok Community Theatre poster advertising the play A Country Wife used a lemon to represent the 'o' in 'Country', rendering the title as 'A C UNTRY WIFE' (2012).
Sexual Repression & Taboo
Shakespeare symbolises profanity's thematic transition from religion to sex, though it is the relationship between these two themes that is the ultimate source of many contemporary taboos. The direct influence of religion on the lives of the population has steadily decreased, though its indirect influence remains substantial. Religious oaths lost their earlier vehemence, replaced by a taboo against sexual discourse, though this new taboo can itself also be attributed to the influence of the church.
Sex is now, according to JC Flugel, "the most taboo-ridden of all subjects in the modern world" (Eli M Oboler, 1974). One method of social regulation is through language, thus the lexicon of sex is tabooed in order to repress sex itself: "Prudery's first line of defence is the regulation of speech. Feelings of shame and guilt about the organs of sex [...] tend to become closely associated with the words that are used for these things. These words become taboo" (Peter Fryer, 1963). Ellis Cashmore links this prudery to the development of social etiquette: "with rules came manners, and with manners came courtesy, and with courtesy came modesty, and the word 'cunt' [was] referring to parts of the body that were enclosed, they were secreted away" (Pete Woods, 2007).
As the vagina is a sexual organ, 'cunt' signifies sex; thus, as 'cunt' does not enjoy the medical acceptability of 'vagina' or 'vulva', it is tabooed: "[there is an] exact correlation between degree of taboo in verbal usage and the degree of taboo in [...] the referent" (Geoffrey Hughes, 1991). Because the signified (sex) is the source of the taboo, censorship of the signifier ('cunt') represents an attempt to repress what it signifies, thus the marginalisation of 'cunt' acts essentially as a social pacifier, marginalising sexual thoughts.
This Freudian notion of socially acceptable patterns of thought - 'dominant consciousness' - is the first of the "levels of censorship" listed by William Albig (1956). He defines a process of self-censorship whereby individuals unconsciously filter non-productive thoughts from their minds, driven to do so by legal, social, and cultural censorship of that which does not conform to the hegemonic dominant ideology.
Thus, censorship of the word 'cunt' ensures that the population's collective consciousness is focussed upon financially or culturally productive pursuits and is not distracted by recreational sex. Edward de Bono highlighted this repressive tendency in his evidence at the obscenity trial of Oz magazine: "the potential of [Oz] to put people off sex is only about thirty per cent of that of the average sermon in any church [...] A lot of our emphasis in society is to put people off sex" (Sheree Folkston, 1991).
Eli M Oboler ascribes the source of this desire to dissuade society from recreational sex to the concept of original sin, citing Theodor Reik's identification of the causal link between original sin and carnal desire: "religion, particularly Christianity, traces the guilt feeling [...] back to an 'original sin,' which is conceived as sexual transgression, to the 'weakness of the flesh,' or to sexual desire" (1974). Thus, it is Christian doctrine that determines our sexual repression and instigates our taboos against sexual terms such as 'cunt'. Regular attendance at religious services is low, yet it seems that we are still restricted by a religious sexual repression. As Stephen Burgen writes in Concerto In C (a chapter in Your Mother's Tongue, 1996): "Religion may not have the hold on the European mind that it did, but the Judaeo-Christian tradition lies at the root of all of our most important taboos".
Belief in the sinful nature of sex was most readily apparent in the doctrine of 17th century Puritanism, and John Calvin's Puritan position has been evocatively summarised by Eli M Oboler: "The sin of Adam, which is the sin of mankind, is regarded as a perennial fountain of filth and uncleanness which is perpetually bubbling up in black streams of perverted and degraded impulse" (1974). Contemporary attitudes towards sex have barely changed, with slang terms such as 'dirty weekend' demonstrating the underlying shame with which sex is still regarded. Similarly, sexual swear words such as 'cunt' are still thought of as 'filthy language' and 'dirty words'.
Oboler's "fountain of filth" is perhaps best personified by John Wilmot, whom Paddy Lyons credits with "drawing into poetry plain terms to describe bodily parts and genital functions" (1996). Wilmot "wrote more frankly about sex than anyone in English before the twentieth century" (Margaret Drabble, 1995), disregarding the Puritan doctrine and instead composing sexually anarchic poetry with no taboo left unbroken. He described, according to Geoffrey Hughes, "a world seen from crotch level" (1991):
"though St. James has t' honour on 't,
"A touch from any part of her had done 't,
"Each man had as much room as Porter, Blount,
"Now heavens preserve our faith's defender,
"Oh why do we keep such a bustle
Wilmot's poem Advice To A Cuntmonger (16--[b]) begins as follows:
"Fucksters you that would bee happy
Wilmot's bawdiest work was a play titled Sodom, whose dramatis personae includes characters such as 'Queen Cuntigratia' and her maid 'Cunticula'. Henry Spencer Ashbee notes that Wilmot wrote it anonymously: "Sodom [...] is generally supposed to be by John Wilmot [...] in spite of [his] having most strenuously disowned it [though] one has but to glance through his poems to find ideas as lewd, couched in language as gross and as obscene" (1885).
In 'outing' Wilmot as the anonymous author of Sodom, Ashbee is not a little hypocritical, as his own account of the play was written under the pseudonym Pisanus Fraxi and his journal My Secret Life was also pseudonymous and only posthumously attributed to him.
In this extract from Sodom, Cunticula and Cuntigratia discuss a third character, General Buggeranthos:
"He has such charms,
Robert Burns had none of the scandalous reputation so readily associated with Wilmot, yet Burns's poem The Case Of Conscience (17--) seems to have been written solely for the purpose of inventing as many 'cunt' rhymes as possible:
"I'll tell you a tale of a wife,
The shock of the word 'cunt' is compounded if it is used to defile sacred symbols. Thus, in Channel 4's The Granton Star Cause, 'cunt' is most frequently used by a character identified as God. Played as a man with supernatural powers drinking in a pub, God describes himself as "a lazy, apathetic, slovenly cunt" (Paul McGuigan, 1997), these character traits being his explanation for the continued existence of greed, famine, and war in the world.
This juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane - God saying "cunt" - recalls Sigmund Freud's two-fold definition of 'taboo' (both religion and defilement). The intense controversy generated following this succinct juxtaposition demonstrates that one plus one can sometimes equal four. In other words, when sacred and profane symbols are combined, they produce more than the sum of their parts. This was the case when Jerry Springer: The Opera featured both 'cunt' and Christ, according to Stephen Armstrong: "saying 'cunt' isn't the issue. It's saying 'cunt' and having Jesus in the same programme that becomes the issue" (Pete Woods, 2007). Similarly, the musical The Book Of Mormon includes the line "Fuck you God in the ass, mouth, and cunt-a" (Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone; 2011).
The band Cradle Of Filth also exploited the potency of this equation with their Vestal Masturbation t-shirt, emblazoned with the slogan 'JESUS IS A CUNT'. The slogan (also used on bumper-stickers) was parodied by the New Musical Express as "Cradle Of Filth Are Even Bigger Cunts" (2000). The aim was to construct a slogan that was both as offensive and as succinct as possible; by appropriating our culture's most revered icon (Jesus) and equating it with our greatest taboo ('cunt'), they achieved their goal.
Bill Drummond mounted a similarly iconoclastic enterprise in 2002, with his multi-faceted event Is God A Cunt?, acclaimed by Arthur Smith as "possibly the world's most provocative title" (2002). Invited to contribute to an exhibition provisionally titled God Is Not A Cunt, Drummond set up a telephone voting system, advertised on the side of a bridge: "I'm standing [on the M25 motorway] staring at this big wall of virgin-grey concrete. In one hand I have a large pot of black paint, in the other a brush. I get to work. I daub on the wall, in letters as big as I can manage, for all passing motorists to read, 'Is God a Cunt?'. Underneath I then paint in a smaller and more controlled hand, 'To Vote Yes Phone 0870 240 4174' and 'To Vote No Phone 0870 240 4175'" (2002).
The telephone numbers were genuine, and a poll was conducted to determine whether or not God is indeed a cunt. Comments were also invited to be written onto a large "IS GOD A CUNT?" painting. Drummond publicised these ventures with a pamphlet "published specifically for all those that may consider asking the question Is God A Cunt?". He also chaired a public debate on the topic, and compiled a scrapbook to coincide with this.
Victorian attitudes to sex were demonstrated by a repressive linguistic purge of sexual colloquialisms from acceptable discourse. 'Offensive' terms such as 'cunt', 'cock', and 'fuck' were prohibited, as Terence Meaden explains: "['cunt' was] a perfectly normal, useful word [...] until a puritanical government legislated against it" (1992), and milder terms such as 'piss', 'arse', and 'bugger' were also subsequently suppressed.
Michel Foucault contrasts this linguistic purge with the relative leniency of the pre-Victorian era: "At the beginning of the seventeenth century a certain frankness was still common [and] words were said without undue reticence [although in] Victorian [society] there was an expurgation - and a very rigorous one - of the authorized vocabulary [...] Without question, new rules of propriety screened out some words" (1976).
Foucault suggests, in reference to the sexual vernacular, that the Victorians were not repressing the language but, rather, compartmentalising it. He discusses "[the] taxonomical impulses of the nineteenth century [and the] explosion of distinct discursivities which took form in [...] biology, medicine, psychiatry [and] psychology", arguing that they were inclusive rather than exclusive. He saw this as a positive attempt to classify human behaviour: "Rather than a general prudishness of language [...] the wide dispersion of devices that were invented for speaking about it [were] a regulated and polymorphous incitement to discourse".
This taxonomy is more problematic than Foucault concedes, however, as it results in a polarisation between 'acceptable' and 'unacceptable' language: 'vagina' and 'vulva' were confirmed as acceptable medical terms whereas 'cunt' was demoted to unacceptable slang. It is no surprise, then, that My Secret Life, the graphic Victorian diaries of sexual conquests written by Henry Spencer Ashbee, were published only surreptitiously. Ashbee even wrote under a pseudonym (Walter), to avoid detection, and his Secret Life includes this celebration of 'cunt': "After the blessed sun, sure the cunt ought to be worshipped as the source of all human happiness [...] God bless cunt" (1880). In Cuntal, Jonathon Green discusses the proliferation of the c-word variants in My Secret Life: "We have cuntal, we have cunted, we have uncunted. And [...] we have cunt. Probably more cunt than in any other publication" (2006).
Sexually explicit language was deemed a corrupting influence as early as 1564, when the Council of Trent decreed: "books professedly treating of lascivious or obscene subjects [...] are utterly prohibited, since not only faith but morals [...] are readily corrupted by the perusal of them". Three hundred years later, identical reasoning was applied when the Obscene Publications Act was drafted: Hansard records that it was envisaged as being applicable to "works written for the single purpose of corrupting the morals of youth" (1857). Even today, there are debates concerning the 'harmful' effects of obscene material: whether pornography encourages rape, for instance, and whether film violence encourages violent crime. These irrational anxieties stem from the earlier religious condemnation of obscenity.
Literary censorship, fuelled by this religious zeal, occasionally verges on the ridiculous, as when Jacob Tonson's censored edition altered the register of John Wilmot's work by replacing the word 'cunt' with "Love":
"With wine I wash away my cares,
Jim McGhee (1995) traces the posthumous censorship of Wilmot's The Imperfect Enjoyment, noting the differences between two anonymous editions (1680 and 1685) of the anthology Poems On Several Occasions. "That it through ev'ry Cunt" (1680) became "That it through ev'ry Port" (1685). Likewise, "a Cunt it found" (1680) became "entrance it found" (1685). The 1680 phrase "her very look's a Cunt" became, in 1685,
"her very looks had charms
Similarly, Allan Ramsay's censored edition of the 16th century poem A Bytand Ballat On Warlo Wives inexplicably substituted "Sunt" for 'cunt': "Sunt Lairds and Cuckolds altogither" (1724). Ramsay added a mistakenly self-congratulatory footnote: "Sunt [...] is spelled [here] with an S, as it ought, and not with a C, as many of the English do". As Noel Perrin puts it, "Instead of omitting an offensive word, [Ramsay] changed it into a harmless one" (1969), a tactic employed extensively by the most famous literary censor, Thomas Bowdler, who sanitised Chaucer and Shakespeare's works and later came to epitomise Victorian linguistic censorship.
The Obscene Publications Act gave Bowdlerism a seal of official approval, and was used to condemn some of the most acclaimed works of modern literature simply by dint of their perceived incoherence. Thus, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Archibald Bodkin, not only criticised James Joyce's Ulysses (featuring a character called "CUNTY KATE", 1922), as "unmitigated filth", he also expressed his bemusement at its stream-of-consciousness prose: "I am entirely unable to appreciate [...] what the book itself is about. I can discover no story. There is no introduction which gives a key to its purpose" (Alan Travis, 1998). (Ulysses also includes a phonetic pun on the spelling of 'cunt': "See you in tea"; James Joyce, 1922. 'See You In Tea' was later used as the name of an eyeglasses range by Chrome Hearts.)
Henry Miller's Tropic Of Cancer ("I will ream out every wrinkle in your cunt", 1934; expertly deconstructed in Kate Millett's Sexual Politics), Allen Ginsberg's Howl ("fainting on the wall with a vision of ultimate cunt", 1956), and Wiliam Burroughs's Naked Lunch ("They could have heard you screaming over in Cunt Lick County", 1959) were all also investigated by the Vice Squad. Fortunately, however, as Barry Miles explains, artistic merit is often an acceptable defence for obscenity: "Coarse and vulgar language is used in treatment and sex acts are mentioned but unless the book is entirely lacking in 'social importance' it cannot be held obscene" (1989).
The most archetypal demonstration of the censor's ideological flaws is the trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover. Penguin planned a mass-market paperback publication of DH Lawrence's explicit novel, though the Home Office, which accused them of obscenity, initially thwarted their attempt. (Penguin later published CH Rolph's account of their vindication, The Trial Of Lady Chatterley.) In his opening address at the obscenity trial, prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones pointedly dismissed arcane Victorian pruderies: "do not approach this [case] in any priggish, high-minded, super-correct, mid-Victorian manner" (CH Rolph, 1961), though his objections to the novel were themselves somewhat priggish and Victorian. He naively disapproved of Lawrence's "set[ting] upon a pedestal promiscuous and adulterous intercourse [and] advocat[ion of] coarseness and vulgarity of thought and language".
The defence called a great many witnesses, who each attested to the literary merits of Lawrence and, to a lesser extent, Chatterley itself. These defence witnesses were only seldom cross-examined (as CH Rolph puts it: "'No questions', said the surprising Mr Griffith-Jones [...] he was to say it many times", 1961), and the prosecution called no witnesses of its own at all ("Griffith-Jones now made the surprising announcement that he was calling no witnesses [...] The gasp of surprise in Court was reprehensibly audible").
This lack of cross-examination and prosecution witnesses was compounded from the beginning of the trial by Griffith-Jones's question to the jury: "would you approve of your young sons, young daughters - because girls can read as well as boys - reading this book[?] Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?". This patronisingly sexist and outdated social attitude was a factor in the jury's 'not guilty' verdict; Rolph called it "the first nail in the prosecution's coffin".
Griffith-Jones also took the trouble to keep a detailed tally of the novel's profanities, informing the jury that the word 'cunt' occurs some fourteen times. What he did not mention, however, was that 'cunt' was used (perhaps unrealistically) as a term of endearment: "'Th'art good cunt, though, aren't ter? Best bit o' cunt left on earth!['] 'What is cunt?' she said. 'An' doesn't ter know? Cunt! It's thee down theer [...] Cunt! Eh, that's the beauty o' thee, lass!'" (DH Lawrence, 1928).
Such tallies of swear words are often used to justify censorship, though they are usually unreliable. When BBC2 broadcast Jerry Springer: The Opera, for example, pro-censorship campaigners claimed that the opera included 297 c-words. This generated suitably outraged headlines, such as 3,168 'F' Words And 297 'C' Words... Just Another Saturday Night On The BBC (in The Sun, 2005), though the truth was far less sensational. The opera featured a chorus of twenty-seven people, who all sang their lines simultaneously. Thus, each time 'cunt' was sung once by the chorus, it was counted as appearing twenty-seven times!
The Lady Chatterley prosecutor's elitism and condescension is characteristic of much of the censorship performed in Britain. For example, the British Board of Film Classification (or "Big Bloody Fucking Cunts", according to Eddy Lawrence, 2005), contends that it must censor images that may be a corrupting influence, yet the material has yet to corrupt any of the BBFC examiners who view it 'on our behalf'. Similarly, sexually explicit material is passed by the BBFC for 'arthouse' films with middle class audiences, though populist entertainment is more heavily censored. Taboos - from their religious origins to the modern restrictions on sexual words and images - exist as methods of social regulation, and censorship is maintained for this purpose despite its outdated religious provenance and the paradoxes inherent in its execution.
The contemporary ubiquity of sexualised imagery can be seen as a liberating (albeit exploitative) reaction by an increasingly secular society against religious repression, and this current cultural preoccupation with sex can arguably be regarded as a consequence of the Chatterley trial, as the novel's publication symbolised the beginning of the 'permissive society'. The defeat of the Chatterley obscenity charge at the beginning of the 1960s set a trend for sexual liberation which came to define the decade, and the demystification of sex was indeed Lawrence's stated aim in writing the novel: "the obscene words [in Lady Chatterley] are meant to show [Mellors's] frank carnality and its vivifying power. So they are an integral part of Lawrence's purpose. But still more, one suspects they are part of the extracurricular activity of bringing [...] sex out into the open" (Graham Hough, 1956).
Whereas writers such as Wilmot and Ashbee used 'cunt' for its bawdiness, Lawrence's intention was exactly the opposite. He sought to create a "proper vocabulary to discuss sex [by using] the obscene words familiarly and seriously, so that the tabooed acts and parts of the body can be talked about in natural and native words" (HM Daleski, 1965). Lawrence's use of swear words can thus be distinguished from those of his contemporaries: he "enhance[d] the value of the [tabooed] words by fashioning new contexts for their use, employing them in contexts which support neither an abusive nor a shameful nor a scornful connotation. His practice, in this respect, is markedly different from that of James Joyce in Ulysses, for Joyce's use of the words [...] in effect perpetuates their debasement".
The First Cunt Is The Deepest
It was ten years after the Lady Chatterley trial until 'cunt' hit the headlines again, when "the most offensive word you can use on British TV" (James Doorne, 2007) was uttered for the first time on live television in 1970. David Frost was interviewing the Yippies during ITV's The Frost Programme, and introduced Jerry Rubin as "a reasonable man". Felix Dennis shouted back, jokingly, "He's not a reasonable man, he's the most unreasonable cunt I've ever known in my life!". There ensued an atmosphere of general pandemonium; Dennis admitted to behaving "bloody abominably" (Richard Cowles and Colin Campbell, 2002) and Rosie Boycott later accused him of "wreak[ing] havoc on live television [and] effectively [bringing] the show to a standstill" (Andy Baybutt, 2002).
The very nature of live broadcasting makes unexpected events a distinct possibility, and if a programme is broadcast live, mistakes cannot be rectified in the editing room. For example, on 16th March 2017, ITV London News showed a painting by Tim King that included the word "CUNTAGEDDON" (a pun on 'armageddon').
The first scripted use of 'cunt' on television - the first time its use was premeditated by a broadcaster, in contrast to the unforeseen use by the Yippies - was in the ITV drama No Mama No:
"What did he say?"
Verity Lambert persuaded the Independent Broadcasting Authority that the use of 'cunt' was dramatically valid: "I had a lot of correspondence with the IBA about that word. I think it was a real insult, and she needed to say that particular word. And, in the end, to be fair to them, they accepted that as an explanation" (Kerry Richardson, 1994). By contrast, American television was a 'cunt'-free zone until as late as 1994, when chat-show host Phil Donahue used the word "in relating and condemning an employer's insult to a female employee" (Jesse Scheidlower, 1995).
Such is the word's scarcity on television that several programmes have been erroneously credited with being the first to broadcast it. Auberon Waugh cites No Mama No as "perhaps the first use on television of the most controversial word of all" (Kerry Richardson, 1994), though, as noted previously, 'cunt' was scripted into this 1979 drama nine years after it was uttered live on The Frost Programme.
Years later, John Walsh confidently declared that 'cunt' was used on live TV for the first time as late as 2002: "It is, or was, the last linguistic taboo, the final insult, the unsayable word. [...] But now history has been made. For probably the first time, someone has said the "c-word" live on British television". Walsh was referring to This Morning, the live daytime ITV programme during which Caprice, discussing her role in The Vagina Monologues, mentioned the section "called Reclaiming Cunt" (Siubhan Richmond, 2002). This was certainly groundbreaking, as the word was spoken on morning television, though it was clearly not the first time the word had ever been broadcast live.
A similar mistake was made by Matthew Beard and Victoria Coren, both of whom mistakenly claimed that the 2003 drama Witchcraze marked the BBC's first broadcast of the dreaded word. In C-Word Allowed To Make Debut On BBC Television, Beard wrote that "A drama-documentary on witches on BBC2 is to risk the wrath of viewers by featuring the "C-word" - previously considered so unutterable that it has never been passed by BBC television censors" (2003). Coren agreed that "[in Witchcraze] BBC airwaves played host for the very first time to what I believe the more delicate members of society refer to as 'the c-word'" (2003). The Sun also gleefully announced that Witchcraze would "break one of TV's last taboos" (C-Word Shock, 2003).
The Channel 4 drama Mosley was yet another programme incorrectly cited as the first to contain the word 'cunt'. The Mail On Sunday reported that Channel 4 "will break the last taboo over bad language on television [...] with the deliberate use of the only word in the English language considered more offensive than the F-word" (Michael Burke, 1998). The newspaper did not print 'cunt' itself, though it solemnly proclaimed the word to be "an anatomical reference [which is] deeply offensive to women in particular".
The Mail declared that 'cunt' "has not been scripted into a mainstream television drama before", though this is incorrect on two counts. Firstly, Mosley is not a mainstream drama, as Channel 4 is not a mainstream channel; secondly, 'cunt' had appeared previously, in the mainstream ITV drama No Mama No. Regarding Mosley, Laurence Marks explained that the decision to include 'cunt' was not an easy one to make: "it is intensely powerful [...] we debated long and hard about using the word. There were many on the production team who thought we should not. The word is the most reviled single utterance in the English language [...] We know this word will jar but it was used for dramatic effect" (Michael Burke, 1998). (The word appeared in another prison drama, Ghosts... Of The Civil Dead, when it was forcibly tattooed onto a prisoner's forehead; it was later painted onto a man's forehead for a photograph in Front magazine.)
Tabloid journalists leaping to conclusions is one thing, though Irvine Welsh should really know better. Welsh confidently declared in 2003 that 'cunt' was first broadcast in a programme he had written eight years previously: "the word cunt was first aired on TV in my drama The Granton Star Cause in 1996". This drama, broadcast by Channel 4, contains perhaps more c-words than any other programme, though it was, of course, far from the first instance of the word being broadcast.
The premiere appearance of 'cunt' in the press is a matter of equally contentious debate. When, in 1988, Mike Gatting publicly criticised a cricket umpire with the phrase "fucking, cheating cunt", The Independent was the only newspaper to publish his comments unexpurgated. Bill Bryson has since claimed that this marked "the first time that cunt had appeared in a British newspaper" (1990), as has Ian Jack: ""Cunt" as well as "fucking" was included, perhaps the word's first appearance in a British newspaper" (2002).
In fact, 'cunt' had appeared in The Times the year before, in an article by Bernard Levin. Levin criticised the common newspaper practice of asterisking swear words, commenting sarcastically that "If the words are printed with only their initial letters, followed by asterisks [...] they are at once and entirely robbed of their dreadful power" (1987). He then went on to quote unasterisked lines from the poem V (Tony Harrison, 1985):
"Aspirations, cunt! Folk on t'fucking dole
Levin's article marks the one and only occasion that The Times has printed 'cunt' uncensored. David Glencross, writing in The Observer, was nonplussed by the article: "When an extract [from V was] printed in The Times, embedded in an article by Bernard Levin, the social fabric of the nation survive[d]" (1987), though Levin's fellow Times columnist Ronald Butt castigated him for "[choosing] to reproduce a verse of unmitigated obscenity [...] in what was clearly a gratuitous taboo-breaking exercise" (1987).
V was also published unexpurgated in The Independent shortly after The Times's extracts, with a warning regarding its "SEXUALLY EXPLICIT LANGUAGE" (Blake Morrison, 1987). These extracts in The Times and The Independent came months before Mike Gatting's cricket outburst, though they were overshadowed by the controversy surrounding V's recital on television.
However, the very first usage of 'cunt' in a newspaper occurred as long ago as the 1970s, more than a decade before The Times and The Independent were brave enough to print it. The word appears in a 1974 interview with Marianne Faithfull, published in The Guardian. The writer, Janet Watts, introduces Faithfull as a woman who is not afraid to speak her mind: "She used not to read what people wrote, because she got to believe it: now, she's easy about it, relaxing into words I think she thinks I can't print". Watts then quotes Faithfull's reactions to negative reviews: "If they think I'm a whoo-er [sic.], they're entitled to say it: just as I'm entitled to think they're a cunt for saying it".
Cunt In The Press
The Guardian proudly proclaims that 'cunt' "occurs more frequently in [it] than in any other newspaper on earth" (Ian Mayes, 2002). It was the first newspaper to use the word uncensored on its front page, when Paul Kelso quoted Roy Keane's criticism of the Irish football manager: "you're not even Irish, you English cunt" (2002). As the newspaper later admitted, "Reproduction on the front page of the unexpurgated words of Keane brought protests not only from many readers, but from one or two members of staff" (Ian Mayes, 2002). Indeed, Keane also attempted to distance himself from the word (ironically, in an interview with The Guardian): "you did not employ the term, 'an English cunt'? Keane looks pained and deeply affronted. 'No. No way. I have to live in England, and to be accused of saying that sort of thing, it's not nice for my wife and family[']" (Sean O'Hagan, 2002).
The word's first appearance on a magazine cover came when Viz produced their "SWEARIEST COVER EVER", including the line "I THOUGHT I WAS A DAFT CUNT!" (2000). Modern Toss magazine's first issue (Jon Link and Mick Bunnage, 2004) featured the sentence "that's three words you cun" on its cover, with the final 't' conveniently cut off by the edge of the page (also available as a tea-towel). The magazine's central comic-strip character, the aptly-named Mr Tourette, is a sign-writer who paints obscene signs for people and then angrily proclaims "What are you some sort of cunt?" and "I still want paying you cunt". These phrases are also available as t-shirt and badge slogans, and some of his best comic-strips are available as silk-screen prints and postcards. One of his signs, "the Queen's cunting boat", appears on a Modern Toss card. On a Modern Toss postcard, 999, a man retorts with "It's a brain tumour you cunt" when questioned about his unusual head; and on a Modern Toss card, a woman describes her boss as "a fucking cunt". In a later Modern Toss book by the same authors (2007), the character paints signs reading "TRUMPET CUNT", "ALPINE CUNT CABIN", and "UPMARKET CUNT TRIPOD". In 2010, Modern Toss produced a Periodic Table Of Swearing, available as a tea-towel and a set of magnets, which contains abbreviations such as 'C' ('cunt'), 'Sc' ('stupid cunt'), 'Sfc' ('stupid fucking cunt'), 'Tfc' ('total fucking cunt'), 'Soc' ('stupid old cunt'), 'Ysfc' ('you stupid fucking cunt'), 'Ysfac' ('you stupid fucking arseholing cunt'), 'Pac' ('pissed as a cunt'), 'Kfc' ('your kunting me fucking head out cunt' [sic.]), 'Tcp' ('two cunts in a piss factory'), 'Icc' ('international cunt circus'), and 'Pwc' ('Pringle wearing cunt').
Smut and Lazy Frog, two Viz rivals, have both excelled themselves by producing 'cunt' posters: Smut's election banner proclaiming "VOTE FOR NONE OF THE CUNTS!" and Lazy Frog's Billy Elliot parody "Cunty Elliot" (both 2001). Furthermore, Smut has a comic strip called Watch Out Beadle's A Cunt (200-). Viz co-editor Chris Donald had initially vowed never to print 'cunt': "[he] once stated that the word "cunt" would never grace the pages of his magazine. Too offensive, he said" (Tom Hibbert, 1991), though the comic strip Bertie Blunt: His Parrot's A Cunt (198-) changed his mind. Private Eye published a comic strip titled The World C***s in 2010, by Paul Wood, to celebrate the football World Cup.
The only magazines actually to use 'cunt' in their titles, except for the fictional "Cunt On Cunt" (Brett Easton Ellis, 1991) and "SKI CUNT: The Magazine for Cunts who Ski" (Viz, 2013), are the underground comics Cunt Comics (Rory Hayes, 1969) and Cunty (19--), Cheyanne Payne's zine Cunt Fear (written pseudonymously as Star Whore in 1994), Amanda's zine The CUNT Zine ("Talking about cunts is a vitalizing experience, and it's hard not to talk about cunts after being so immersed in cunt culture", 2003), MA Sirk's Cunt Zine (2017), Rachel Pepper's zine Cunt (1991), Charlotte Sykes and Georgia Luscombe's zine Cuntry Living (a pun on the magazine Country Living, 2013), Danny Boyle's zine Catfighting Cunts (1990), and several hard-core zines: Cunts And Grunts (19--), International Cunt Fucker (19--), and Sewer Cunt (Sverre Helmer Kristensen, 1994). The magazine CLiNT's title was chosen for its visual similarity to 'CUNT'. Manhunt is known by its own editor, Eric James, as "mancunt" (2002). Kutt magazine is named after 'kutt' - the Dutch term for 'cunt' - and there is also a magazine called Quim, its title etymologically linked to 'cunt'.
Viz initiated an occasional feature titled Celebrity Cunts, for which readers were invited "to nominate stroppy stars for the title of Britain's No. 1 celebrity cunt" (1998). Danny La Rue ("Brief encunter", a pun on Brief Encounter), Rod Stewart ("Do ya think I'm cunty?", a pun on Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?), and Michael Crawford ("supercunt") were all duly nominated. (Their fellow nominee Jim Davidson was summarily dismissed by Euan Ferguson in 2001, who defined 'cunt' as "a woman's genitalia or a man who is Jim Davidson").
Some years after Celebrity Cunts, a suspiciously similar exercise was mounted by Front magazine, which published a list of Britain's Biggest C**ts! (2003) and proclaimed Michael Winner to be "the Count Of Cuntdom". Front's editor claimed that the list "set a world record in 'use of the c-word'" (Eoin McSorley, 2003), and the article's body-text is indeed liberally sprinkled with 'cunt's. The list became a regular feature, losing its exclamation mark in the process: Britain's Biggest Cunts was published every month, with a chart known as "THE CUNTDOWN" featuring puns - "Scouting-For-Cunt" (Scouting For Girls; 2008[a]); "Big-Cunt-Little-Cunt" (Big Cook Little Cook; 2008[b]); "the cunt leading the cunt" ('the blind leading the blind'; 2008[c]); "hit the nail right on the cunt" ('hit the nail on the head'; 2008[d]) - neologisms ("cuntery", 2008[b]; "cuntish", 2008[f]; "cunty-faced", 2008[d]; "cuntness", 2008[f]), and gratuitous abuse ("Shitty cunty shitty cunty shitty cunt shitty cunty cunt", 2008[a]; "cunt-or-no-cunt", 2008[d]; "nasty-little-scally-cunt cunt", 2008[f]; "OH-MY-GOD-YOU-FUCKING-CUNT cunt", 2009). The specialism here is invectives directed against specific celebrities, such as Jonathan Ross ("you're-just-a-cunt cunt", 2009) and Craig Revel Horwood ("Call-that-a-fucking-middle-name-you-cunt", 2009). Thus, Roy Stride is a "pop-cunt" (2008[c]), Bono and Bob Geldof are "Bono-and-Geldof-melded-into-one-ultra-cunt super-cunt", Jordan is a "cunt cunt cunt CUNT" (2009), Danny Wallace is a "shit-cunt" and an "ultra-cunt", Robert Kilroy-Silk (renamed "Cuntroy-Silk") is a "cunt-muncher"), Ian Wright was renamed "Ian Cunt-cunt-cunt" (2008[d]) and "Ian-cunt-cunt-cunt-more-like", Lewis Hamilton is "Not-even-as-cunty-as-your-dad", George Lamb is a "rent-a-cunt cunt" (2008[e]) and a "Cunt-called-George cunt", Anthony Hamilton is "Even-more-of-a-cunt-than-his-cunt-son", and Peter Andre should be sent to Australia "on the Cunt Express".
The name was later changed to World's Biggest Cunts, though the formula was otherwise unchanged: celebrity-abuse (Sting: "I-was-in-The-Police-but-now-I'm-a-cunt", 2009[b] and "Every-breath-you-take-you're-a-cunt", 2009[d]; Trace Cyrus: "Transfer-covered-shake-shake-shakey-cunt"; Paris Hilton: "Cunt-satan-cunt-satan-cunt-satan"; Noel Edmonds: "Never-go-bungee-jumping-with-this-cunt", 2009[f] and "There's-no-soul-behind-those-dead-eyes-cunt", 2009[d]; Heston Blumenthal: "still a cunting cunt. Cunt the fuck off"; Mr Kipling: "Kipling Kunt", 2009[e]; Zac Efron: "still-a-cunt cunt", 2009[g]); puns such as "Capricunti" ('Capriani'; 2009[b]), "Strictly-cunt-dancing" (Strictly Come Dancing; 2009[a]), and "exceedingly-cunt cunt" ('exceedingly good cakes', 2009[e]); portmanteau neologisms: "dick-cunt" (2009[d]), "cunty-faced cunt-bag", "Home-cunt Secretary", "cunt-house", "cunt-job", "cunt-knobs", "cunty cuntingness", "cunt-tard" (2009[h]), "shitcunt" (2009[g]), and "cuntastic cuntatron"; and indiscriminate ranting: "cuntiness in Dancing Cunts On Ice", "Bring-back-Mr-Blobby-or-get-to-cunt" (2009[a]), "Why-is-this-cunt-still-on-telly", and "fuck off back to Cuntville" (2009[c]).
The name then changed again, to World's Biggest C*nts (2009), with similar neologisms ("Double-cunty [...] cuntgun" (2009); "Cuntamania!" (2013); "cuntyness [...] out-cunted [...] out-cunt [...] cuntishness", 2010[b]; "non-cunty", 2010[d]; "thundercunts", 2010[f]; "Absofuckingcuntinggoddamnlutely", 2011; "powercunt [...] hypercunt", 2012; "cunt-head", 2010[h]), wordplay ("cuntishly"; "y'cunt"), and puns ("fox-cunting" ('fox-hunting', 2010[d]), "CUNTinue" ('continue', 2013), "BA-CUNT" ('Bacon'), "cuntkrieg" ('Blitzkrieg', 2010[e]), "Go and Com-cunt" ('Go Compare'), "Pineapple Cunt Studios" (Pineapple Dance Studios, 2010[h]), "Cunt Day" ('Green Day', 2010[a]), "21st Cuntury Breakdown" ('21st Century Breakdown'), "Cuntasaurus Rex" ('tyrannosaurus rex', 2009), "C-HOLE" ('a-hole'/'ass-hole'), "Cunt my gold" ('Cash My Gold', 2010[g], "Iron Cunt" ('Iron Chef'), "Cuntmunk" ('chipmunk', 2010[f]), and "CUNT FM" ('Halifax FM')). Insults (Steve Jones: "a cunt-shaped cunt-sausage", 2010[a]; Billie Joe Armstrong: "please-get-non-cunty-again", 2010[b]; Gary Barlow: "Grow-it-back-and-stop-being-such-a-cunt", 2013[a]; General Shepherd: "You'd-be-even-more-of-a-cunt-if-you-were-real", 2010[c]; Robert Pattinson: "Yep-you're-a-cunt-in-real-life-too"; Paddy McGuinness: "Should-be-funny-but-outright-cunting-isn't", 2010[d]; Iggy Pop: "puppet-cunt", 2010[e]; David Mitchell: "cuntarse"; Mr (Benjamin) Hudson: "Mr Cunt Hudson"; Alan Titchmarsh: "cunt-featured fuckwit", 2010[g]; Tim Westwood: "Cunty McCunt [...] El Cuntio Magnifico", 2010[h]; Noel Edmonds: "cunt-bearded-cunt", 2009; Clarence: "Very-arrogant-for-a-cunt-in-a-freezer", 2012; Mark Wright: "Luckiest-cunt-in-the-world", 2013[b]) continued unabated, as did the invective: "Cunt cunt cunt cunt cunt cunty McCunt" (2010[b]), "Cuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuunt" (2010[g]), "The cunt angers the cunt out of me and cunt cunt cunt" (2012), and "Cunt cunt cunt cunt cunt cunt cunt cunt cunt cunt" (2013[b]). The asterisk in the title was temporarily replaced by a skull and crossbones in 2011. The magazine also created a picture of the car from the TV series Brum with a 'CUNT' number plate. Adam Renton (2008) discusses a similar enterprise by the Holy Moly website, originally known as "C[unt]'s Corner" though later toned down to "The Corner".
Cunt On TV
Whilst the earliest uses of 'cunt' on television - both live and scripted - were on ITV, it is Channel 4 that has subsequently virtually monopolised the broadcasting of the word. It has a deserved reputation as a broadcaster that pushes further than the others at the boundaries of acceptability, and thus regularly invokes the wrath of Mary Whitehouse, the Daily Mail, and the 'moral majority': "Channel 4 has the most liberal policy of all [...] a good example is the airing of [...] Saint Jack which left in two occurrences of the word 'cunt'" (Kevin Hilton, 1996).
The channel famously broadcast a recital by Tony Harrison of his poem V, in which he verbally attacks the vandals who desecrated his parents' gravestones:
"The prospects for the present aren't too grand
The Daily Mail, certainly the most right-wing of the national newspapers and always eager to campaign with vitriol against cultural liberalism, protested against "a torrent of four-letter filth [and] the most explicitly sexual language yet beamed into the nation's living rooms" (John Deans and Gary Jenkins, 1987). The Mail helpfully informed us that "The crudest, most offensive word" - our old friend, 'cunt' - "is used 17 times", in an echo of Mervyn Griffith-Jones's Lady Chatterley prosecution.
Ian Hislop wrote perhaps the most considered contemporary defence of the poem: "There are apparently 47 expletives [and] that more or less concludes the case for the prosecution. It obviously does not [take into account] that there might be a reason for putting in expletives and that the cascade of obscenity is sparked by the poet's own anger at seeing the words on a grave" (1987).
Other commentators were less balanced in their arguments, using sensationalist water metaphors such as "torrent of foul language" (Daily Express, 1987) and "stream of four-letter words" (Harvey Lee, 1987). Richard Brooks warned that the poem contained "the most sexually explicit language ever heard on British television" (1987) and The Sun similarly anticipated "the most explicit language ever broadcast" (1987). This media moral panic was accompanied by an early day motion tabled by Gerald Howarth in the House of Commons, in which he condemned V's "stream of obscenities" (1987).
Brenda Maddox, in an extremely lucid analysis of the poem's media coverage, noted that much of the 'outrage' was motivated less by genuine concern and more by a desire for publicity: "Politicians who call the poem "a torrent of filth" and "packed with obscenities" know more about getting headlines in the Daily Mail than they do about writing poems" (1987). Uniquely amongst the commentators of the time, she recognised that, underlying the debate surrounding obscenity, was a specific concern about the broadcasting of 'cunt': "the C-word [...] is still so taboo that it hardly ever reaches the air, even in films late at night. Its liberal use in [V] is probably the real reason for the current storm".
Channel 4's subsidiary, E4, inadvertently broadcast the c-word in the afternoon, during their live programme Kings Of Comedy (on 10th October 2004). The word was mumbled rather than spoken, and consequently the programme's producers failed to notice it. A viewer complained to the regulator, though the complaint was dismissed as the word was not spoken clearly enough to have caused offence to most viewers. Channel 4 continues to give writers consistently more freedom than other channels, as this extract from their comedy series The Book Group (Annie Griffin, 2001) demonstrates:
Other channels have generally been more linguistically restrained, though an exception was BBC1's QED documentary John's Not Mad (1989), featuring a young boy with Tourette's Syndrome who inadvertantly blurted out 'cunt' and 'fuck' in public. The programme gained a cult following, due to the sheer shock of hearing a child repeatedly saying 'cunt' on the BBC. In another documentary (The World's Best Sellers), BBC2 has even broadcast an unbleeped extract from the Derek And Clive sketch This Bloke Came Up To Me (Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, 1976):
"I said, 'Who are you fucking calling 'cunt', cunt?!'"
True to form, Channel 4 then upped the ante by broadcasting Offensive: The Real Derek And Clive, a whole 'cunt'-filled documentary about the profane double-act.
Satirising TV's repressive attitudes towards swearing, Charlie Brooker's TV Go Home devised a spoof programme called "Cunt", starring the fictional character Nathan Barley. When Brooker's spoof programme was actually filmed in 2005, its title was changed from Cunt to Nathan Barley. Cunt was part of a confrontational collection of television listings, mocking presenters and viewers as "Grade-A fuckfaced cunthole[s]", "CUNTHEADS", "upper-middle-class cuntsack[s]", "mungo-headed cuntwits", and "cunt-chewing cunt-eyed cunt[s]" (2001). This profane surrealism also included obscene names such as "Mary Qunt" (a parody of 'Mary Quant'), and "Ray Diofour-Cunt", and song titles such as "Stop That Cunt!" and "Arise Sir Cuntmaker".
Brooker's aggressive comedy reached its zenith with this extended fictional programme title: "Look at the Tiger. Look at the Fucking Tiger. Stop Picking Your Nose and Look at the Fucking Tiger. It Took Us Ages to Film This, so the Least You Ungrateful Little Cuntsniffs Could Do is to Pay Some Fucking Attention for Once, Instead of Sitting There Slurping Your Fucking Sunny Delight and Fiddling With Your Shoelaces. Got That? Good: Now Stop Crying and Look at the Tiger, and You'd Better KEEP Fucking Looking at it or I'll Come Round and Belt-Whip You Into the Oblivion Ward of the Nearest Fucking Hospital, OKAY?". (In 2007, The Peter Serafinowicz Show featured a TV Go Home-style spoof of The X Factor called You're A C**t.)
No television station, not even Channel 4, is as gleefully obscene as TV Go Home, and, in practice, most televisual appearances of 'cunt' are censored before transmission. The commonest form of censorship is the electronic 'bleep', the aural equivalent of 'c***'. The other is a process called 'post-synchronised dubbing', whereby another word is dubbed over a swear word. For this to be successful, the swear word and its anodyne replacement must sound similar and contain the same number of syllables, so that the new word will synchronise with the actor's lip-movements. For example, in Bridget Jones's Diary (Sharon Maguire, 2001) "ham-fisted cow" was dubbed over the original 'ham-fisted cunt' in order to avoid an '18' rating from the BBFC, and "You klutz!" was dubbed over 'You cunt!' in Monty Pythons Life Of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979). Similarly, ITV's dubbing of The Silence Of The Lambs replaced 'cunt' with 'scent'; the original line was replaced by "Fandabbydosey" in a TV parody of the film (Bob Spiers, 25/2/1993), and it inspired the song If I Could Smell Her Cunt, part of a musical adaptation of the film by Jon and Al Kaplan (2003). The American network TV version of Kill Bill II dubbed over 'cunt' with 'sore-head'; and the American TV version of the Family Guy episode Road To Germany replaced 'cunt' with 'bitch'. In a parody of TV censorship, Empire proposed "TOXIC MEGA CATS" as TV-friendly alternative to the "Toxic Mega Cunts" team from the film Kick-Ass II (Chris Hewitt, 2013).
'Cunt' caused a hullabaloo in 2004 when it was spoken by Sex Pistol singer John Lydon live on ITV. The tabloids reacted with mock outrage (with headlines such as Johnny's F****** C**** On Live Telly), and the word briefly became the focus of a national debate. In general, public reaction appeared to be apathetic rather than apoplectic: "Despite the fact that the c-word is regarded as one of the last taboos of television, the general public appeared to be unfazed" (Rebecca Allison, 2004). Prior to his 'cunt' outburst, Lydon was already infamous for saying 'fuck' on live television in the 1970s. In an article headlined C-Word Rant Is So Rotten, Ruth Hilton contrasted the two occasions: "While Lydon's bad language in 1976 was enough to cause a genuine national scandal, his ripe choice of words [in 2004] prompted only 73 complaints from an audience of 10.5 million" (2004). (More surprisingly, the word was used by a judge in 2016, leading to the front-page headline Judge Drops The QC-bomb On Vile Racist - a pun on 'Queen's Council' and 'c-bomb' - in Metro on 11th August 2016.)
The Guardian went so far as to suggest that Lydon had signalled "the end of the c-word taboo", asking rhetorically: "Is even the c-word acceptable now?" (2004). In that newspaper, Mark Lawson wrote a cover-story titled Is It OK To Use The C-Word Now? (2004), in which he suggested that the word's usage is increasing: "Anyone who has attended a big football match has become accustomed to the last great verbal taboo being chanted by thousands of people". However, the extensive press coverage about Lydon's usage of the word demonstrates that 'cunt' retains its power to offend. Lydon used the word only once, late at night (10:30pm), following an on-air announcement warning of potentially offensive language; if the word can still generate controversy despite these mitigating circumstances, it is powerful indeed. When Peter Serafinowicz used it as a fake TV programme title, it was written as "YOU'RE A C**T" (Becky Martin, 2007).
Until very recently, the American media simply did not use 'cunt' at all; even now, their newspapers do not print it, and their network television and radio stations do not broadcast it. As noted earlier, the word's American television debut came as late as 1994. Only cable TV dares to transmit this most tabooed word, a situation made possible thanks to the HBO comedy series Sex And The City: "HBO gives writers much more freedom than the conservative American networks, and [Sex And The City] took that freedom and ran with it, pushing back the boundaries" (Andrew Abbott and Russell Leven, 2003). Darren Starr explains that his aim with the show was to create a sense of realism through language: "I wanted to do a show where people use language that they actually use in life, not [...] sanitised for television".
Sex And The City's potential for unsanitised language was tested in its very first season, when the word 'cunt' was broadcast for the first time by HBO. The episode in question, The Power Of Female Sex (Susan Seidelman, 1998), discusses the limits of sexual politics and liberal feminism. It also features a male artist who paints large-scale close-up portraits of vaginas: "The cunt [...] The most powerful force in the universe. The source of all life and pleasure and beauty. I used to paint full nudes, but as I got older I realised that the truth was to be found only in the cunt".
Richard Brooks notes that the occurrences of 'cunt' in Sex And The City are anatomical rather than insulting. This, he suggests, may be deemed less problematic by the British regulators: "[it] may not break television guidelines because the word is used to describe female genitalia, not as a swear word" (1999). Guidelines issued by the Broadcasting Standards Commission state that "the Commission would expect the abusive usage of any of the synonyms for the female genitalia" - though, in practice, only 'cunt' - "to have been referred to the most senior levels of management" (1998).
The crucial word here is "abusive", highlighting the importance of context in determining obscenity, as 'cunt' is more readily permitted on television if it is used in an anatomical context rather than as a term of abuse. Katharine Viner condemns the word, though only in its abusive context: "The fact remains that when the c-word is used as abuse, the intention behind it is violent and contemptuous" (1992); indeed, for Georges Bataille, 'cunt', in the correct context, can be "by far the loveliest of the names for the vagina" (1928). Victoria Coren disagrees, citing 'acceptable' and 'unacceptable' contexts yet concluding: "It doesn't add up. Surely these words are either rude or they're not?" (2003).
Since Sex And The City, Oz, and Deadwood (all of which are HBO dramas) have also occasionally included the c-word. This extract from Oz is especially 'cunt'-laden: "What a cunt. [...] I had to stare up at that cunt's face while she banged her cunt gavel and instructed the jury to fuck me over. I didn't have a choice. I had to see the cunt" (Keith Samples, 1998). HBO has also broadcast extracts from The Vagina Monologues, including the Reclaiming Cunt poem, accompanied for good measure by a montage of women saying 'cunt' both individually and collectively (Sheila Nevins, 2002):
Matthew Perry observes that 'cunt' is most offensive to American ears: "The c-word seems less shocking to people in London, but in America that word will stop the evening" (Jasper Rees, 2003). Masuimi Max makes a similar observation: "There are certain words that you guys in England say kind of loosely that you don't say loosely here [in America] without getting punched. Words like 'cunt'" (2008). Jonathan Wilson regrets the word's American suppression: "Cunt is the most powerful word in the English language. In the United Kingdom, however, it's pretty much defanged these days. [...] In the United States [...] it is THE WORST WORD IN THE WORLD [...] numerous American women of my acquaintance regaled me with the same criticism. "No woman," they said, "would ever say that." [...] In the UK, women have been calling other women and men who don't meet their approval cunts for as long as I can remember. The word scores about the same as fuck on the insult charts. [...] cunt reports the deep unresolved misogyny of American life as it persists amid a general horror of female anatomy below the waist. America has always been big on boobs and, until recently, reticent about vaginas. [...] we're still a cunt-crazy nation, getting shivers from that lethal combination of letters" (2008). Jim Jefferies (2017) explained how his use of the word led to a loosening of the taboo against it on the American stand-up comedy circuit: "I say 'cunt' more than anyone else. I'm sort of known for saying 'cunt'. Seven years ago, when I did my first comedy special in America, the word 'cunt' was banned in every comedy club in America. And then I said 'cunt' loads on television and now people can say 'cunt' in comedy clubs. Basically, I'm the Rosa Parks of 'cunt'!"
Discussing the film Atonement, Keira Knightley explained her attitude towards it: "I think in England it's not as big a deal as it is in America. I say it all the time" (Dave Karger, 2008). (She also recalled that, under pressure to remove the word, the director exclaimed: "The c[unt] stays in the picture!", a pun on 'the kid stays in the picture'.) Ed Vulliamy also contrasts British and American social usage, suggesting that 'cunt' is used a great deal more prolifically in Britain: "Not only do you never say ['cunt'] in America - you never even talk about why it is never used [...] In Britain, as we know, the taboo is rather weaker" (1999). In the same article, Thom Powers agrees that "In England or Ireland, the word has no power. It's c[unt] this, c[unt] that, he's a c[unt], she's a c[unt], my broken car's a c[unt]".
Jacqueline Z Wilson (2008[b]) makes a similar observation in relation to Australian usage, noting the "very free use of the word" among female prisoners, and the "quasi-friendly usage" of the word in suburban Melbourne: "cunt is so ubiquitous one learns and becomes inured to it at an early age as an everyday term. It that setting it remains on one level an abusive word, but is also used conversationally". In her essay "Cunt" - The Last Tabo (2008), Sarah Westlake notes the word's common usage in Australia and Ireland: "it is used extensively [...] as a replacement noun [and] does not necessarily imply contempt nor is intended to be offensive".
The vast majority of the population of Britain as of elsewhere still have many inhibitions about the word's use: "ring up some other English person, and say, 'I'm glad you answered the phone, ya c[unt], you.' I think they won't be very happy" (Ed Vulliamy, 1999).
In an interview with Matt LeBlanc (Allan Kartun, 2015), Conan O'Brien asked him about English slang, and LeBlanc mentioned the c-word: "It begins with a 'c', then it's a 'u', then it's an 'n'-" at which point O'Brien interrupted: "OK, alright, yeah, OK." O'Brien pointed out the differences between UK and US usage: "I've noticed that over there, they use it all the time, and if you're an American it's really shocking." In an interview with Madonna, Jonathan Ross asked her about American attitudes towards the c-word, his question itself being evidence that the word is becoming a more acceptable discussion topic. Ross cited 'cunt' as a word "which the Americans don't use at all [but] which we [Brits] use with regularity" (Mick Thomas, 2003):
"Americans [...] want the smelling salts"
Madonna was also asked about her attitude to the word almost ten years later, this time by an American journalist: "we embark on a jolly discussion of the comparative merits of the C-word [...] Madge and I are big fans of the word. We are, however, sensitive to the fact that, while Brits love to sling it around like an old feather boa, it must be used with infinite caution on this side of the Atlantic" (Simon Doonan, 2008).
Michael Musto's article Sarah Silverman Is My Kind Of Cunt (2007), in which he interviews Sarah Silverman, also includes a discussion of the word:
"Do you favor the word cunt?
Cunt On The Radio
American media regulations regarding swearing date from 1973, when a New York radio station broadcast George Carlin's Filthy Words at two o'clock in the afternoon. The monologue was a comic assessment of seven swear words - 'cunt', 'shit', 'piss', 'fuck', 'cocksucker', 'motherfucker', and 'tits' - and its afternoon broadcast provoked complaints from parents. The ensuing controversy led to advertisers refusing to associate themselves with programmes which included strong language, thus, for commercial reasons, none of the seven words Carlin listed are permitted on either radio or network television: "Without advertisers to placate, writers [for HBO] can include bad language and explicit sex scenes [though they are] nowhere on network TV" (Grace Bradberry, 2002).
Radio in Britain is more liberal than in America, though even in Britain the word 'cunt' only rarely graces the airwaves. Its presence on the radio, however, causes significantly less controversy than its use on television. A good example is the Breakfast Show morning programme on Radio 1, which is regarded by its succession of presenters as a forum for uncensored, naturalistic repartee. Thus, Chris Evans invited listeners to suggest pet names for the vagina and reacted with mock outrage when one of his co-presenters posed as a caller and said "The cunt" (199-). In the same time-slot, a disc jockey who mispronounced The Cult Of Ant And Dec as "The Cunt Of Ant And Dec" (1999) simply laughed and noted his "Freudian slip". A BBC News reporter similarly mispronounced 'cult' on 14th May 2015, leading to two headlines in the next day's Daily Star: BEEB CALLS FARAGE C-WORD ON TELLY (on the front page) and BEEB'S NORM: NIGE IS A C***. A few weeks later on 21st July 2015, another BBC television presenter mispronounced 'clients', leading to headlines in the following day's newspapers including Bill Drops A C-bomb Live On TV (Daily Star), Turnbull Stumble Turns Client Into C-word (The Scotsman), Beeb Bill's Live C-word Bombshell (Midweek Sport), and 'Breakfast' Presenter In C-word Slip-up (i). On Radio 3, Gilbert and George discussed their montage George The Cunt And Gilbert The Shit, by name, at six o'clock in the evening, during a pre-recorded interview in 2002.
Again, it is the context in which the word is used that dictates the level of offence it causes. The offensive potential of these two breakfast-time examples was diffused by humour, and the Gilbert and George example went unbleeped because Radio 3 is not felt to be a station listened to by children. Similarly, when a football referee explained live on Radio 5 that the word 'cunt' had been used to insult him on the pitch, a quick apology from presenter Allan Robb was sufficient. When 'cunt' is used aggressively, however, it causes considerably greater offence. In a live Radio 1 interview with Steve Lamacq, Liam Gallagher - renowned for his coinage of the insult "cuntybollocks" (Matthew de Abaitua, 1998) - threatened to "beat the fucking living daylight shit out of [any] cunts that give me shit" (1997). Though broadcast late in the evening, this angry outburst drew more complaints than any of the incidents broadcast in earlier time-slots.
As discussed previously with reference to the Lady Chatterley trial, simple tallies of swear words do not recognise the importance of context, though Lamacq has suggested that Radio 1 has a swear word hierarchy in which "one c[unt] is as bad as five f[uck]s" (2000). In his guide to English grammar, Practical English Usage, Michael Swan classifies swear words with a star-rating system: "a one-star word will not upset many people, while a four- or five-star word may be very shocking" (1980); 'cunt' is the only word given five stars. The British Board of Film Classification has a similar hierarchy, classifying swear words in ascending order as 'very mild' ('damn'), 'mild' ('bastard'), 'moderate' ('prick'), 'strong' ('fuck'), and 'coarse' ('cunt'). Television regulators also have a linguistic hierarchy: 'cunt' "tops the watchdog Broadcasting Standards Commission's list of most offensive words" (Tara Conlan, 2002).
Furthermore, there is an unwritten code which determines the warnings given by continuity-announcers before television programmes: a warning of 'strong language' implies 'fuck' and one of 'very strong language' implies 'cunt'. Channel 4's announcement, before a repeat of V, that viewers should prepare themselves for "the strongest possible language" (Gavin Weightman (1998) can be seen as both an over-cautious warning and a proud boast. Taking a more cautious approach, the BBC requires senior approval before any use of 'cunt' is permitted on any BBC television or radio station: "Any on-air use of a notorious four-letter word starting with "c," [BBC executive Jana Bennett] said, required her personal clearance" (Eric Pfanner, 2008).
Cunt On Film & Video
The word's first cinematic outing came in 1970, in two film adaptations of Henry Miller novels: Joseph Strick's Tropic Of Cancer and Jens Jorgen Thorsen's Stille Dage I Clichy. (The latter featured 'cunt' extensively in captions and graffiti.) In Nil By Mouth, one of the few films to include truly extensive usage of 'cunt', Ray Winstone, "spraying c-words like bullets" (Stuart Jeffries, 1997), brutally assaults Kathy Burke whilst shouting "Cunt! Cunt! Cunt! Cunt! Cunt! Cunt! Cunt!" (Gary Oldman, 1997). Peter Silverton describes the scene as "cunt-kick, cunt-kick, and so on and on" (2009). The lines would be familiar to Winstone, whose previous role in Ladybird, Ladybird involved a similar sequence in which he verbally abused Crissy Rock by calling her "Cunt! Cunt! Cunt!" (Ken Loach, 1994). Gary Oldman has said that the brutal language was an essential part of Nil By Mouth's authenticity: "I knew that I could give it an integrity and honesty [...] I'm not making the language more palatable [...] I want a bare knuckle film" (Ian Nathan, 1997). Winstone also starred in Sexy Beast, in which Ben Kingsley calls him "Fat, fat, cunt, cunt" (Jonathan Glazer, 2000).
The use of 'cunt' in film titles is reserved almost exclusively for pornography:
(The final title, Cunt Hunt, is also the name of a 2003 painting by Kristian von Hornsleth.) There is also a five-part pornographic TV series called Cunt Lust (2005). Deborah Strutt directed the film My Cunt (1996), in which Maude Davey delivers a monologue about cunt exhibitionism. The film Christmas On Earth was "originally known as Cocks and Cunts" (J Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum, 1983). The film Le Sexe Enrage, directed by Roland Lethem, was retitled The Red Cunt in 1970. The film Magia Verde was retitled Mondo Keazunt "to subliminally suggest the word ['cunt']" (Charles Kilgore, 1997). Rossella Schillaci's film Ascuntami (2001) includes 'cunt' in its title, though in this case (like that of the book Lo Cunto De Li Cunti) 'cunt' appears as a component of the Italian title rather than as a genital term. The magazine Lazy Frog created a poster for the fictional film "Cunty Elliot" (2001, a pun on Billy Elliot). Kevin Smith's Clerks (1994) features the fictional porn videos "My Cunt Needs Shafts" and "Girls Who Crave Cunt". Characters in Zack And Miri Make A Porno (2008), also directed by Smith, discuss the fictional porn films "Star Sex II: The Wrath of Cunt" (a pun on Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan) and "Cocunt" (a pun on Cocoon). There is a German porn film production company called PiCunt Movie.
In the music industry, perhaps the most notable usage of 'cunt' does not technically involve the word itself. Instead, 'cunt' is strongly implied, by a forced pronunciation of 'vacant', in Pretty Vacant by The Sex Pistols: "Oh, so pretty vay-cunt" (1977).
This connection is used to more bawdy effect in the Rugby song Three Jews Of Norfolk (19--):
"there were no beds vacant,
In another example of The Sex Pistols almost-but-not-quite using the word, their song Silly Thing was "originally 'Silly Cunt'" (Alan Parker, 2001). The band's lead singer, Sid Vicious, did use the word in his solo single My Way, however:
"And now, the end is near
'Cunt' is very rarely used even by Hip-Hop performers: "Not even [...] the meanest-mouthed gangsta rapper would use it" (Ed Vulliamy, 1999), sadly undermining Matthew Norman's spoof Gangsta rap title "I'm a Motherf[ucking] Cop-Killing C[unt]" (2002). Even The 2 Live Crew's album As Nasty As They Wanna Be (1989), often cited as the epitome of rap's violent and misogynist lyrical content, features 'cunt' only once. A notable exception is the computer game True Crime: Streets Of LA from 2004, in which 'cunt' features heavily as part of both the dialogue and the Gangsta rap soundtrack. (Another computer game, Grand Theft Auto V, also features the word extensively: "Fucking shit, cunt, cunt, cunt, cunt!"; Rod Edge, 2013).
'Cunt' is primarily reserved for use by Punk, Grindcore, and Nu-Metal bands, ideally suited to record-labels such as Cunt Tree Records, Cunt Records, and Fucking Cunt Records.
The band Prosthetic Cunt have been played by John Peel on Radio 1, and the sound of Peel saying 'Cunt' (sampled from him announcing the band's name on air) was used by Sarah Nelson in her song Cuntry Music: "Cunt. Cunt. Cunt. Cunt" (2004).
Other 'cunt'-related band names include:
Perhaps the most mainstream band with a 'cunt' song title is Sleeper, who recorded Cunt, London as a B-side in 1997. Other notable 'cunt' tracks include the instrumental Cunt by Aphex Twin (1993) and the camp Walk Runway Miss Cunt by Jay Karan Pendavis (2007). There have been club nights called Alt.Cunt.Fest (in London, 2004) and Choice Cunts (in New York, 2007), and whenever John Peel appeared at British music festivals it was traditional for the crowd to chant 'John Peel is a cunt!' (he even wore a 'John Peel's A Cunt' t-shirt to acknowledge this, and versions of it were sold to festival-goers). There have also been some comedy tracks with 'cunt' titles: Howard Stern's Candle In The Wind spoof Candle In My Cunt (199-), Elisabeth Belile's My Country, My Cunt (1994), and KP Knowledge Is Power's C*nt 101 (2004).
The singer Plan B has become notorious for his usage of 'cunt', and has been accused of glamorising the word and using it only for shock effect. He insists, however, that his music has a social message which would be ignored by his jaded audiences if he did not attract their attentions with 'cunt': "It's the one word that still shocks some people. [...] all I had to say was 'cunt', and I had their attention [...] when they hear my music, like "Wow! He said 'cunt'! I'm into this['] But then when they listen to the music, then it has a message. So I use 'cunt' in a positive way [...] We live in a society where kids say 'cunt'. I might not like it, but they fucking say it" (Pete Woods, 2007). Plan B wears, and sells, a 'LISTEN UP... YOU CUNT' t-shirt, though he has no intention of deliberately mainstreaming the word: "if I did convert the whole world to the word 'cunt', and we all started using it, then we'd have to find a new word in place of it".
Private Eye invented the fictional song "Spiggy Is A Right C[unt]" (CD Rom, 2003), and Kevin Bloody Wilson wrote two comic songs exploiting the shock value of the c-word (both 2002). In Absolute Cunt Of A Day, he complains about everything going wrong:
"I've had an absolute cunt of a day.
and in You Can't Say Cunt In Canada he complains about Canadian censorship:
"You can't say 'cunt' in Canada.
Comedian Steve Coogan ended one of his stand-up tours with a song called Everyone's A Bit Of A Cunt Sometimes:
"I've had a life of plenty.
Coogan reprised the song for his TV series The Trip, adding a montage of people exclaiming "You're a cunt! You're a cunt! You're a cunt!" (Michael Winterbottom, 2010).
The most prolific musical cunts are the band Anal Cunt, whose song You're A Fucking Cunt (1996) attacks a rival band's lyrics:
"you're a fucking cunt.
Anal Cunt's lyrics are sometimes self-parodic: the band is not afraid to mock itself, and its lyrics do at least have a rhyme scheme, unlike the angry rantings of most of the 'cunt'-related bands listed below. For example, in I'm Glad You Got Breast Cancer, Cunt (2001), the lyrics ridicule a woman who has undergone a mastectomy:
"Guys used to always buy you drinks
I always hoped you'd get AIDS,
There is no doubting the severe offence of a song such as this, though this offence is at least partially negated by the almost comic rhyme and structure.
The following is a selection of 'cunt' song and album titles:
Stewart Home has a permanent association with the word 'cunt', due to his short story pamphlet Cunt Lickers Anonymous (1986) and, especially, his novel Cunt (1999). Home admits that Cunt's title made it difficult finding a publisher, though this is, in fact, a massive understatement, as forty-three printers initially rejected it. It was finally agreed that Home's title could not be printed on the spine of the book (so as not to offend bookshop browsers) and Cunt stickers were provided instead, to be stuck onto the spine after purchase. This troubled publication history led to several puns on the 'countdown' to Cunt's release, with headlines such as Final Cuntdown and The Final Cuntdown (both 1999).
The 'cuntdown'/'countdown' connection has also been humorously exploited by Viz with their Cuntdown article featuring Countdown's "Cuntdown Conundrum" (2001), and accidentally by a Singaporean sign (1999) which was rendered as 'C untdown' thanks to a faulty lamp used to represent the 'o'. A 2015 poster in Hua Hin, Thailand, read 'HUA HIN C UNTDOWN', with the 'O' replaced by a mirrorball. A punning headline, C_ntdown, was used for a spoof magazine article in 2004 (by Walter Burns and Hildy Johnson, both pseudonyms). Throughout Thailand, the common 'Counter Service' payment sign appears as 'C unter Service' as its 'o' is rendered as a yellow sun. Also, the mid-afternoon television programme Countdown once caused a stir when its host, Richard Whitely, "wore a tie made by a viewer with the show's name down the front. However, the "down" was obscured by the desk and the first letter "O" by his microphone" (Julia Stuart, 2004).
Cunt's title is applicable in both the anatomical and abusive senses of the word, as Home explained in Will They Let Me Put Cunt On The Cover?: "[it] is called Cunt because it is narrated by a cunt in search of a cunt" (1999). Prior to its publication, Kim Fowley and Esther Wiggins from the pressure-group Women Against Violent Language wrote to Time Out to extol the traditional feminist position: "the title and content of [Cunt are] deeply oppressive to women. It [...] reduces this very personal and private aspect of women's bodies to an obscene insult" (1999). In reply, the liberal Feminists Against Censorship group stressed that "calling a book [Cunt is not] deeply offensive to women or to anyone".
Other 'cunt' book titles include:
Gary G Graham has written a series of books called Cannabis, of which volume I is subtitled Glasgow Cunt Sez Shite U No Like (1999) and volume V is subtitled More News From The Home Cunt? (1999). Peter Silverton's Filthy English had the working title "Arseholes, Bastards, Fucking Cunts and Pricks" (2009).
Viz created the fictional books "NEW CUNTS" (2001) and "You Bunch of Cunts - My Life Behind the Scenes at Top Gear" (2011[b]) (and the fictional commemorative plate "Bernard ~ Fat Racist Cunt Of Hearts"; 2012). Cassetteboy's album The Parker Tapes (2002) features a fictional Harry Potter book titled "Harry Potter And The Black Leather Cunt". The Thick Of It punned on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with "Tinker Tailor Soldier Cunt" (Billy Sneddon, 2012). Almost a 'cunt' title is Lawrence Durrell's book Tunc (1968), an anagram of 'cunt' that means 'next' in Latin. Gregor Muir's book Lucky Kunst (2009) is a pun on 'lucky cunts' (and is also the name of a record label established by the Pet Shop Boys in 2003). (The 2017 film Bunch Of Kunst, directed by Christine Franz, has a similar pun in its title.)
The introduction to an anthology of lesbian erotica was published in 1987 as The Edge Of Cunt, by Pat Califa. Yoav Rinon wrote a feminist analysis of de Sade titled Cunt And Female Sexuality in Sadian Reflections (2005). Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint (1969) includes a chapter titled Cunt Crazy which includes inventive insults such as "Betty-Boop-dumb-cunt" and "Commissioner of Cunt". Maxim Jakubowski's Life In The World Of Women includes a chapter titled Kate's Cunt (1996). Angela Y Davis wrote a chapter titled Why Did Jennifer Scala Bring Cunt Into The Courtroom? in One Of The Guys (2007). The underground comic Snatch published a cartoon-strip titled Cunt Capers by S Clay Wilson in 1969. Kono Yaro's The Sexual Misadventures Of Kung FU Girl includes a comic-strip called Cunt Slaves (2002).
David Wagonor wrote a poem titled For A Man Who Wrote CUNT On A Motel Bathroom Mirror (2005). John Updike wrote the poems Two Cunts In Paris in 1997, and Cunts in 1973:
"your underpants cry cunt CUNT there is almost
A 1973 poem by Allen Ginsberg is titled Under The World There's A Lot Of Ass, A Lot Of Cunt. Lisa Williams wrote a poem titled On Not Using The Word "Cunt" In A Poem, which included explicit descriptions and words with phonetic similarities to 'cunt' ("must I count my kind of cunning out?", 2006) though did not actually include 'cunt' itself. The Pearl printed a poem titled Cunt in 1879. Other cunt poems include Cunt Candy (Ron Androla, 19--) and Woman's Cunt (19--). The TV series Game Of Thrones mentioned a fictional 'cunt' poem: "They can write a ballad about us: The War For Cersei's Cunt!" (Brian Kirk, 2011).
Several magazines have published 'cunt' short stories, such as Charles Bukowski's Love Makes Its Gun Into The Horrible Cunt Of Life in Ole (1967) and Robert Coover's Lucky Pierre And The Cunt Auction (1974) in Antaeus. (A 1986 analysis of Coover's work by Ann Morris is titled Death-Cunt-And-Prick Songs). Subsequently, Brat Attack published Why I Play With My Cunt (199-) by Lovechild 93, Quim printed Greedy Cunt (2001) by Linda Sanchez, Bust published Me And My Cunt by Janine Guzzo (199-), The Review Of Contemporary Fiction printed Rikki Ducornet's The Death Cunt Of Deep Dell (1998), and Chocolate Impulse printed Pot-Smokin' Cunt-Lickin' Lesbian Kentucky Weekend! by 'Faith Impulse' [Jim Goad] (199-). Damien Hirst wrote an essay titled Why Cunts Sell Shit To Fools (published in The Idler magazine #32, Winter 2003).
We have seen how cable television has challenged America's 'cunt' taboo, though there is something more intrinsically shocking about hearing an actor in the theatre using the word. On television, we can channel-hop at will, though in the theatre the audience has no such control. Thus, Patrick Marber's play Closer, despite featuring 'cunt' merely in a throwaway line, opened on Broadway to a great deal more controversy than Sex And The City's 'cunt' episode. In Closer, a male character uses 'cunt' in the presence of a woman and instinctively apologises. She is not offended, and replies: "I'm a grown-up. Cunt away!" (1997). Prompted by the fuss surrounding this anodyne dialogue, Andrew Goldman noted America's "grudging acceptance [and] unease with the word" (1999).
As Closer demonstrates, what is unremarkable in Britain can be highly controversial across the Atlantic. Patrick Marber himself advises caution with regard to the word: "In England, you can call another man a c[unt] but you should know him quite well. It's not a good idea to go c[unt]ing around in London".
Even in Britain, "there was a gasp when [Chris Klein] said the c-word" during the play This Is Our Youth (Steve Smith, 2003), according to Graham Norton who interviewed the play's cast. Freddie Prinze was unfazed: "It's a funny word!", and Norton agreed: "We say it a lot [...] Driving, I hear it a lot!". The gasp from the British audience was perhaps an expression of surprise that the word was spoken by a young American actor, rather than an expression of shock at simply hearing the word itself. Lynn Gardner reported a similar situation during a British performance of The Vagina Monologues: "When the word ['cunt'] was first said a little gasp rippled through the audience, but within 90 seconds most of the audience were chanting the word" (2002).
One play whose language has genuinely shocked British audiences is Stitching, by Anthony Neilson (2002). A raw and brutally honest examination of the rebuilding of a miserable relationship, the play's most graphic language comes when its central couple exchange insults:
"If you'd turned out to be a total cunt I wouldn't [be here]."
Johann Hari complains of Stitching that "Some lines are deliberately provocative and offensive" (2002), and Sarah Burrell is concerned that the viciousness of the play's dialogue jars with the reconciliatory plot: "That this is a world where female genitalia cannot be referred to enough, and never without the C-word, is understood, but matching the sadomasochistic language of the couple's past with the Relate-style counselling of the play's present is something of a challenge" (2002).
There is a play titled L'Amur Et Moardt Desperattium Dalg Cunt Othavo Et Quella Cun Ottras Chiosas Da Spass Et Biffunarias Traunter Aint, credited to Fadrich Viezel (whose name is also spelt Fadrich Weitzel). It was first performed in 1673, though remained unpublished until 1885. It was printed as part of an anthology (Un Drame Haut-Engadinois: Tragicomedia) which was itself seemingly extracted from another source (Revue Des Langues Romances). Notwithstanding its complex history, the play not only includes 'cunt' in its title it also features a character called Cunt ("Ais foarza all Cunt mieu bain mieu cour").
There is also a character called Cunt in Jeff Goode's 1999 play Poona The Fuckdog. Judy Chicago wrote a play titled Cock And Cunt in 1970. Esther Newton gave a lecture titled Cohen, Coon, And Cunt: The Geometry Of Gay Prejudice in 1992. A performance by Gelitin, consisting of the repeated digging of a hole, was titled The Dig Cunt (2007).
Innuendo: Bunt, Lunt, Punt...
Broadly, contemporary appearances of 'cunt' in the media can be categorised as either euphemistic or repetitious. That is, 'cunt' either appears obliquely (in a disguised form) or repeatedly (uttered over and over again). The former is popular in contemporary comedy, while the latter is largely confined to less mainstream arenas. The euphemistic appearances in contemporary comedy are an indication of the word's increasing mainstream acceptance. In these instances, the word is never used directly; rather, it is humorously implied, with the humour reducing its potency and the euphemism removing its shock-value. Emma Rees (2013) calls this approach "covert visibility", as the word itself is not spoken yet the audience is fully aware of which word is being referred to.
There are many examples of the 'cunt' taboo being challenged by this comic, euphemistic usage. The Monty Python sketch Crunchy Frog, for instance, includes a character called "Constable Kuntt" (1976). (Compare this to "Phil MaC[un]ttup" - 'Fill My Cunt up' - from Oooer Surgery, 2001). Another tactic involves teasing the audience by alluding to the c-word and then not using it: in To Die For (Gus van Sant, 1995), a female character is described as "A four-letter word starting with 'c'", though the word is "Cold" rather than 'cunt'.
An earlier Python sketch, Travel Agent, features a character who calls himself a "silly bunt" (1972) after establishing that he always replaces the letter 'c' with 'b'. The 'bunt'/'cunt' link was also employed by Tim Dowling in this fictitious chat-room transcript (2002):
"I'M A (FILTERED) SALESMAN"
After 'bunt' came 'Lunt': Jack Dee joked about a schoolteacher who was teased because "his name was Mr Lunt" (Juliet May, 1992). There is an English village called Lunt, whose sign has been "defaced by mindless yobs who change the L to a C", prompting calls for "Launt to be used as an alternative name" (Natalie Paris, 2008). Clearly a pattern is emerging: after 'Lunt' came 'Punt', as Dan Antopolski suggested "There once was a woman called Punt" as an ideal first line for a limerick (Becky Martin, 2000). There was even a BBC Choice panel-game titled Stupid Punts (2001), punning on 'Stupid Cunts'. A character in the animated TV series Archer is called Cheryl Tunt, and she and all her relatives have first names starting with 'C'. Finally, a Private Eye cartoon (Cornwall, 2004) used "GUCKING GUNTS" to imply 'fucking cunts'. Like earlier Cockney rhyming slang such as 'Berkshire Hunt', 'bunt', 'Lunt', 'Punt', and 'gunt' all rhyme with 'cunt' - explaining Richard Adams's insistence that 'punt' "rhymes with bank manager" (2001). Similarly, Gareth McLean suggested that "there are only so many rhymes you can do with "shunt" before you reach Margaret Thatcher" (2001[b]) and Private Eye punned on "political stunt" being "misheard" (Grayling's Gaffe, 2009).
Kenneth Williams has declared: "I'm a cult figure, you see. I'm an enormous cult. I am!" (Wogan, 198-), punning on the similarity of 'cult' and 'cunt'; likewise, a headline in Bizarre read Bunch Of Cults (2000). Paul Merton has used 'Celt' to the same effect: "Look at that Celt over there!" (Janet Staplehurst, 2004). Frank Skinner made a similar joke about 'Kent': "I went out last night to a golf club in Kent. I knew where I was [because everyone] shouted 'Kent!' when I [arrived]!" (Peter Orron, 2001), and the 'Kent'/'cunt' similarity caused a problem when presenter Nicky Campbell tried to say 'West Kent Hunt' on Radio 5 and instead managed to say "West C[un]t...er, hunt!" as reported by The Sun, which headlined the story You Kent Say That On BBC! (2004).
In The League Of Gentlemen, the line "Sit up straight, you bone-idle, lazy cun-" (Steve Bendelack, 1999) was cut off before the final 't' could be heard. Similarly, on The Eleven O'Clock Show, Ricky Gervais turned "you stupid c-" (2000) into a running joke, always being interrupted before he could say 'unt'. Ian Hislop's comment "What a c-" was followed by "What a cad" and "What a coincidence" (John FD Northover, 1992[a]). Private Eye used a stutter to imply the c-word: "You c-c-c-c-c-c-c-continued" (Those Unusable Colin Firth Paddington Bear Voice-Over Attempts, 2014). In Ho, Ho, Ho Selecta! (Ben Palmer, 2003), 'cunt' was obscured by the first line of a Christmas carol:
"Fuck off, you skinny c-"
The same device was employed in an episode of 30 Rock titled The "C" Word (Adam and Andrew Bernstein, 2007), when 'cunt' is interrupted by a homophone:
"Liz is a grade-'A' -"
In the same 30 Rock episode, 'cunt' was described as "rhym[ing] with your favourite Todd Rundgren album", a reference to Rundgren's album Runt. A later episode includes a similar pun: "You're acting like a real C-word right now! That's right — a Cranky Sue!" (Don Scardino, 2008). A similar tactic was used in Star (Guy Ritchie, 2003), when a highly unflattering description of Madonna was interrupted by the woman herself:
"she's a complete cun-"
An episode of Hippies featured a speech-bubble reading "I AM A CUN" (Martin Dennis, 1999). The 'T' was obscured by a character's finger and a piece of paper, and, when spoken aloud, the word was drowned out by the sound of a gavel. In an episode of The Late Show, guest John Stewart said: "Clearly, the 'C' next to your names don't stand for constitutional or conservative, but cravenly convenient-", before being interrupted by host Stephen Colbert blowing an air horn (Jim Hoskinson, 2016).
A song by Grace Petrie (Colin Anderson, 2013) includes a pun on the c-word, rhyming "Hunt" with "completely" by extending the schwa sounds in both words:
And why listen to our health-care staff's opinions,"
Kristin Chenoweth and Seth MacFarlane's song Here's To The Losers contains a similar pun, with a pregnant pause after the first syllable of "adorable" (Don Mischer, 2013):
Amy Adams, Jacki Weaver, Sally Field, and Helen Hunt."
Little Britain punned on the similarity between the sound of the letter 'c' and the word 'sea'. In their sketch, a customer in a card shop is trying to buy a card for his brother, whose interests he describes to the shop-keeper: "He likes the c-". On hearing this, the shop-keeper shows him a nautical card, whereupon the customer finishes his sentence: "word" (Matt Lipsey, 2004). Arrested Development (Patty Jenkins, 2004) included an even more convoluted reference: a boat called "The Seaward", which sounds like 'the c-word'; and Have I Got News For You (Paul Wheeler, 2017) punned on The Old Man And The Sea: "Ernest Hemingway, who coined the term 'shitfaced', was famous for his bad language and obscenity, which explains the original title of his book The Old Man And The C-Word."
In Goodness Gracious Me, "FUKCNT" (Nick Wood and Christine Gernon, 2000), which can be rearranged to form 'FUCK' and 'CUNT', was shown on a series of Scrabble tiles. In Let Them Eat Cake there were several references to "the old Comte" (Christine Gernon, 1999), which, like 'Count', bears a phonetic similarity to 'cunt'; co-writer Jennifer Saunders has said of 'cunt', "because it's still the only taboo word, it's the funniest word" (Peter Higgins, 1999). In I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue, 'cunt' was suggested by the line "Dear Clint, sorry about the spelling mistake in my last letter" (John Naismith, 2001). The phrase 'black cunt' was hinted at on Have I Got News For You: "It's a black cat. At least, I think that's what John Terry called it" (John Spencer, 30/11/2012). The programme also joked about politician Richard Graham, who had drunkenly used the word 'cunt' instead of another word starting with 'c': Ian Hislop guessed that the word was 'Conservative', though Paul Merton replied: "I think he meant the four-letter version: Tory" (Paul Wheeler, 2009).
In a particularly subtle reference, at the British Comedy Awards Jonathan Ross obliquely described 'cunt' as "consonant, vowel, consonant, consonant" (1998). Marcus Brigstocke made a similarly oblique pun on the word 'cunts': "it's not strictly true that nothing can rhyme with 'month'. My brother has a lisp, and doesn't like the people he works with!" (Tilusha Ghelani, 2011). The Fast Show recited a list of alliterative vaginal synonyms, including "mountain of minge" (Mark Mylod, 2000), though "a cornucopia of" was followed by a suggestive pause, requiring as it does a vaginal term beginning with 'c'.
The proximity of 'cunt' and 'can't' was exploited in a newspaper reference to Stewart Home's novel Cunt: "[the] book has such a rude, albeit brief, title that one "can't" print it in a family newspaper" (Mark Sanderson, 1999). Emma Rees employed a similar tactic in the title of her conference paper Beneath Is All The Fiends': Lear's Vaginas Or Cordelia's Can't (2005), and her book The Vagina had the working title Can't because "The pronunciation of Can't in most British English accents comes very close to Cunt" (2013). A very similar instance is that of 'cant', as in this pun on 'cunt' and 'cigar':
All of these various 'cunt' euphemisms demonstrate an increasing willingness to acknowledge the word's existence and an attempt to belittle the taboo against it. By laughing at our inability to utter a forbidden word, we recognise the arcane nature of the taboo and begin to challenge it.
For instance, Ian Hislop, in a speech at Coventry Cathedral, joked about "a four-letter word beginning with 'cu' [that isn't] 'cute'" (2000). This example is especially interesting, due to the context in which it was spoken. Hislop's speech was addressed to a primarily middle-aged audience at Coventry Cathedral, and he was introduced by the Bishop of Coventry. That 'cunt' could be joked about in such circumstances is a clear indication of the public's increasing tolerance towards it.
Dysphemism: Cunt, Cunt, Cunt...
In tandem with the trend towards 'cunt' euphemism is a significant, though less prolific, trend towards the over-use and repetition of the word, as in Stephen Fry's delicious phrases "cuntly cunt" (1991) and "fuckety-cunt" (1994), David S Goyer's "cock-juggling thunder-cunt" (2004), Louis CK's "You're a cunt! Cunt, cunt, cunt, cunt, cunt, cunt!" (Andrew D Weyman, 2006), Russell Howard's "Cunt! Cunt! Cunt!" (Geraldine Dowd, 2010), "Fucking bitch, fucking bitch, cunt, cunt, cunt" from the novel Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn, 2012), and this extraordinary moment in Jerry Springer: The Opera (Stewart Lee, 2002):
"In fact he's a total cunt!"
In The Aristocrats (Paul Provenza, 2004), Howie Mandel bases two entire comedy routines around the word (involving "cunt snot", "cunt juice", and "cunt loogies"), on the basis that it was the only English word that his Polish grandmother ever knew; Penn Jillette summarises Mandel's routine in his commentary as "cunt, cunt, cunt". Less provocatively, Drew Carey chose a particularly easy target when he said: "Osama bin Laden's a cunt. Cunt, cunt, cunt" (Paul Miller, 2001).
Comedian Will Smith notes the increasing usage of 'cunt' amongst his contemporaries: "I use the c-word on stage, and I've watched other comics throw the word around willy-nilly [...] Today in comedy, there's nothing alternative about the c-word. It's out and proud" (Pete Woods, 2007). Another comedian, Jim Jeffries, explains that 'cunt' is often essential in a punchline: "I've got certain jokes that if I don't say the word 'cunt' it ceases to be a funny joke".
Surely the most extreme example of 'cunt' excess is this song performed by Sarah Silverman on an independent Los Angeles radio station (Scott Aukerman, 2009):
"If you're selfish and you're thoughtless,
The genesis of this 'cunt' overkill can be traced back to a series of improvisations by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, the Derek And Clive recordings, as David Baddiel explains: "The use of the word now is related to the fact that people like me, and other people, grew up with Derek And Clive, and it's filtered into popular consciousness" (Pete Woods, 2007). Cook and Moore's earlier collaboration Not Only... But Also... (James Gilbert, 1970) was restricted by television regulations regarding acceptable content; using alliterative substitution, it coined the phrase "fish off, chip chips" to pun on 'fuck off, cunty chops', the reference being permitted by virtue of its convolution. The Mary Whitehouse Experience (Armando Iannucci, 1990) devised a similar code, using "Henry Kelly" in place of 'cunt', and thus referring to Steve Punt as "Steve Henry Pelly".
By contrast, Derek And Clive avoided any form of subtlety or euphemism: the sketch You Stupid Cunt sets the tone, beginning with the words "Hello, cunt! You stupid cunt!" (1977); Cook's "cunt-kicking" monologue (Adam Smith, 2011) is particularly extreme in its misogynism. What is remarkable about these recordings, sustained attempts to express "every idea and emotion through swearing" (Francis Hanly, 2002), is that they are completely unrestrained and yet have been censored neither by the artists themselves nor by their record company.
Indeed, so uninhibited were the dialogues that Moore later attempted to distance himself from them, attributing their extreme content to Cook and not himself: "[Peter] made my jaw drop a couple of times. I thought, 'Are you really saying that?' [H]e probably wanted to shock people, and he did, you know, he shocked me" (Louise Heaton, 1995). In fact, it was Moore who made the most frequently obscene contributions, often punctuating Cook's streams of inventiveness with a token 'cunt' or 'fuck', as Francis Hanley confirms: "In order to keep up with Peter, Dudley would often result to pure smut" (2002).
Moore was more candid with his biographer, Douglas Thompson, and admitted that his mother thought 'cunt' was "the filthiest word that had ever been invented" (1996). His obscene sense of humour was revealed during a stage show in the 1970s when he "bared his arse [to the restless audience], while exclaiming 'I'll tell you why you're waiting. The cunt's drunk! The cunt's drunk! The cunt's drunk!'" (John Hind, 2002). Years later, while discussing alternative names for 'Tesco' on Clive Anderson Talks Back, he suggested "Tescunt" (199-).
The Derek And Clive recordings prefigured the 'four-letter fury' headlines later accorded to V; even the water metaphors were the same, with Derek And Clive being described by William Cook as a "profane stream of semi-consciousness" (2002) and, in Peter Cook's parody of a fulminating tabloid, "a shower of filth" (1976). James Ferman, in banning the Derek And Clive film, cited their raison d'etre as "to be as offensive as possible and to break every taboo the performers can think of, however outrageous" (William Cook, 2002). Moore's biographer agreed, dismissing them as "schoolboy lavatory language zipped up to the nth degree" (Douglas Thompson, 1996). A Derek And Clive compilation album titled A Right Pair Of Cunts: The Complete Fucking Derek And Clive was released in 2015.
While the Derek And Clive recordings set the benchmark for comic offensiveness, their album sleeves were less explicit. Their first, most graphic recording, Come Again, featured "SEE YOU EN TEE" (1977) on its sleeve, a phonetic rendering of the letters 'C U N T'. This recalls the popular euphemism 'see you next Tuesday', and was copied virtually verbatim many years later by It's Only TV But I Like It (Ian Lorimer, 1999):
Another notable over-exponent of 'cunt' is Alexi Sayle, one of whose stage characters, 'Mr Sweary', used to shout "Fucking c[unt], you wanker. Fucking c[unt], you wanker. Fucking c[unt], you wanker" (Peter Higgins, 1999) and "Cunt, cunt, cunt, cunt, cunt. Fucking cunt. Quelle cunt, if you'll pardon my French" (Pete Woods, 2007). For Sayle and other alternative comedians, 'cunt' became a symbol of anti-mainstream rebellion, as Rik Mayall remembers: "[when] we weren't allowed to say the c-word, for example - the four-letter word that begins with 'c' that's even ruder than the f-word - that was it, even for Alexi. That's when we said 'Fuck this!' [...] So that's when we started using the c-word as much as possible!".
Two comedians - Jerry Sadowitz and Matt Lucas - became indelibly associated with 'cunt' on the comedy circuit, due to their frequent usage of the word. Sadowitz, whose unique brand of ironic homophobia is demonstrated by his fictional booklet titled "DON'T PUT YOUR COCK IN ANOTHER MAN'S ARSE, YOU STUPID CUNT!" (2003), was "famous for being the bloke who said "c[unt]" on stage" (Ben Marshall, 1998) and has been called "a man who seems to have dedicated his life to destigmatising the C-word" (Richard Vine, 2001). Lucas admits to being styled "the c[unt] comedian" (2000) for much the same reason. On television, however, Sadowitz was usually more restricted, describing "the word 'unt'", for example, because he was forbidden from saying 'cunt' (Stephen Stewart, 1992).
More surprisingly, Stanley Kubrick also used the word a great deal, according to Frederic Raphael: "As if to prove what buddies we now are, he uses the word "cunt" a lot. He talked of a "shaggy-cunt story" when I outlined my role-playing scenario for the orgy" (1999). Another unlikely exponent of the word is Paul Dacre, editor of the censorious Daily Mail newspaper: "Dacre, whose paper bemoans the coarsening of British culture [is] prodigal in his use of the c-word" (Street Of Shame, 2005[a]). Dacre's outbursts are known as "double-cuntings" (Street Of Shame, 2005[b]), and Daily Mail journalists greet each other by asking: "I say, have you been double-cunted yet?" (Street Of Shame, 2005[a]). Private Eye jokingly suggested that Dacre's retirement cottage could be called "Duncuntin" (Street Of Shame, 2013; a pun on the traditional 'dunroamin'), and reported on executive changes at the newspaper with the headline HIRING, FIRING & QUADRUPLE C***ING! (13/11/2015). It also noted that users of an online forum had changed their usernames to "PaulDacreCuntyMcCuntFace" (a pun on 'Boaty McBoatface') and "fuckincuntbuggerinarse" to avoid being quoted by the Mail (The New Journalism..., 2016). An article about Dacre in the London Review Of Books was headlined Who's the real cunt? (1/7/2017).
The Vagina Monologues "regularly got theatres full of women, and celebrities like Melanie Griffith and Gillian Anderson, to chant "C[unt]!" over and over again, as a way to exorcise the venom from the word" (Andrew Goldman, 1999); indeed, Glenn Close encouraged "18,000 people to stand and chant the word cunt at Madison Square Garden" (Eve Ensler, 2001) and "Hundreds of international women trade unionists [screamed] "cunt" in Melbourne, Australia" (Eve Ensler, 2005). During Safer Sex Week at Columbia University, students were urged to shout "Cunt, cunt, cunt!" (Sally Cohen-Cutler, 2005). With less noble intentions, "a woman [spent] an hour shouting the word "cunt" at the top of her voice" (Jon Wilde, 1997) as part of the performance art event Art Shock Blowup. In his song I'm A Cunt (1993), Roy Chubby Brown exclaims (to little disagreement) "I'm a cunt, I'm a cunt, I'm a c-u-n-t cunt". The lesbian band Rockbitch (profiled by Channel 5's This Is Rockbitch) urged the audiences at their concerts to chant "Cunt! Cunt! Cunt!" (Norman Hull, 2003) in celebration of the vagina's capacity for sexual pleasure. Sarah Kane's play Blasted (1995) includes a scene in which a character (Ian) repeats the word eleven times while masturbating: "Cunt, cunt, cunt, cunt, cunt, cunt, cunt, cunt, cunt, cunt, cunt". A character in Fidelis Morgan's novel Unnatural Fire also uses the word repeatedly: "'Cunt, cunt, cunt, cunt,' she shouted, and meant every word of it" (2001).
Irvine Welsh, who chanted "cunt, cunt, cunt, cunt" (1996) on a Primal Scream single, has become one of the most prominent over-exposers of the word 'cunt', which he describes as "the all-purpose term for someone else, either friendly or unfriendly" (Ed Vulliamy, 1999). Along with James Kelman's How Late It Was How Late, Welsh's novel Trainspotting ("That cunt, that cunt 'n' his fuckin' mates back thair, that's the cunts thit fuckin' stabbed ma brar!", 1993) and Danny Boyle's film of the novel ("That lassie got glassed and nae cunt leaves here 'til we find oot what cunt did it!", 1996) introduced mainstream audiences to gritty contemporary Scottish fiction, as characterised by Private Eye: "So what is that generation saying? "Yacuntya!" on every page" (Bookworm, 2002).
Welsh's novel Glue includes a section called Young Cunts ("The definition of 'young cunts' covered everybody younger than himself", 2001), and his novella A Smart Cunt includes a chapter titled Christmas With Blind Cunt ("even more of a cunt. Like Blind Cunt", 1994). In his novel Porno (2002), Welsh has fun repeating the word ("CUNT... CUNT... CUNT... CUNT...") and creates the evocative alternative "CAHHNNTTT".
Maya Baran describes Welsh's attitude to 'cunt': "For Irvine, saying c[unt] was like Americans saying the word 'like' [...] We would have to send him to a speech therapist and a hypnotist to make him stop" (Andrew Goldman, 1999). Constant repetition of 'cunt' in this way - "to repeat the word until it [is] evacuated of its power" (Simon Carr, 2001) - serves to reduce its offensive potential, as we become desensitised and conditioned to its use: "to be shocking relies on being inappropriate to the context [so] as soon as the shocking becomes familiar, it's no longer shocking [...] What was originally shocking because it was inappropriate to the context has ceased to be so because it has become the context" (Hermann Vaske, 1999). Sometimes, however, even a single usage is one too many: Welsh recalls that his most embarrassing moment was when he described a female colleague as a "poisonous cunt" to his employer, not realising that the woman in question was the employer's wife (2003).
For Sally Vincent, Welsh's frequent usage of 'cunt' can still retain its shock-value in certain contexts: "if [Welsh] says, "I got completely cunted in the pub last night", it means he got plastered rather emphatically. The point is, where he comes from it would be offensive to use the term to mean female genitalia. Apart from that, it's a good, blunt word, a cosh of a word. Unlike prick, which is so insubstantial" (2002). This view is supported by a female interviewee of John Doran, who feels that, if 'cunt' is used endlessly, its literal meaning ('vagina') is devalued: "If your boyfriend has been spending all day calling his car a cunt, calling the referee a cunt, calling the dog a cunt... it's the last word you want to hear in relation to yourself" (2002).
Will Self, like Irvine Welsh, writes novels which are liberally sprinkled with 'cunt's. He explained why to Michael Odell: "they are necessary cunts. It's not that I am addicted to shocking my readers. When cunt is the right word, the mot juste, what can I do? I have to use it. I am a prisoner of cunt. I am not particularly enamoured of the word myself" (2008).
The result of this repetitive usage of 'cunt' is that the word's power to shock is diminished. 'Cunt' is regarded as the ultimate lexical taboo, and is therefore seldom written or spoken, therefore repetitive usage of 'cunt' will, after an initial shock, eventually neutralise the word: "If the word continues to be used in the same context, the shock value starts to wear off. [An artwork titled My Cunt] was being discussed on ABC radio [and during] the interview-discussion, the word was used so many times - hundreds in fact - that by the end the participants were quite inured to its power and effect. CUNT had assumed, through over-exposure if you like, the character and timbre of an ordinary word" (Ruth Wajnryb, 2004). Similarly, Susie Dent notes that the word's over-exposure is also gradually weakening its toxicity: "Terms such as 'silly old cunt' [...] are used today without, for some at least, striking any discordant note of abuse" (2004). Likewise, Stan Carey (2019) notes the word's lack of taboo in some Anglophone countries: "in certain dialects cunt has little or no shock value. For some speakers of Australian English, Irish English and Scottish English, it is an ordinary element of speech. Its casual use can be hard to adjust to if your culture categorises 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."
Using a diametrically opposite tactic, Ian McEwan's novel Atonement, which "hinges on its hero's use of [...] the C-word" (A Father, 2002), includes a long description of the word though rarely employs it directly: "The word: she tried to prevent it sounding in her thoughts, and yet it danced through them obscenely [...] Rhyming words took their form from children's books - the smallest pig in the litter ['runt'], the hounds pursuing the fox ['hunt'], the flat-bottomed boats on the Cam by Grantchester meadow ['punts']. Naturally, she had never heard the word spoken, or seen it in print, or come across it in asterisks. No one in her presence had ever referred to the word's existence, and what was more, no one, not even her mother, had ever referred to the existence of that part of her to which - Briony was certain - the word referred. The context helped, but more than that, the word was at one with its meaning, and was almost onomatopoeic. The smooth-hollowed, partly enclosed forms of its first three letters ['c', 'u', and 'n'] were as clear as a set of anatomical drawings" (2001). In the film of the novel, 'cunt' is called "the worst word in the world" (Joe Wright, 2007), and is seen being typed in close-up, and the film's soundtrack includes a song titled Cee, You And Tee (Dario Marianelli, 2007).
Cunt As The New Fuck
'Cunt' is making tentative, and frequently euphemistic, appearances in the contemporary media, though, by contrast, 'fuck' seems omnipresent, its taboo having largely been eradicated: "it is becoming more and more acceptable to use fuck in social contexts that would have been unthinkable even a generation ago" (Jesse Scheidlower, 1995). As 'fuck' becomes increasingly acceptable in mainstream popular culture, 'cunt' is left as the last swear word with any true power to shock: "Swear words are no longer truly obscene [...] only the c-word has any real shock value" (Tom Shone, 1994). Charlie Brooker observes how 'cunt' has replaced 'fuck' as the swear word du jour: "It's the last remaining taboo word [...] because fuck's been neutered [so] you have to reach for the next thing, which is 'cunt'" (Pete Woods, 2007). Peter Silverton (2009) agrees that the potency of 'fuck' has now been usurped by 'cunt': "the power of fuck has definitely waned and cunt has certainly taken its place as the most offensive of sexual swear words". In The C-Word, her article for Vogue magazine, Deborah Orr cites 'cunt' as the only truly potent profanity: "swearing is part of the everyday vernacular. But one word in particular still guarantees a reaction. ['Cunt' is] the mother of all put-downs" (2006).
'Fuck' is used only once in films with 'PG-13' classifications and, likewise, 'cunt' is gaining mainstream acceptance through single appearances in many film scripts. Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver is a classic example: "Here is someone who stood up against all the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit" (1976). Several novels and plays also include a single 'cunt', and a solitary usage of the word has great dramatic effect at the end of David Mamet's play Oleanna: "You vicious little bitch [...] I wouldn't touch you with a ten-foot pole. You little cunt" (1992). Stephen Armstrong notes that television producers use 'cunt' as an indicator of cutting-edge drama: "swapping 'fuck' for 'cunt', just to prove they've still got their finger on the pulse" (Pete Woods, 2007).
Chris Morris, in his television satire Brass Eye, flashed an "obscene subliminal message" (Jade Garrett, 2001) that read "[Michael] Grade is a cunt" (Michael Cumming, 1997) and appeared for only a single frame. Grade was Chief Executive of Channel 4 at the time, and had delayed broadcasting Brass Eye; the subliminal insult was Morris's angry reply. He was recommissioned by Channel 4, however, and his next series, Jam, featured a t-shirt with the slogan "LITTLE CUNT" (2000). (In 2016, Samantha Bee's TBS comedy series Full Frontal featured a 'THUNDER CUNT' t-shirt which was also sold as official show merchandise.) Morris's subliminal stunt had a predecessor some ten years older, as, in the 1980s, 'cunt' made a subliminal, subversive appearance when "an issue of International Musician had a big feature in which emboldened drop letters spelled ['MARTIN ELLIS IS A CUNT']" (Street Of Shame, 2001). In Gardener's World (2006), a puzzle's supposedly random letters were arranged to form "DYFATCUNT". A similar ruse was employed by the Peterborough Evening Telegraph newspaper page in 2004, with the text formatted so that the first letter of each line spelt 'Cunt':
"CAN anyone tell me why the council
"CAN'T Mr McDowell [...]
A similar acrostic appeared in Doctor Who Magazine, in an article written by Nicholas Pegg under the pseudonym 'The Watcher' (2017): "Could this explain the human body chart, the skull, and the fact that Liz Shaw disappears so suddenly? Unlikely - but then again, so is the coincidence that Doctor Who's most significant agglomerations of The Web of Fear's Julius Silverstein and Ghost Light's Josiah Smith, disclosing a curious correlation between taxidermy and the initials 'J.S.' which the Third Doctor's choice of pseudonym does little to dispel. No, let's not go there - let's return instead to the Twelfth Doctor's choice of the pufferfish as an exemplar of "perfect defence", and consider the fact that puffing up and getting spiky is precisely what the Doctor - and especially the Third Doctor - does when threatened. Terror of the Autons contains a textbook instance in his stand-off with the pompous Mr Brownrose."
Such techniques are hardly new. Ronald Pearsall (1969) cites a very similar Victorian example:
"Come love, and dwell with me
In his Innit video, 'Ali G' (Sasha Baron-Cohen) discusses the tape's classification: "to get it an '18' I is gonna 'ave to use a word which I 'as never used before [...]: 'cunt'" (James Bobin, 1999). The irony here is that it was actually classified '15', indicating that the word is becoming more acceptable to the censors. When it is used insultingly, however, that acceptance is rescinded, as Ken Loach discovered when his Sweet Sixteen was given an '18' certificate due to its "aggressive use of the c-word" (Fiona Morrow, 2002).
Sweet Sixteen's screenwriter, Paul Laverty, put it more succinctly - "we get an 18 because of the c-word" (Dayle Crutchlow, 2002) - and complained bitterly about the decision: "I'm furious about it [...] It's like, this is an aggressive word which really gets up the nose of polite society. Just like it would get up her nose if you tried to use it in front of your working-class granny, but [...] the kids on the street corners use it all the time. [...] We let the kids speak the way they actually speak. Can you imagine saying to the kids, 'OK, you can swear and curse - just don't say that word'?".
Laverty was especially angry that the BBFC should find 'cunt' unacceptable in the context of his film yet permissible in other contexts: "I think there is [a] very important point of principle here; it concerns the world of the story. "Cunt," as used in polite Manhattan society [...] is of a totally different nature to the word as used by these kids on street corners in the west of Scotland. In many ways all they have in common is the spelling. In terms of its resonance, its rhythm, its acceptance, and many other cultural subtleties I genuinely do wonder if it is even the same word" (2002).
Swearing Chic: The End Of The Cunt Taboo?
'Cunt' is currently undergoing a period of transition. Feminist attempts to reappropriate it have so far achieved only limited success, and liberal attempts to ingratiate it into popular culture have not yet seen it accorded the same ubiquity as 'fuck': "the c-word has seemed safely on the other side of propriety. [...] The real question is whether or not c[unt] is going to lose its taboo" (Andrew Goldman, 1999). In a Channel 4 documentary ('X'-Rated) which devoted some ten minutes to the word's televisual history, Sebastian Scott complained that "There seems to be this bizarre world where, you know, every other word is fine to say, except the word 'cunt'" (Syeda Irtizaali, 2005).
For the time being, however, 'cunt' stands alone: whilst 'fuck' is everywhere, 'cunt' is conspicuous by its absence: "The word 'cunt' has undoubtedly retained a stronger shock value than 'fuck'" (Susie Dent, 2005). The drama Never Never, for instance, runs through the full gamut of profanity, with one notable exception; it has been described as "probably the most swearisome broadcast of the year. Someone says "fuck" every couple of seconds. [...] All your other slang favourites put in an appearance too, with the exception of the "c" word" (Charlie Brooker, 2000). James McDonald notes that 'cunt' "is much less likely to be heard on the wireless or seen in newspapers than the word fuck" (1988), though standards of acceptability are in constant flux. What is unacceptable to one generation becomes acceptable to the next. Tony Thorne is correct that 'cunt' remains "the most obscene of the [...] sexually-related taboo words" (1990), though his further claim that it is "probably the only word that is still banned from British newspapers and television" is already out of date. Its position as "the most taboo and insulting word in the English language" (Catherine Blackledge, 2003) will not last forever. Indeed, Jonathon Green notes that "In some circumstances cunt [...] is so frequent and so repetitive as virtually to lose its shock or taboo value" (1998); and Will Smith wonders if young people have "become c-word-proof" (Pete Woods, 2007), attributing the vogue for 'cunt' to gangster films such as Sexy Beast: "it's now trendy for the middle classes to use the word [...] due to an adopted working-class chic that's come from the big screen". Peter Silverton dates this trend to circa 2005: "By the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century [...] its toxicity was weakening".
Gilbert Adair accepts this notion, though he is disturbed by it: "Nowadays, with fewer and fewer exceptions, print journalists are free, should the context require it, to bandy about [...] all four-letter words, not excluding the last to resist common usage, "cunt" [...] Thus individuals who would never dream of using the word "cunt" in their private verbal exchanges now risk finding themselves confronted with it on the printed newspaper page" (1999). (Paradoxically, in the process of writing a newspaper article condemning the use of 'cunt' in newspapers, he himself uses the word twice.)
Neil Lyndon also problematises the increasing popularity of 'cunt': "Today there is just one word - describing female genitalia - which is still considered taboo and is as unacceptable on television as the word f[uck was] 20 years ago. F[uck is now] constantly in use [...] so you can see what will happen next" (2000). Diantha Parker suggests that "If history is any guide, eventually they'll bleach all the shock out of the c-word" (Brooke Gladstone, 2004). In a surreal exchange during the Oz obscenity trial, George Melly insisted that many liberated people use swear words quite openly, even amongst their own children. The prosecutor, amazed, asked him: "Would you call your eight- or ten-year-old daughter a little cunt?" (Sheree Folkston, 1991), to which Mellie replied: "I don't think she is one, but I might refer to a politician as one [...] these words have lost a great deal of their ability to shock".
This form of cultural liberalism is as distasteful to some as it is revelatory to others: "There are many who would say [the old] days were better [and] that as a society we've become more coarsened, and that our freer use of "rough" language is one indicator" (Tom Aldridge, 2001). Rather than condemning it as a coarsening of the language, however, we should celebrate it as a symbol of our collective liberation from cultural repression.
Adair and Lyndon both wrote lengthy, despairing (though also exploitative) articles criticising a cultural liberalisation that has led to the end of linguistic taboos and the sexualisation of popular culture. Perhaps the most famous example of this (by Cole Porter, 1934) is, fortunately, more comic than condemnatory:
"In olden days a glimpse of stocking
Good writers too
How might 'cunt' increase its mainstream acceptability? David Crystal expresses surprise that it has not yet done so: "The f-word very quickly became widely used and now you hear it all over the place. I expected that the c-word would follow suit, but it hasn't" (Anthony Barnes, 2006). He suggests that usage by a celebrity in a non-abusive context may be sufficient to defuse the taboo: "It would only take a famous person in the public eye to use the c-word in a way that was perhaps jocular and acceptable". John Sutherland, however, believes that it must be demonstrably reclaimed by women before it becomes socially acceptable: "It is still the unmentionable word in public conversation. The taboo will only be broken when women start using it freely".
Speculation surrounding the reappropriation of 'cunt' must necessarily encompass both the word itself and its power as an insult. Lucas M McWilliams argues that, while it is loaded with excessive pejorative cultural baggage, the word itself need not be intrinsically offensive: "There are few words that garner the sort of ire that cunt does. As an insult, it is second to none. It has come to signify the nastiest of insults that can be hurled around a room, and is absolutely venomous when snarled properly. It is, however, just a word" (2006). His commentary ends with the realisation that it is misogynistic ideologies that we should fear, not words themselves: "Cunt is a word [...] and nothing more. The meaning is entirely what you make of it, and by hiding it in a corner and shuddering whenever it is pulled to light you empower it. [...] I am not saying that you should not be offended if someone calls you a "raving cunt," but be offended by the hate behind it, not the word itself".
Paradoxically, 'cunt' is one of our greatest linguistic taboos yet it is unknowingly referenced whenever we say 'queen' or 'berk'. It can be heard whenever we say 'country' or 'constable', and there is merely a single letter differentiating it from words such as 'hunt' and 'punt'. Less obviously, because it does not rhyme with 'cunt', the word 'aunt' is also only one letter away from the c-word, as HBO's Curb Your Enthusiam demonstrated in its hilarious episode Beloved Aunt with a mistyped obituary reading "beloved cunt" (Robert B Weide, 2000). The 'aunt'/'cunt' link was first exploited in an episode of Family Guy (Monte Young, 1999), in which a Wheel Of Fortune-style word-puzzle "MY HAIRY UNT" appears. (The missing letter is, of course, 'A' as in 'AUNT'). An accidental example occurred in 1972, when a French newspaper misprinted Travels With My Aunt as 'Travels With My Cunt' (an error noted by Patricia Highsmith).
'Cunt' is forbidden yet it is all around us. It should be used openly and freely, without censorship, euphemism, or innuendo. Only then will its power as a misogynist insult will be diminished, will our language become more inclusive, and will outdated notions of sin and obscenity be discarded. In the words of Stephen Fry: "there won't be any swearing [in the future], because [...] almost every swear word now is more-or-less acceptable in broadcasting and every other form [therefore] it is impossible to imagine that there will be any taboo words which are unsayable, unless you invent new disgusting parts of the body that we haven't thought of yet!" (Simon Elmes, 2000).
'Fuck' is now ubiquitous on badges and t-shirts, and 'cunt' is catching it up. In The C Word (2005), Hanna Cormick notes the availability of "badges, tshirts, mugs etc all proclaiming you to be everything from a 'fucking cunt' to a 'cunt lover'". As mentioned earlier, Cafe Press distributes a wide variety of 'I Love My Cunt', 'I LOVE CUNT', 'LOVE IS A CUNT', and 'C.U.N.T.' items, though this is merely the tip of the iceberg and there is a great deal of other 'cunt' merchandise on sale (all 199- unless stated otherwise). The band Vaginal Incest sells a t-shirt with the slogan 'Treating cunts like cunts' (2006). T-Shirt Hell sells a t-shirt proclaiming 'GUYS LiKE YOU MAKE ME WANT TO STAPLE MY CUNT SHUt!' (2007). Etsy sells a t-shirt with 'CUNT" spelt in both letters and sign language (2009). A student at Oregon State University distributed 'slip into the cunt' t-shirts in 2008. The Brighton stationer Kiss Me Kwik produces 'Happy Birthday Cunt', 'Oh. There's just one more thing. You're a cunt', 'I don't have Tourettes. You're just a cunt', 'Jesus Loves Everyone Except For You You Cunt!', and 'Oi! you fucking CUNT' greetings cards (the latter of which features a 'CUNT' badge). They also sell 'cunt' wrapping-paper. Cunts Count sells 'CUNTS COUNT!' bumper-stickers (2007). SmellYourMum sells a Christmas card that says "YOU'RE A CUNT - SORRY, I MEANT TO SAY "MERRY CHRISTMAS"" (2012). Bizarre magazine has launched a wrapping-paper range including 'You Cunt', 'Cunt Cuntface Cunting Motherfucker', and 'Merry Christmas You Cunt'. One can buy 'You Fat Cunt' (2004) and 'ABSOLUT C*NT' (by Xcite, 2005) telephone screen-savers, and a 'CUNT' screen-saver by Bangbabes (2004) has its 'C' formed by the copyright symbol. Shock Horror has produced four 'cunt' t-shirts: 'I HAVEN'T GOT TOURETTES, IT'S JUST THAT YOU'RE A FUCKING CUNT' (2005), 'I'M A CUNT', 'I'M A C**T', and 'Jesus Loves You Everybody Else Thinks You're A Cunt'. Army Clothing (at Cafe Press) sells a t-shirt with the slogan 'Jesus loves you! But I think you're a cunt' (2005). Monster, in Thailand, manufactured a t-shirt with the slogan 'KEEP CALM YOU C*NTS' (2011). Married To The Mob sells 'Cunt Cunt Cunt' t-shirts (2012). A t-shirt featuring a drawing of a girl painting the word 'cunt' was used to promote the Hot Damn! club night in 2008. The Deadly Pretty website sells two 'Cunt' badges. There is also a range of 'Cunt' badges by Almighty Marketing: 'Cunt', 'Got Cunt?', 'I'm Pro-Cunt and I Vote!', and 'Cunt Is My Co-Pilot' (the latter being a pun on the novel God Is My Co-Pilot). Jeffree Star was photographed wearing 'Cunt' y-fronts in 2008. Harebrained sells 'CUNT DRACULA' panties, a pun on Count Dracula (201-). There are 'UNT' mugs, with the initial 'C' formed by the mug handle. Zazzle sells an 'I'M A CUNT' mouse mat, a 'STOP BEING A CUNT' t-shirt, and 'I [heart] CUNT' magnet and sticker (all 2000). Brian Lichtenberg (201-) designed caps and shirts with the logo 'CUNTIE', in a parody of the French fashion brand Celine. The bands Amen and Blood Duster have both worn 'Cunt' t-shirts at their concerts, and the band Jack Off Jill's merchandise also includes a 'Cunt' t-shirt. The fashion brand StreetX launched a range of t-shirts featuring their fictional 'DJ DOG CUNT' character (2018). An online Japanese sex shop sells a honey-based aphrodisiac called Cunt. Mullet Mojo sells a t-shirt with the slogan 'I'd call you a cunt, but you don't have the depth or warmth' (2007). Printed Clothing sells a t-shirt with the slogan 'I cun't believe you can sneak swear words onto t-shits' (a pun on 'can't', 2000-). 'SARAH PALIN IS A CUNT' t-shirts were available in 2008. SmellYourMum sells t-shirts with the slogans 'I AM A CUNT' (2005) and 'I'm with Cuntface' (2007), and t-shirts sold by FoulMouthShirts proclaim 'LOOK AT MY SHIRT! Fuck, Shit, Cunt, Balls' and 'FUCK YOUR TITS SHOW ME YOUR CUNT!' (2005, a variation on the common 'show us your tits' crowd heckle). Nihil Clothing sells a 'CUNT' t-shirt (2009). Corpse Clothing (2005) sells t-shirts featuring the confrontational slogans 'cunty bollocks!', 'When you positively have to shoot some cunt in the face!' (paraphrasing the film Jackie Brown, replacing 'motherfucker' with 'cunt'), 'I'M THE ONLY CUNT IN THE VILLAGE' (a pun on a Little Britain catchphrase, replacing 'gay' with 'cunt'), 'FUCK OFF BARNEY YOU ANNOYING PURPLE CUNT' (criticising Barney, a children's TV character), and 'WARNING THIS T-SHIRT MAY CONTAIN THE WORD CUNT'. Vanessa Fristedt (2007), in a campaign against politician Ken Livingstone, designed and sold 'KEN THE CUNT' badges and t-shirts and 'CUNT' bumper-stickers, with the 'C' formed from the London congestion charge logo. The latter design is also featured on a t-shirt by Jamrags (2009), and another t-shirt from the same company features a drawing of Gordon Ramsay with the slogan 'THE C WORD' (a pun on The F Word).
Body Punks have produced a 'CUNT' belt-buckle (200-). Genesis P Orridge wears a 'Cunt' ring, and a 'CUNT' ring is available from Marche Noir (both 200-). In 2003, Mahogany Central produced a 'Cunt' necklace, which was worn with pride by Janet Street-Porter during her Edinburgh Festival Fringe show of that year. In the same year, Sam Taylor-Wood created Cunt (Necklace), spelling the word in rubies, and Paramorj Jewellery produced a 'Cunt' necklace in 2006. Two Hollywood actresses have worn 'cunt' necklaces: "Julia Roberts isn't as clean cut as we thought. According to reports, while filming the hotly-tipped film-of-the-play, Closer, her co-star Natalie Portman brought her a little silver necklace. But inside was the word 'C[unt]'. "Julia was enchanted and loved it and said it was the sweetest present she'd ever had," gushed the director Mike Nichols. "Then, on the last day of shooting, she had a present for Natalie and it was a silver necklace and it spelled out 'L'il C[un]t'. "That's how free they are and what good friends they were." Blimey!" (Daisy Kay, 2004). Lady Gaga carried a 'CUNT' clutch bag at London Fashion Week on 17th September 2012. Baanrao Handmade sells white tote bags painted with the slogan 'CunT', designed by Anusorn Amnuayjit in 2014. In 2015, he added two new designs: 'C.U.Next Time' and 'C.U.Next Tuesday'.
This increasing cultural (and ambient, or environmental) presence of the word 'cunt' represents a contemporary cultural trend that can be termed 'swearing chic': "swearing and obscenity [have] achieved a kind of folk-heroic position within contemporary culture" (Michael Bracewell, 2002). Unsurprisingly, this situation does not please everybody: campaigning against swearing in the media, Lady Olga Maitland has called for a return to "good, clean entertainment, which is a pleasure for us all [...] and high literature provides all of that" (Kerry Richardson, 1994). In fact, "high literature" is far from 'cunt'-free. The word appears in Ulysses, one of the greatest modern novels. It is hinted at in Hamlet, perhaps the greatest example of dramatic literature. It also appears in modern editions of classic reference books, notably the Oxford English Dictionary and Peter Mark Roget's Thesaurus.
It is not hard to imagine a future in which our cultural, audio-visual, and literary ambience is completely surrounded by the word. Jacqueline Maley believes that, for young people, 'cunt' has been completely neutralised: "the younger generations, at least, are living in a post-c[unt] world" (2012). Imagine the scene: wearing an 'I Love My Cunt' t-shirt and reading Cunt by Stewart Home whilst listening to Cunt by Aphex Twin on the hi-fi. With, for good measure, some of Judy Chicago's cunt-art on the wall. Or perhaps, on your birthday, receiving a 'Happy Birthday Cunt' card and a 'Cunt' necklace wrapped in 'You Cunt' paper.
© 2000-2020 Matthew Hunt