We’re living through something of a golden age in the study of taboo language. You could fill a shelf with recent books treating obscenity as the subject of dutiful scholarship. Just in the past few years, we’ve been treated to What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves by Benjamin Bergen, In Praise of Profanity by Michael Adams, Damn!: A Cultural History of Swearing in Modern America by Rob Chirico, and Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr.
Online, there are new outlets for serious talk about vulgar language. The foul-mouthed blog Strong Language has served as “a place for professional language geeks to talk about things they can’t talk about in more polite contexts,” as the “About” page explains. I’m a proud member of the Strong Language crew (which includes Adams, Chirico, and about a dozen others), and I’ve had a chance to weigh in on some of the latest colorful political obscenities, as when Donald Trump gets called a “shitgibbon” or “ripshit bonkers.” (I extended my shitgibbon-ology right here on Brow Beat.)
Despite this efflorescence of talk about taboo talk, until quite recently there had never been a podcast devoted to the subject of swearing. Sure, some podcasts have dipped into the sweary waters—notably, Slate’s own Lexicon Valley, which has interviewed both Bergen and Mohr about their studies. And there have been forays into other online formats, such as the video series “Susie Dent’s Guide to Swearing” from the U.K.’s Channel 4. (Dent is well-known to British audiences as the lexicographer who sits in Dictionary Corner on the popular game show Countdown.)
Matt Fidler, who previously worked as an engineer and sound designer at WNYC, has finally rectified the situation with his new podcast, Very Bad Words. Since launching the podcast in June, Fidler has covered why shit is such a popular swear word, taboo language in stand-up comedy, and the weirdness of Federal Communications Commission rules on swearing. The latest installment focuses on what many would deem the most obscene in English: cunt.
Fidler told me that he came up with the idea for the podcast when he was telling his wife and now executive producer Jill Fincher about a memorable scene in the first season of Louis C.K.’s sitcom Louie. Over a poker game, Rick Crom explains to his fellow comedians that the word faggot comes from a medieval practice of burning homosexuals by throwing them into the kindling. While it turns out this is an apocryphal tale, it got Fidler to thinking. “There’s got to be lots of great origin stories to swear words,” he figured, and he went looking for a podcast on the topic. Finding none, he knew he had discovered his niche.
Working in public radio, Fidler was constantly reminded of the “no swearing” policy on the airwaves, when, sitting behind a broadcast console, he’d see a list of words that require censoring with a profanity delay if they were used on air: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. (As he observes in the podcast’s third episode, that list comes directly from George Carlin’s notorious “seven dirty words” routine, which became the basis for the Supreme Court ruling on the power of the FCC to police public broadcasts for indecent language.) On a podcast, he realized, he’d have no such restrictions, and he would also be able to explore topics without worrying about radio’s time constraints.
Delving into the many ways that obscene language bubbles up in our society, Fidler was struck by the range of stories he could tell. “If you start digging, there are all sorts of strange, interesting topics out there,” he said. He has ideas for upcoming episodes dealing with such diverse subjects as the censorship battle over James Joyce’s Ulysses, swearing in foreign languages, Tourette’s syndrome, and the expurgation of vulgar terms from the Scrabble dictionary. While some installments focus on specific “very bad words,” others, like his freewheeling discussion with stand-up comedians about taboo terms, consider obscene language as a broader cultural phenomenon.
Very Bad Words’ latest episode, “The C-Word,” illustrates Fidler’s thoughtful approach to subject matter that can be extremely tricky to handle. Rather than trying to mansplain the potent history of cunt, he takes it as an opportunity to listen and learn. He relies on his podcasting colleague Katrin Redfern, serving as co-host, to enlighten him about the ways that cunt has become something of a feminist reclamation project, thanks to works of third-wave feminism like Inga Muscio’s 1998 book Cunt: A Declaration of Independence. (Redfern quotes Muscio’s rallying cry for every woman to become “the Cuntlovin’ Ruler of Her Sexual Universe.”) Two anthropologists, Evelyn Dean-Olmsted and Camilla Power, break down how cunt has undergone “pejoration,” to use the linguistic term for a semantic shift from positive (or neutral) to negative. As the word became pejorative, it fell under heavy societal taboos. Gone are the days when a London street could be called Gropecuntlane, as was the case in the 13th century.
The flip side of pejoration is “melioration,” shifting a term from negative to positive, as some feminists are now attempting to do with cunt—though it is an uphill battle, especially in the U.S., where the word is particularly taboo. But the conscious reappropriation of words like queer has worked in the past, so why not cunt (and its many lexical offshoots, like cunty and cuntish)? On the podcast, Fidler and Redfern talk not just to academics, but to artists seeking to embrace the C-word on their own terms. Ella Stone, an advocate for the word, sees its taboo nature as essentially misogynistic: “People cannot handle this idea of ‘female’ and ‘power’ being put together.” Blythe Roberson, co-creator of the video series “Kill Me Now,” offers her own take on “cunt power.” And Nadya Tolokonnikova, a founder of the Russian punk-rock group Pussy Riot, describes writing a song called “The C-Word,” to the chagrin of those who find cunt highly offensive. “I believe we have to reclaim words that were taken from us,” Tolokonnikova says.
A podcast would seem to be the ideal media genre to explore such a controversial topic with the fearlessness it deserves, without having to worry about pressures from the FCC or wary advertisers. (Very Bad Words includes the typical podcast ad breaks, though presumably those sponsoring companies know exactly what they’re getting themselves into, just as listeners do.) But to do it right still requires a tremendous amount of work—Fidler told me that the “C-Word” episode has been about a year in the making. It took him in directions he never expected to go, as when Camilla Power linked the power of the word cunt back to menstruation rituals in hunter-gatherer societies. “It really blew my mind,” Fidler said. While taboo language—especially the tabooest of the taboo—can be a cultural minefield, Very Bad Words demonstrates that for those willing to navigate the perilous terrain, the payoff can be very good indeed.