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Cunt: a Wonderful Word for a Wonderful Thing 
27th-Apr-2014 04:19 pm
I *kiss* linguists
A couple months ago I mused:
Head, neck, chest, arm, leg, groin, butt, hand, foot, thigh, knee, shin, toe, brow, eye, nose, mouth, tongue, tooth, jaw, ear, hair, thumb, breast.

Body, finger, elbow, shoulder, eyebrow, forearm, forehead, belly, penis.

Vagina.

No wonder "vagina" sounds so awkward: it's the only trisyllablic word for a major externally-accessible body part I can think of. It's also clearly Latin-derived while the others (excerpt penis?) are Germanic. No wonder it needs so much slang.

Recently I realized there is a nice, short, Germanic word for female genitalia: cunt. Even better, it encompasses the whole vulva (another Latin word), not just the passage between the cervix and the labia minora (Latin again). (Acquaint yourself with the relevant anatomy.)

The history of cunt

The etymology of cunt traces at least to Middle English (cunte, "female genitalia"). The first known reference in English apparently is in a compound, Oxford street name Gropecuntlane cited from c.1230 (and attested through late 14c.) in "Place-Names of Oxfordshire" (Gelling & Stenton, 1953), presumably a haunt of prostitutes. Cunt shares cognates in several Old Germanic languages and is perhaps linked to Latin cuneus (wedge) or cunnus (vulva).

Cunt has been considered taboo and impolite since the 15th Century (Shakespeare alluded to the word but didn't use it directly) and obscene and illegal since 1700. This shouldn't be too surprising: genitalia is a fairly universally taboo subject with dozens of slang terms and euphemisms in every language. Cunt was probably considered obscene because it unambiguously refers to a woman's genitals; polite discourse of the time only referred to sex organs indirectly. Even the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue glossed the word as C**T, The chonnos of the Greek, and the cunnus of the Latin dictionaries; a nasty name for a nasty thing: un con Miege. (emphasis mine). It was impolite to directly refer to women's genitals in a slang dictionary! Contemporary society has dropped many centuries-old taboos, including direct genital discourse in many contexts. So let's also drop the taboo on calling a cunt a cunt.

Twat (origin unknown) gained use in the 1650s, perhaps as a more polite replacement for cunt. It too became considered vulgar, and doesn't seem to have sustained a long literary life, based on this ngrams comparison of cunt, twat, and vulva.

That ngrams graph shows a promising rise in use of cunt in written English since 1950 (after some notable pre-war literary appearances). This may originally have been driven by offensive use. It was then picked up as a common topic by feminist writers; some wanted to banish the term as offensive; others wanted to reclaim the term as powerful. Ngrams suggests that the latter is gaining ground: "her cunt" now appears in twice as many books as "a cunt".

Isn't cunt offensive?

Thanks to context, the word can be both offensive and powerful. It remains offensive to call someone a cunt; it equates the whole of the person with a single sexual body part. It is likewise offensive to call a person a twat or a pussy. Even the accepted medical terms would be offensive if used as an epithet: she's such a vagina is offensive, though vagina and vulva are such awkward words that nobody uses them as insults. Likewise, penis words applied to a person are also offensive: he's such a {dick, prick, schmuck}, though the male versions seem less offensive: a guy's more likely to say I'm a dick sometimes than a gal is to say I'm a cunt sometimes. Calling someone an elbow, a thumb, or another non-head body part is likely offensive, too. One of my favorite exchanges on the old Forum2000 site was Q: My girlfriend is a cunt. A: I think you're making an is-a/has-a error. Many young logicians fail to make this distinction.

When used to refer to a body part rather than a person, cunt is unambiguous and direct, which is powerful. It acknowledges female sex organs as normal, like any other body part. It doesn't imply that a woman's genitals are a cat, a rodent, a mollusk, a food, or any other silly euphemism. Cunt and twat don't try to be cute like coochie, fanny, or vajayjay; instead they fit in with other short, direct, Germanic body parts like head, arm, leg, and groin. You could say that cunt rolls off the tongue.

Vagina comes from medical Latin; vagina in general Latin means sheath, scabbard, and similar enclosing uses. Medically, the vagina is the passage between the uterus and the vulva. Using vagina as the polite and accepted term for the whole of female genitalia denigrates several important components in female anatomy and sexuality, not least of which is the clitoris. Cunt covers the whole kit and caboodle, as does vulva. In a medical context, use vulva to refer to the whole package and vagina to refer to the passage. In a context where belly or gut would sound better than abdomen, use cunt or twat over vulva. Even in medical contexts, Germanic words may be a better choice:

Novick remembers one of the first arguments he had with a prudish supervising clinician who insisted that their HIV questionnaire use the words vaginal secretions when asking women if their partners performed oral sex on them. Novick thought the word choice was preposterous because the clinic served a low-income area with a heavily Latino population. He fought and eventually won over the supervisor when he showed that half the participants didn’t know what vaginal secretions were. But when they were asked if they knew what Novick’s term meant, there was 100 percent comprehension. His choice of words? Cunt juice.

Post script: penis

Researching this post, I was hoping to find a similar nice Germanic word for penis. It's not as awkwardly medical as vagina, but there's a whole host of monosyllabic slang terms like dick, dong, schlong, and wang that sound better. "I'm gonna suck your dick" sounds sexy, "I'm gonna suck your penis" sounds like a procedure. Unfortunately all the Online Etymology Dictionary results for penis are euphemistic. Penis itself was originally Latin for tail, which makes me wonder how to refer to the penis of an animal with a tail. Plug tail and tickle tail appear for penis in 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, with tail itself meaning prostitute and several other tail associations for lewd women. Wikipedia's Penis article claims that English previously used yard, though that also seems derived from a measuring stick. There are more objects shaped like a penis (tail, shaft, tool, wiener) than like a cunt, so perhaps it's natural that people would reuse a term rather than evolve a distinct word. Now pardon me, I need to make a saving throw vs. rod, staff, or wand.

Comments 
28th-Apr-2014 12:02 am (UTC)
I like the word "cunt" rather than vagina. It seems to bother most people, though, so I don't actually use the word or get to hear it used descriptively very often.

"Cock" is a pretty good word for the primary male genitalia, aside from the fact that it also means rooster, which gets kind of weird.
7th-Feb-2015 06:35 pm (UTC)
The Strong Language blog has a nice article, What Gives 'Cunt' It's Offensive Power? based on a dissertation on the subject.
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