How Did the C-word Become Such an Offensive Insult?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Feb. 26 2013 6:46 PM

Rhymes With Runt

How did the C-word become such an offensive insult?

Quvenzhané Wallis, Best Actress nominee for her role in Beasts of the Southern Wild, arrives at the 85th Academy Awards in Hollywood, Calif., Feb. 24, 2013.
Quvenzhané Wallis, Best Actress nominee for her role in Beasts of the Southern Wild, arrives at the 85th Academy Awards in Hollywood, Calif., Feb. 24, 2013.

Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Forrest Wickman Forrest Wickman

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

The satirical newspaper the Onion offered a rare apology yesterday after it joked that 9-year-old actress Quvenzhané Wallis was “kind of a cunt, right?” Has that word always been so patently offensive?

No. In Middle English the word could be used as a standard term for the female genitalia, in a manner that was quite matter-of-fact. The earliest instance of the word recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary is actually from the name of a 13th-century London street, Gropecuntelane. The name appears to have been quite literal, and there was at least one other red-light district of the same name, in Oxford. One of the next recorded uses of the word comes from a circa-1400 surgery manual and uses the word much like vagina might be used today: “In women the neck of the bladder is short, and is made fast to the cunt.” Others have noted that some people in the 13th and 14th centuries also had the word in their names, in a way that seems unlikely today: Some men and women at that time included Bele Wydecunthe, Robert Clevecunt, and Gunoka Cuntles. Indeed, as Geoffrey Hughes wrote in his book Swearing, there were many such colorful names, but “the days when the dandelion could be called the pissabed, a heron could be called a shitecrow and the windhover could be called the windfucker have passed away with the exuberant phallic advertisement of the codpiece.”

The word became more offensive over the next few centuries. While Chaucer used the variant quaint in both the Miller’s Tale (“he caught her by the quaint”) and the Wife of Bath’s Tale (“you shall have quaint right enough at eve”), Shakespeare dared only to slyly allude to the word. In Hamlet, for example, when Ophelia tells Hamlet that, yes, he can lie on her lap, Hamlet puns in his response: “Do you think I meant country matters?” In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare finds a coded way to spell out the word, when Malvolio recognizes his lady’s “C’s, her U’s, ‘n’ her Ts.” (“Thus makes her great P’s,” he continues, in what amounts to an elaborate potty joke.)

Advertisement

If in Shakespeare’s time the word was becoming too obscene to utter in public, by the end of the 18th century it was truly taboo. When Robert Burns’ printed the old Scottish folk song “Yon, Yon, Yon, Lassie,” in 1796, the word appeared only as “c—t.” In his 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, Francis Grose defined “c**t” as “a nasty name for a nasty thing,” while elsewhere he bleeped it out entirely (“****”), or referred to it only as “the monosyllable.” (Lest you think him just a prude, Grose noted that others went even further, rendering the word constable as thingstable; Grose called this “a ludicrous affectation of delicacy.”) By the early 20th century, cunt had begun to be used as an insult, and it was also around this time that language taboos shifted from religious profanity to vulgar sexual and scatological language. This perception that it's one of the most taboo words continues today: In a 2000 BBC study of the most offensive words, it ranked No. 1, ahead of motherfucker, fuck, and even nigger.

Why has cunt become so much more taboo than, say, snatch or pussy? The main reason may simply be that it’s blunt. Linguists note that, unlike those other words for the female genitalia—whose origins are all Latinate, euphemistic, or diminutive—cunt is plain and Anglo-Saxon. There is also the sound of the word. Many of the most taboo words, in addition to generally being Anglo-Saxon in origin, are monosyllables with short vowels, such as shit, piss, fuck, and cock. These are considered more offensive than words of the same meaning, like poopy, pee, screw, and willy. In fact, one of the only other words to share many of these characteristics is twat, which is also often considered highly offensive, though its origins are more uncertain.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Anatoly Liberman of the University of Minnesota, Jesse Sheidlower of the Oxford English Dictionary, and Ben Zimmer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
  Life
Dear Prudence
Oct. 21 2014 9:18 AM Oh, Boy Prudie counsels a letter writer whose sister dresses her 4-year-old son in pink tutus.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 9:25 AM The Brilliant Fake Novels of Listen Up Philip
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 21 2014 9:39 AM The International-Student Revolving Door Foreign students shouldn’t have to prove they’ll go home after graduating to get a visa.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 21 2014 7:00 AM Watch the Moon Eat the Sun: The Partial Solar Eclipse on Thursday, Oct. 23
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.