In June 2018, a TV commentator called Trump a c**t. Within hours major companies had suspended their sponsorship deals. The insult had been used about Ivanka not Donald, but he went on the counterattack, phoning the channel to have the presenter fired for ‘horrible language’. The c-word is a model for the exploration of a linguistic minefield: body parts. The English language has three ways of naming them: clinically, euphemistically, grossly. English continues to lack neutral terms. English is probably not exceptional in this regard.
The earliest references to the c-word in the Oxford English Dictionary date to the thirteenth century. The word was most used, it seems, in areas where prostitution was prevalent. By the fifteenth century, the c-word was appearing in medical texts. That implies that it was acceptable in more positive contexts, and the word had a lexicaly neutral life through to the eighteenth century.
Then, there came a change. In 1785, the c**t was recorded as ‘a nasty word for a nasty thing’. So said Francis Grose in his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. Since, then, as Susie Dent comments in her Guide to Swearing, the c-word has been in the ‘premier league of profanity… as one of the most offensive words’. It is a word that goes beyond rudeness. The Tab, a journal that voices the opinions of British students, asserts that: ‘If you were to call someone a w*nk*r or a b*st*rd – as an insult – they’d say it was rude. But call someone a c**t and they’d probably look at you like you’d just thrown a grenade at them.’
The movement of the c-word from clinical to gross suggests that there is something about words relating to women which gives them an especially taboo character. In ‘The Semantic Derogation of Woman’, Muriel Schultz argues that there is a gravitation of terms of disparagement: ‘it is no stretch to say that the reason the word “c**t” and “d*ck” do not hold the same bite is due to the persisting inequality between men and women.’ Call a someone a dick, and you’re likely to get an odd look or even a laugh. Call someone a c**t, and it is no laughing matter. Dictionary.com says: ‘c**t is one of the most hateful and powerful examples of verbal abuse in the English language.’
Online there are more euphemisms and slang terms for the male genitalia than the female, and that may point to a continuing trajectory. The weaponised word ‘c**t’ tells us something about attitudes to gendered body words in contemporary English. In 2016, OFCOM (the UK’s Office of Communications) conducted a survey to establish British attitudes to strong language. It found that two of the three very ‘strongest’ terms related to women, and twice as many words in the second category, ‘strong’, related to women as to men.
However, clinical words for female body parts are less likely to become insult terms, and they are becoming more commonly used in everyday language. They are being reclaimed by feminists as The Vagina Monologues attests. Women are correcting the gender imbalance. Male and female university staff have been encouraged to use the word ‘menopause’ at least three times a day to remove a negative stereotype, to normalise, that is, a taboo word. No one has so far suggested a similar strategy for the c-word, but there is some evidence that it is (re)turning to a more positive place.
Green’s Dictionary of Slang argues for an affirmative turn when the c-word becomes adjectival. ‘C**tish’ means no more than ‘stupid’, and ‘c**ty’ ‘infuriating’. The Guardian tells us that in Australia, the c-word is ‘not strictly a term of opprobrium, but can be neutral or even positive. Calling someone a ‘good c**t means they’re a decent person.’ In Quartz, an online news journal, Ephrat Livni reports that younger people may be repossessing the word. ‘In the current cultural understanding,’ she writes, ‘c**t is still an insult for many people. But when I taught young women in broadcasting classes in New York, many seemed to be re-appropriating it, and things may change. I heard them use it a lot.’ The English language has a history of neutralizing insults by turning them into compliments. The Tories and the Quakers showed the way there. Maybe the young women of New York can do the same and proudly take to calling themselves c**ts.
BBC News. ‘Say ‘Menopause’ Three Times a Day, Academics Urged.’ BBC News (22 August 2018): www.bbc.co.uk.
Brown, Jessica. ‘Every British Swear Word Has Been Officially Ranked in Order of Offensiveness.’ indy100 (2106): www.indy100.com.
Dent, Susie. Susie Dent’s Guide to Swearing. Channel 4 (25 June 2017): www.channel4.com.
Dictionary.com. ‘C**t.’ Dictionary.com (4 November 2018): www.dictionary.com.
Ensler, Eve. The Vagina Monologues. London: Virago, 2018.
Green, Jonathan. ‘C**t.’ Green’s Dictionary of Slang (4 November 2018): greensdictofslang.com.
Grose, Francis. A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. London: Hooper, 1785.
Little, Noelle. ‘Reclaiming Words.’ FEM (9 June 2013): femmagazine.com.
Livni, Ephrat. ‘The Most Offensive Curse Word in English Has Powerful Feminist Origins.’ Quartz (5 August 2017): qz.com.
Mahdawi, Arwa. ‘Samantha Bee Proves There's Still One Word You Cannot Say in America.’ The Guardian (1 June 2018): www.theguardian.com.
Oxford English Dictionary. ‘C**t.’ Oxford English Dictionary (4 November 2018): ww.oed.com
Schulz, Muriel. ‘The Semantic Derogation of Woman.’ The Routledge Language and Cultural Theory Reader. Eds Lucy Burke, Tony Crowley, and Alan Girvin. London: Routledge, 2000.
Voice of UK Students. ‘Why Are People So Offended by the Word C**t: A Psychologist Explains.’ The Tab (June 2018): thetab.com.
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The English Project’s December Posting: The Woman's Page. Was Julian of Norwich the first woman to write in English? What happened to Judith Shakespeare? Why did George Eliot call herself George? Why does Joanne Rowling call herself J. K. Rowling and Robert Galbraith?