It’s often said that you can tell a lot about society from its swear words, and there seems to be plenty of evidence to back this up. More religious countries will use blasphemous swear words, and societies where family honour is highly valued have swear words that involve family members. The link between a society’s taboos and their swear words makes it all the more disturbing that in the UK, popular opinion would dictate that ‘cunt’ is considered the most offensive swear word.
Of course, it’s not going to shock anyone that misogyny can be inherent in the language we use; just think about how many words for positions of power still use the suffix ‘-man’, like foreman or chairman. Whilst more gender neutral words for these positions have been devised, they are rarely used, and it’s even rarer that they’re used to describe a man. It’s not equality that Fireman Sam called his female co-worker Firefighter Penny. The word ‘mistress’ does not mean the same as the word ‘master’ despite them technically being gendered words for the same thing.
This is due to the history in English of making female gendered words more negative over time, and swearing is no exception for this. If you look at the myriad slurs for a female who is viewed as promiscuous (for which there are no real male equivalents), many of them have much more innocuous roots. The word ‘hussy’, for example, is derived from the same roots as the word ‘housewife’, but has become an offensive slur. The word ‘slut’ was originally a genderless word to describe someone slovenly, but everyone except Godfrey Bloom can tell you that it doesn’t mean that any more.
And so to the word ‘cunt’. It seems to be an Anglo-Saxon word, initially used as an anatomical term for the vulva that wasn’t seen as offensive. It has a long and chequered history; appearing in 15th century medical textbooks, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and is referred to numerous times by The Bard himself, although the word had become taboo by Shakespeare’s time, and was only referenced with veiled wordplay.
What happened over this time was that ‘cunt’ became a swear word through societal misogyny, and the increasing ‘othering’ of women’s sexuality, and there is considerable evidence to suggest cause and effect in this situation. In 1785, a book called The Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue defined ‘c***’ as “A nasty word for a nasty thing”. So once again, a neutral term has become a misogynist slur, and this is backed up by the fact that ‘cunt’ was used as an insult for women long before it became the generalised swear word that it is today. Unfortunately, this process rarely works in reverse. Even though in 2014 we would not hesitate using the word to describe a man, or for that matter a piece of flat pack furniture, it still has much more power to shock when used to insult a woman.
Whilst many of us, myself included, are guilty of throwing the word around somewhat, it’s time to think about what we’re actually saying. Were it a racial slur being so casually bandied around, many people would be horrified. In the age of the Twitter troll, we only have to look at the word ‘faggot’ as another example of this phenomenon. Just because the word is no longer only used to attack gay men, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t still constitute homophobic abuse.
This having been said, language is constantly evolving, and the vernacular nature of swearing means it will always be in the vanguard of a constantly changing vocabulary. The real solution is far more difficult than simply ‘not saying cunt’. We need to address the reason that words related to women become offensive and taboo; the internalised sexism that is still rife in the UK, and the West. Maybe one day, our swear words will reflect a society in which the female gender is no longer used to attack, but if Twitter is anything to go by, there’s still a lot of misogynist ‘Work and Pensions Secretaries’ standing in the way of this.