Do You C What I C?
By Andrew McMillenMarch 23, 2012
Long absent from polite society, it is widely considered one of the most obscene words in the English language — and yet this very vulgarity is suddenly very vogue in some circles. But even the twentysomethings who fling it around willingly wouldn’t use That Word in front of their parents. What’s changed with the C word?
"WHAT A CUNT OF A WEEK," writes a female friend on Facebook one Friday afternoon, after an apparently stressful week of work at a Brisbane radio station. A live music promoter friend updates his Facebook status in the early hours of a Sunday morning: "Extremely tired. Just found out the fucking dog has pissed on my bed. I'm done with that cunt."
When I'm playing a first-person shooter video game online and my character is killed by an opponent's bullets, I'm likely to type those four letters among a ridiculous string of expletives, mostly to amuse myself while I wait for the next round to begin. As a 24-year-old Australian male, I'm drowning in the word. It seems to be the go-to expletive for people around my age — mostly males, but females aren't exactly a rare exception. The word cunt is in common usage — most often as a term of frustration or ironic endearment rather than an insult directed at any particular person.
We say it because we think it's a funny word to say, to type, to express to other human beings. It's something of a naughty vice that we knowingly indulge in, smiling inwardly at our own wickedness. Among my friends, its use is entirely context-specific. It is not a word that would ever be uttered during dinner table conversation with my parents. But in the lounge room with my housemates, all in their 20s, it falls from our mouths at a frequency that would undoubtedly shock my grandparents. I recall that during my early high school years, the word was perceived as risqué by my friends and me. When our schoolmates said it, we flinched. How dare they say that?
But by senior year, something had changed - trends, taboos, our maturity or lack thereof - and we'd regularly make each other laugh by quoting lyrics from a song titled I'm a Cunt by West Australian rappers Hunter and Dazastah. Sample: "I've done a lot of cunty things / And out of cunts you know / You know I be the king."
CUT TO March 2012. I walk the streets of Brisbane with a blue A4 folder in my hand. Underneath the cover, wedged inside the plastic sleeves, I've printed six words in mega-sized fonts. Dark blue cardboard separates the six pages, so the next word can't be seen until the page is turned.
I meet 43-year-old local author Krissy Kneen at a New Farm café as she flips through the words: bloody, arsehole, shit, fuck and motherfucker. Before she flips to the final word, I ask Kneen what she thinks will be next.
A brief pause. "Cunt?"
And there it is, in 255-point Times New Roman.
"It's one of my favourite words, because it's so taboo. It's the last taboo word," she says.
The word appeals to Kneen because there are, she says, "hardly any other words for female genitalia; most of them are clinical. It seems to be the one word that describes what it is. I've got so many connotations with 'cunt'," she says. "I never used it in general speech until I was 20, when I was working with a group of Aboriginal kids out in Inala [Queensland]. It was a term of endearment [for them]. When I actually got to know them, and they started to like me, they started to call me a 'cunt'. I had this incredible sense of going home and saying, 'I've achieved something!' because these kids are now going, 'Ah, ya cunt!'"
She laughs at the memory. "I felt warm about being called a cunt, because before that, they were so wary of me. It was a word of family for them; I felt as though I fitted in."
Kneen's two books - Affection: A Memoir Of Love, Sex and Intimacy and Triptych: An Erotic Adventure - were published in 2010 and 2011, respectively, by Text Publishing. Reading the Triptych manuscript, Kneen's editor drew a line under a section of the text and wrote, "Maybe this is where we drop the C-bomb?"
"For her, it was like, 'Let's be punchy here. Let's get into the action. When we're going to get really dirty, we'll say the word.' I thought that was really interesting," says Kneen. "It made me laugh, but it also made me realise that it's a word reserved for, 'Let's drop our guard; now we're talking about sex.'"
That said, Kneen herself is the first to admit that "there aren't many pages in Triptych that don't have the word 'cunt' on them. It's pornographic writing that I was trying to do, and it's a pornographic word." This fact makes reading passages of the book on radio a challenge. "I can, at a pinch, do a radio reading from Triptych. I've picked out two sections that don't contain any language. But they're very short. There's not much in that book that can be read on the radio," she laughs. Public readings, too, require some sensitivity.
Kneen blogs at FuriousVaginas.com, an evocative name in its own right. I ask whether she considered 'Furious Cunts'. "No, because 'vaginas' is a nice word," she replies. I like how it looks, and sounds on the tongue. And [using] 'cunts' would possibly mean that it would only attract an audience of hardline feminists, because the word has been claimed by some young, aggressive feminists."
Kneen identifies as a feminist. "I just assume that any woman who wants to protect or stand up for themselves is [a feminist]," she says. "But I don't necessarily want to only appeal to feminists with my work. In fact, my work is liked by a lot of men, as well."
Reflecting on the six words in my blue folder and the half-hour of conversation we've devoted to them, Kneen says, "I feel that if you're having to mix in the world, you're going to have to stop giving those words that kind of power. They're just words. There's nothing wrong in saying a particular group of sounds at all. It's just about context, and about how you experience those words in society that changes our relationship to it."
USUALLY THOSE four letters are traced back to Geoffrey Chaucer, a Londoner born in 1343 and often called the father of English literature. His Canterbury Tales collection, written at the end of the 14th century, contains one particularly dirty story, The Miller's Tale. Professor Andrew Lynch, of the University of Western Australia, is director of the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies. He has studied the author's works closely.
"Chaucer doesn't use quite the same word; he has 'queynte'," says Lynch. "He didn't invent it, though. He warns the reader in the preamble to The Miller's Tale that the miller is a foul-mouth. He's going to tell a dirty story; 'If you don't like it, you'll find much more edifying stories later on - turn the leaf.' He warned people he was going to tell a fabliau, a kind of story that existed mainly in French, generally a story of sexual deception of a husband by a wife. He was conscious that people would both find it attractive, and at the same time, know that they should consider it offensive." The excerpt from the tale runs thus:
"As clerkes ben ful subtile and ful queynte,
And prively he caughte hire by the queynte,
And seyde, "Ywis, but if ich have my wille,
For deerne love of thee, lemman, I spille."
Writing at the blog SkepticalHumanities.com, Eve Siebert gives a more modern translation:
"As clerks are very ingenious and clever,
And discreetly he caught her by the cunt,
And said, 'Indeed, unless I have my will,
I will spill (die) for secret love of you, my dear.'"
Siebert's blog post cites James McDonald, in The Wordsworth Dictionary of Obscenity and Taboo, who challenges Chaucer as the generally accepted forebear. "'Cunt' was used to refer to the vagina without any suggestion of vulgarity until roughly the end of the 14th century," McDonald wrote. "Chaucer, who died in 1400, was therefore writing The Canterbury Tales at a time when 'cunts' were disappearing from polite society; consequently, he hinted at the word without actually using it."
Few Australian English speakers would know of the word's origins. Even fewer would care. "Our swear words have become very routinised," Professor Lynch notes. "This is just from observation, but in some places and groups, these words would be used all the time, as sentence-fillers, five times a minute. Obviously they don't have much power anymore, but on the other hand, they're just there. I don't think there's much shock value left in these words, in Western urban culture."
NOWADAYS, OUR society isn't exactly at the point where the c-bomb can be bandied about freely, though, either in print or through broadcast media. This is a fact of daily life for Stephen Romei, The Australian's literary editor. "We don't print 'fuck', or 'cunt'," he says. "They're about the only two that we put asterisks in the middle of. One area where I deal directly with 'swear words' in my job is when I publish or republish short stores, poems, or bits of novels. Generally I replace 'fuck' and 'cunt' with 'f..k' and 'c..t', but in some cases, doing so would so undermine the writing that I decide I can't run the piece."
Romei cites a recent example: Lloyd Jones's poem in the current issue of Griffith Review, on the topic of the Christchurch earthquake. "I considered republishing it, but it had so many fucks, fuckeds and fuckings in it - all appropriate - that I realised I couldn't," he says. "The poem would look stupid with all those words asterisked."
When asked why The Australian takes this approach to censoring those two words, Romei replies, "That's a tricky one. In a paradoxical way, when you put 'c..t', you force the reader to say the word in their mind," he laughs. "I think in many newspapers, a decision is simply taken that the readership doesn't want to have swear words thrown at them - particularly in the morning, over their breakfast. I'm comfortable with that. I don't feel that it's a 'nanny state' or anything like that. If a newspaper wants to make that decision, fair enough. It's not as though the word's blacked out, or there's a euphemism put in its place. The word's there, it's just bowdlerised so that the reader doesn't have to have it sitting there, in black and white, over the cornflakes."
This literary editor says that he's not offended by any of these words; instead, he nominates "people-watching" as his most offensive word. "But that's highly subjective, isn't it?" he jokes. "I think that the most offensive words in the language aren't swear words, but are ones that demean or ridicule people with, say, disabilities, or on racial grounds, or other sort of 'failings' that we feel sensitive about," he says, adding: "When cricketers get into trouble for calling someone a 'black cunt', they get into more trouble for the adjective than the noun."
Is it possible to have an intelligent conversation using the word? "Of course it is," Romei replies. "We're having an intelligent conversation right now, and we've said 'cunt' quite a few times. The other thing about 'cunt', in conversation, is that it's not always derogatory. It's just a descriptor. You can use it in a very sympathetic way. If someone you know gets cancer, sometimes the response will be, 'Oh, poor old cunt.' It's not saying something's bad about him; quite the contrary. It's just the kind of swear word that gets used in that conversational way. You're using the word in that case to emphasise, to underscore the gravity of what you've learned. But it's not being used in a negative sense toward the person, or toward women, or toward 'cunts'."
Romei posits an example to test the offensiveness of a particular word: Would the Prime Minister of Australia lose their job for being caught saying it in public? "Try to think of the words that they could probably survive saying," he says. "Dropkick? Yeah. Dickhead? They'd probably survive that one; a good old Australian word. Fuckwit? Maybe not. Cunt? No. They wouldn't survive that. But nor would they survive 'spastic', 'retard', 'mongoloid', 'coon' or 'arse bandit', say. Now, in my childhood, 'spastic', 'retard' and 'mongoloid' were all common schoolyard terms. If I went into my six-year-old son's schoolyard and heard that, there'd be, like, an investigation!" he laughs.
"In terms of what we find offensive, we've evolved in that direction. If evolved is the right word." Romei corrects himself.
"We've moved in that direction."
"THE SPOKEN language is almost always more permissive than the written language," Roly Sussex says. "The latter is careful, edited and public. Just as your written signature is more powerful than your spoken word, written profanity is much worse than spoken profanity."
Sussex is an emeritus professor of Applied Language Studies at the University of Queensland. He also writes a weekly column for The Courier-Mail, "The Word", where he discusses etymology and contemporary use of the English language. "The other thing to keep in mind is libel and slander: slander is spoken, libel is written," he says. "On the whole, the penalties for libel are worse than the penalties for slander. The written word has strong symbolic value."
The 66-year-old Sussex is from a generation "where I try to avoid [swear words]. I feel very uncomfortable if those words are used in public, except as an expletive - for example, if someone hits their thumb with a hammer, I'd understand one of them being used. But you'd never use them to describe another person."
Though he agrees that what most feel comfortable as reading as "the f- word" and "the c-word" are the most offensive words in our language, Sussex points out that a word many feel quite comfortable using - 'motherfucker' - "combines both the sexual taboo and the incest taboo.
"That's about as bad as it gets. When you look at different languages and cultures, the words that are offensive have usually got to do with procreation, death, menstruation, religion, the afterlife - those sorts of things. It's surprising that so many cultures agree on this."
While Sussex says he'd never go as far as to ask another person to stop using offensive language in his midst - "I tend not to interfere in other peoples' affairs in public" - he does believe that there are "certain types of language which we should keep out of the public arena, and which public figures should avoid if they're being recorded."
Since he tends to hang around at the University of Queensland and the State Library, Sussex doesn't regularly hear the words spoken by his peers. "If I happen to be near the bus stop when the kids get out of school, ['fuck' and 'cunt'] are extremely common. On television after 9.30 in the evening, they become more common," he says. "It's very much a matter of who's present and what the context is. Individuals will change their usage of these words depending on where they are. If you're at funeral you wouldn't say them, but if you go to the pub afterwards, you might.
"For some people, it's a standard way of interspersing conversation," Sussex says. "One ought to respect the way in which they speak, though it's not the way I like to speak."
BLUE FOLDER in hand, I visit my local butcher, Shane. He seems a no-nonsense sort of bloke. He also works with dead animal flesh on a daily basis, so I assume he's comfortable with blue language. He opens the folder and reads the word 'bloody'.
"Yeah, pretty tame," he says. "A typical Aussie sort of word, isn't it?"
Flip: 'arsehole'. "A few of them around," he says with a smile. "Politicians in particular."
Flip: 'shit'. "It happens, doesn't it?"
Flip: 'fuck'. He pauses, then says, "Well, it's something we all do quite often, isn't it?"
"The lucky ones amongst us," I reply.
Flip: 'motherfucker'. Shane frowns. "That's one term I don't like. I think it's derogatory toward mothers."
He flips to the final 255-point Times New Roman word and laughs for a few moments. "That gets used quite often out the back here," he says, gesturing inside the shop. "To us, it's just another word. I don't refer to it as any part of the female anatomy, or anything like that. It can be a fun word, but it can also be quite hurtful to the right person. Depends how you use it."
I ask if there are particular situations where he wouldn't be comfortable using these words. "I wouldn't use them in mixed company," Shane says. "That's just the way I was brought up."
Shane's father gave him some golden rules for naughty words, which he has passed onto his own children. "He said, 'Swear in front of me? Don't care. Swear in front of your mates? Not a problem. But not in front of your mother or your sisters.' I don't normally have to think about it," Shane says. "In mixed company it's automatic - nup, just doesn't happen. With the boys, it comes out thick and fast."
I thank Shane for his candour, buy some lamb kebabs, and bid him farewell.
ACROSS TOWN at the University of Queensland's St Lucia campus, I meet with two academics: Dr Stuart Glover, senior lecturer in creative writing, and Dr Ilana Mushin, senior lecturer in linguistics. It's a mild thrill for me to be discussing naughty words face-to-face with two of my former teachers.
I've told them ahead of time about the general topic we'll be discussing but not the specifics. Both are initially cautious as they say the word aloud but soon warm to the conversation. "We use it in our family for the people we really hate!" Mushin laughs. "Initially I had a problem with it, but we decided, by agreement, that it was the one we'd reserve for the upper echelon of people in the world."
I ask how often swear words come up while marking students' assignments. "I sometimes encounter these words in creative writing," replies Glover. "A general word of caution that we say in undergraduate creative writing is: go easy. Look for the drama or force in the story … other than just the language. If there's a disjuncture between the force of the language and the emotional emptiness of the story, the language can particularly jar there. But we're in a pedagogical framework there; we're encouraging them to think more about story than about the language they're using. In writers with more mastery, you get very charged language."
Glover cites Krissy Kneen's Affection as a text whose language is "really quite charged, and very intimate. She uses language that could be offensive in another context in a very intimate but powerful way. Partly because I know her, I sit back in my chair a bit [while reading]. It's like, ' Okay! That's something I didn't know about you!'" he laughs.
"Reading is quite an intimate act as well," he continues. "I think we can suffer certain kinds of language there more easily than if I repeated it in the public sphere. Often if I have to read aloud something profane, extremely rude, or obscene in a lecture, I'll be quite embarrassed. But I wouldn't be so if I was reading it just myself."
This semester, Mushin will lecture in Introduction to Linguistics; next semester, she'll take on Language in Society.
"In some of our courses, where we're showing examples of other languages and there's an English translation underneath, I'm very conscious of not being embarrassed about talking about these words for women's genitalia, or whatever might make a few people giggle and blush in the class," she says. "I think it's helpful if I don't giggle or blush. I learned that from my own teachers, who were bold; in anthropology it's the same sort of thing. I was taught, 'These are the things people talk about; you need to learn about how languages do these things.'"
At the other end of the spectrum is outright obscenity, perhaps best exemplified in a T-shirt created by British extreme metal band Cradle Of Filth. The front of the shirt features a Catholic nun masturbating; printed on the back, in a huge font, is the phrase 'JESUS IS A CUNT'. It's been banned in New Zealand since 2008. I've seen a few of these shirts while attending metal shows over the years: at the Soundwave Festival in February 2012, I saw two, both from a distance, among a sea of over 50,000 heavy music fans. "It comes down to anti-social behaviour," says Mushin, after I describe the shirt. "You know that's going to offend some people. Are you the sort of person who wants to go around offending people?"
OVER BREAKFAST at a Spring Hill café, author and journalist Benjamin Law is reviewing my blue folder. He turns to the final page just as our food arrives. "'Cunt' is interesting," he begins. "I use it a lot. The politics are interesting; there's no male genital equivalent."
The young waitress sees the word lying there in 255-point type and begins laughing. "That's good, I like that," she says. "I'm learning how to read!" jokes Law, as he moves the folder aside. "This is like a picture book!" We all laugh. "What school are you boys from?" the waitress asks, playing along. "The school of Australian English," replies Law, proudly.
"I have to say, I think a lot of people see me as a threshold of vulgarity," says 29-year-old Law, who writes regularly for Frankie, Crikey and The Monthly. "There's an unspoken, tacitly acknowledged line, and I think I might have a reputation for crossing it sometimes. I'm not saying it's not my own doing; I do like being a little bit gross, but when you have parents who come from a non-English-speaking background, language becomes a bit more playful. Maybe that's where it comes from."
Law is Chinese-Australian; in his 2010 book The Family Law, he describes his mother discovering a certain word: "Controversially, though, Mum insists she first learned the word cunt from me. […] Mum says that afterwards, as often seems to happen when you've learned a new word or concept, she inexplicably started seeing and hearing it everywhere. 'The next night on SBS,' she told me, 'there was this European movie with a woman screaming at her husband because she found out he was having an affair. She yelled to him: 'You only like her because her cunt smells like eggplant!' That's what it said in the subtitles. And suddenly I realised that I knew what this word was. Cunt. It was the same word you told me not to use at parent-teacher meetings.'"
Law says, "The one thing I'm more worried about, in terms of common usage, is calling people something like 'retard'. I think that's far more loaded. Or describing something as 'an abortion', as in, 'That was an abortion of a movie.' Those are the terms I worry about more; I question them. When you meet and know and become friends with people with disabilities, or you know that a lot of your female friends have had terminations in the past, you do think about that. It's interesting how human experience changes how you use your language."
While Law is no advocate of censorship, he does understand the need to use discretion. "People always say, 'It's so PC' or 'political correctness gone mad,' as though that is in and of itself a bad thing; that all freedom of speech is a good thing. I think that's too convenient. That excuse is really lame, that idea that, 'I should be able to say whatever I want, when I want, and that's my right.' It's not your right. You can legitimately hurt people and be completely offensive. The whole Joe Hildebrand thing, with calling people retards on Twitter - it's so undergraduate, and just dumb. To not acknowledge that you might have hurt people, or to refuse to believe that might happen; it comes from a place of immense privilege. It shows snootiness and lack of imagination that words have impact."
We return to the pertinent question: Why does the worst insult in the English language refer to a part of the female anatomy?
"I've written about this before: cunts push out children," Law says. "They contain incredibly strong muscles. Whereas you say someone 'has balls' and that means they're brave - but what do balls do? They just sit around. They hang. Sometimes they're asymmetrical. They don't look particularly good. And yet to have courage is to 'have balls'. When we actually think about what words mean, language can be pretty absurd."
Law's comments remind me of my conversation with Krissy Kneen. "It's weird that we can say 'cock' and not have a problem with it, or at least it's not seen as such an extreme word," she said. "And yet 'cunt' is. I think that has something to do with our relationship to women in society, and the fact that we've always seen women's genitals as being taboo, dirty or unspeakable.
"I think that until we change our relationship to women's genitalia, and find ways of describing it that don't involve us using that one, most taboo word," she smiles, "we're a fair way away from accepting women's genitals in public, I think."