When respected journalist Mihingarangi Forbes quizzed women on Twitter on how they felt about the C-word, the response ranged from abhorrence to delight. WOMAN asked Lily Richards to investigate the origins of the controversial word.
When I was 12 years old, I received a postcard from my older sister. She’d mailed it from her job as a receptionist, a few suburbs away. The image was of a baby bird in a nest. Mouth open, eyes closed, screaming for masticated food. Only, where the mother bird would have been was a pool of Twink and written over it in black vivid was the word “Cunt!” Exclamation point included.
I must have kept that postcard for 15 years. I can’t find it now, but it’s more likely I misplaced it than actively threw it away.
Imagining its journey through the postal system, the fact my sister spent time working on it rather than doing her job, her walking to mail it; everything about it was a sacred “fuck you”.
I can’t remember where or how it started, but my sister and I are obsessed with the
word “cunt”. A compact, monosyllabic bomb that can do more damage than an actual weapon.
Everyone has a cunt story. A time when the bomb detonated; it can be a relationship-changer, a job-loser, a reputation-crusher. The first instance I know of cancel culture was 10 years ahead of its time and because of a cunt.
A dear friend of mine was working in retail and made the mistake of using the word to describe a particularly prickly customer in a Facebook post. The combination of the word mixed with the platform she denounced them on was what ultimately got her. Her aged employers felt this semi-private whinge was the same as emailing their entire customer database, and so she was “cancelled”. RIP. We both agreed at the time that, had she referred to the customer as a “dick” or a “diddle” or any other part of the male anatomy, she might have been able to keep her job.
So, why is this word, above and beyond all others, such a mind-exploding expletive for so many people?
A handful of writers have attempted to understand this beautiful clump of a word. Way back in 2007 Jezebel published a piece titled: “Why Is The Word ‘Cunt’ Still Such A Big Deal?” Basically it’s a 500-word complaint about how uptight Americans are versus the British.
Which makes sense if you go on to read the far more thorough article by Jo Livingstone in The New Republic, “What’s So Bad About the C-Word?” This teaches us that the word had two different upbringings.
Like twins separated at birth, “cunt” was raised in both America and England with quite different results. Its English parents knew of its heritage. Deployed by the noble likes of Chaucer and mediaeval literature generally, “cunt” simply meant vulva. But as an adjective or adverb, the word actually meant something more like our contemporary word “quaint”. Within this context, the meaning of the word could range from “clever(ly)” and “wise(ly)” to “unusual” or “beautiful”. Hence why it’s not uncommon for Brits to use the word as a term of comedic endearment.
But America seems to have assumed the femininity of the word to be innately pejorative. Livingstone wonders if the zealous religiosity on the continent had something to do with it. Putting aside God’s ultimate responsibility, man (and here I do not use it as a catch-all for humanity) is certainly to blame.
Misogyny helped raise the American variant of the word into a toxic little kicker. No longer grounded in its beautiful root usage, it reverted to its base meaning – vulva. And somehow this was the ickiest, most shameful revenant.
But, again, why? Why is a vulva so offensive? Calling your granny any other suggested synonyms for a vulva, although weird and impolite, wouldn’t elicit the same outrage as calling her a “cunt” and yet they’re describing the same anatomy.
Many of the other sexist epithets are designed to attack a woman; to shame or diminish her sense of self and reinforce stereotypes. She’s either not attractive enough (ugly), not smart enough (dumb), too sexy (slut), not sexy enough (frigid). But cunt breaks this mould entirely. Cunt cuts to the literal core of what it is to be a woman. Which actually happens to be life-giving and transformational.
So perhaps the offence is inextricably linked to the intention? Meaning it’s really only disparaging if you believe a vulva to be dirty, evil or something that should never be discussed. Otherwise it’s simply the world’s most powerful expletive; birthing elation or concern or fear or rage into a conversation.
Which is why I love this word so much – it’s magical. Like luminol for the personality, how you use it, reveals your feelings about women. I have been known to use it in place of “trickster”, “outrageous”, “cunning”, “fantastic’ and “unexpected”.
When uttered it’s a powerful reminder that the central elements of womanhood are complicated, multi-faceted, imperfect and can elicit both fear and awe. When you wield the word you’re summoning hundreds of years of tender respect, fearful venom and casual hilarity. No word in the English language makes me feel more in-tune with my female forebears. No word makes me feel more Amazonian, bad-ass, fierce, more of a cunt.
I recommend using it frequently.