Marginalia on the word ‘cunt’

In a generally interesting post about Obama, Hillary and all that stuff, Sherry says this:

I have to admit it’s true that Hillary Clinton has never been called a nigger but I suspect Barack Obama has never been called a cunt.

I think the difference in the way that word is used on each side of the Atlantic is quite telling. Because if he was British, it would be quite likely that sooner or lately someone would have called him a cunt: I know it has happened to me. Not usually in earnest, but at least once, in a pub in Bristol when I was a student and one of the locals took offence at my green hair.

And that is the norm, I think, in British English: although it is still a coarse slang term for the female genitalia, it’s mainly used to insult men. Not out of any kind of profound sensitivity to gender relations, but just because that’s the way it is. And as a result, although it is regarded as a very offensive word—you can’t exactly use it on daytime telly—it doesn’t have the same kind of edge it clearly has in America. The parallel with ‘nigger’ is interesting: the word ‘cunt’ is taboo in Britain, but I don’t think anyone thinks of it as hate speech.

I guess if you call a woman a cunt you’re attacking her for being a woman, whereas if you call a man a cunt you are… well, doing something different, anyway.

» ABC, posted to Flickr by monkeyc.net. An amusing sidenote: my computer’s spellcheck flags up the word cunt as a possible spelling mistake, even though it’s in the built-in dictionary. I guess they think it’s important to warn all those people who were trying to write ‘count’ or ‘aunt’. It would be more useful if, every time I typed ‘form’, it asked me whether I really meant ‘from’.

3 Comments

  1. 4 May 2008 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

    Love the photo. I may cop it. Time to add a little levity to my over-earnest meanderings.

    I am actually fairly fond of the word “cunt” to describe a woman’s genitalia. That comes from being married for a long time to a scholar of Medieval English with a love for Chaucer and an interest in Latin poetry, especially Catullus. Still, I don’t think the founders of C.U.N.T. have much interest in etymology.

  2. Harry
    5 May 2008 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    I am actually fairly fond of the word “cunt” to describe a woman’s genitalia.

    Really? It always seems a bit… hard. Which is why it’s well suited as an insult: you can really inject some venom into it when you say it.

    The Chaucerian ‘quenyte’ has slightly less of a fist-smashing-into-a-side-of-beef quality to it, I suppose.

  3. 5 May 2008 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Okay, I’ll backpedal. I’m a Clinton supporter, after all.

    I have a certain respect for the term and its history, though apparently it has always been pejorative. But then name me a non-scientific term for a woman’s vulva that is not used pejoratively.

    Same might be said for a man’s penis?? Though generally I think having balls is seen as a good thing.

One Trackback

  1. By Sherry Chandler on 5 May 2008 at 11:06 am

    […] has a generally interesting post about the different connotations of the word cunt in Great Britain. …in British English: […]

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