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Posted by on Apr 2, 2013 in Culture, Debate | 19 comments

The dreaded c-word

There’s some online controversy this morning over the use of the word “cunt” – since a popular comedian used it recently and apparently upset some people.

Let me say immediately that it is a word that I almost never use (though I might mention it, as in this post, for the purpose of talking about it as a linguistic item). On the rare occasions that I do use it, it will be in its primary sense of female genitals (and the genital area) and only in the company of other people who are comfortable with using the word in that sense. So it would be in some context where, for some reason or other, we really are talking about body parts. However, subject to one thing I’ll say below, I never use the word in any other way. In particular, I don’t use it as an insult or a term expressing hostility, and when I see it or hear it used such ways I inwardly wince.

However, my reasons for this are rather complicated and personal. I am an Australian from a working class background, from an industrial city, and from the baby boom generation. I have a certain set of life experiences, have moved within certain social milieux, and so on. My experiences, including my experiences of certain words, may not match yours. To some extent, my experiences will match those of people from similar backgrounds, but to some extent they will be idiosyncratic. I’m very conscious of all this before I tell other people what to do or say.

I have not lived an especially sheltered life. On the contrary, I have experienced my share of humiliations, intimidation, and outright violence. I went to fairly tough state schools where harsh words like “fuck” and “cunt” were employed freely, and I’ve spent time in the ship repair and steelmaking industries where those words seemed to pepper every sentence from most of the workers. Dockers and steel workers are not especially genteel people.

So, how was the word used in my personal experience? Well, sometimes (especially by girls or women) simply with its primary meaning. But the more common meanings in male-dominated environments were:

1. A synonym for “bloke” or “guy”, but with the suggestion of a callous attitude toward the person spoken about, and a certain don’t-mess-with-me macho posturing on the part of the person speaking. As in, “Look at that cunt – what the fuck does he think he’s doing?” So, I associate the word with a certain unpleasant kind of male posturing.

2. As a word meaning something like “truly horrible person (in some way that is not particularly being expressed)”. In this usage, it was about the worst insult, or expression of hostility, you could use, pretty much a precursor to physical violence. At the least, it was an expression that the person spoken to or about was so bad as to deserve ill-treatment. It was an insult of real intensity that didn’t have any parallels with other words. If you called someone a “prick”, for example, it suggested they were obnoxious in some way (perhaps selfish, or unnecessarily hostile), but the word “prick” had nowhere near the same near-violent intensity about it. So, I associate the word “cunt” with a kind of menace that borders on violence.

Note that the word was used in those senses only of boys or men. In my personal experience it was never used of girls or women. I’m not claiming that that is the experience of all Australians or all Australians from my generation or social class; I’m speaking only of my personal experience with the word.

It also hasn’t escaped me that there is something objectionable about using a word whose primary meaning relates to the female genitals for the most intense possible expression of hatred or hostility. As a feminism-positive man (and a man who simply likes women), I find that that sits badly with me. And in any event, I associate the word with a culture with a rather callous attitude toward women. The word “misogyny” may be thrown around too freely at the moment, but there was at least a element of misogyny in this culture (not to mention violent homophobia and other unpleasant things that I could save for another day).

In the upshot, I have nothing against the word in its primary sense – a sense which my female friends also use when the topic arises. But it has all sorts of bad associations for me when used in other senses, especially as an insult. I associate it with a callous, posturing, often violent, somewhat misogynist male culture that I’m happy to have escaped.

Note that I have never heard the word in real-life interactions in the way that I’m assured is common in Australia: “You cunts are all right!” or “I love you cunts!” I.e., more or less as a synonym for “guy” (including women this time), but with a certain gruff affection. I’m familiar with the usage from books, for example, and I do sometimes use it jokingly, but I’ve never been in a milieu where people talk like that and not as a joke. On the other hand, I know very well that the usage exists in Australia and the UK – no argument about that. We all have different experiences.

This is only meant as a personal explanation for my dislike of the word (particularly when used in a certain way). It is not intended to be binding on anyone else. It is not intended to tell you to suppress your personality if part of that personality involves using the word in ways that I don’t… well, perhaps you can bear the above in mind if you’re talking to me, but that’s not compulsory. For myself, I am quite capable, up to a point, of entering imaginatively into other people’s dialects and idiolects – after all, I am quite capable of understanding that, say, a seventeenth-century poem uses a different vocabulary from, say, a modern novel, and of switching between modes when reading them. Coping with different forms of modern English is not that difficult, even though I’ll sometimes make mistakes. I’ll try to err on the side of charity.

There are, I’m told, still other usages. Sometimes the word is apparently used to mean a particularly obnoxious woman. Sometimes it is apparently used as a derogatory term simply for “woman” (analogous to a word that I never use, though I am about to mention it, such as “nigger”). Obviously I deplore the latter usage in particular, although I have never heard it in Australia, even among dockers or steel workers who use the word “cunt” freely. On the other hand, The Macquarie Dictionary gives support to this usage being present here in Australia, so go figure.

If I threw the word around in my own milieu, other than in its primary sense, I’d feel that I was giving support to certain nasty cultural attitudes: attitudes that valorise male “toughness” or machismo, involve a callous stance toward women, etc. So I don’t do that. What you do is up to you, though, again, you might bear in mind that some people have my sort of experience with the word, or even worse experiences with it in which it involves a more clear-cut, even extreme, kind of misogyny.

We all need to make some allowance for cultural differences here, trying to understand how the word is being used and received by others from varied backgrounds. I think about the most ungenerous (and just plain puerile) thing to do is deliberately use the word over and over just to annoy someone from a different culture with a much worse experience of it. But it’s also ungenerous (not to mention parochial or culturally imperialist) to assume that your own culture is the only one, and to draw highly adverse conclusions about people from another culture because of a word that they use in a different sense from the one that bugs you. In a globalised world, there has to be some give and take all round.

Enough! And don’t even start me on any other controversial words, you bastards.