The C-Word: How one four-letter word holds so much power
Published: Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Updated: Tuesday, March 15, 2011 19:03
When reading that word, did you cringe or laugh? Become offended or amused? Either way, odds are you had a strong reaction to it. And for good reason.
The "C" word has been around for hundreds of years in one form or another. The word's history and common use, or etymology, has led American culture to revere and reject it as the "nastiest of nasty words." Most commonly, it has been used to refer to women – to whittle them down to nothing but sexual anatomy or to trump the once-powerful "bitch." But the word itself goes from controversial to acceptable from century to century in a cyclical fashion. Some say it's headed back toward the "acceptable" route today.
It's a sexual slur, an insult, a noun and, in some circles, a term of affection. Above all, it's a taboo. No matter how it's used, it has the potential to offend. How can one four letter word hold so much power?
"CU" NEXT TUESDAY
Larry David is sitting around a poker table with his wife, along with fellow "Seinfeld" star Julia Louis-Dreyfus and a group of friends on "Curb Your Enthusiasm" – a sitcom loosely based David's life as a lovable, sometimes confrontational idiot. As each player reluctantly folds from the game, David acts disappointed. The game is won by Louis-Dreyfus with a six and a 10. He asks a fellow card player what he was holding.
"I'm afraid to say an ace high," the disappointed male card player admits.
"Ace high? Oh, you cunt! What a cunt! I can't believe that you didn't go in with that!" David exclaims with a smile.
Everyone stops. Some moans of discomfort echo through the room. David is in deep, as always. Everyone is offended, but they're not sure why. You're just not supposed to use that word – even jokingly.
In order to understand what the "C" word means today, you must look at its inception.
"Ultimately, the word comes from the Proto-Indo-European feminine stem ‘cu,' from which other feminine words such as ‘queen' and ‘cow' are also derived," says Matthew Hunt, a Bangkok-based writer who was intrigued by the word's taboo and researched it as part of his bachelor's thesis. He has continued his research over the last 10 years.
Eventually the Latin version, "cunnes," meaning "wedge," gave way to the Old Dutch "kunte," which influenced the Middle English "cunte." From there, it's easy to gather where things headed.
A 2000 British study conducted in conjunction with broadcasting authorities the Broadcasting Standards Commission, BBC, Independent Television Commission and Advertising Standards Authority determined that the "C" word was considered the most offensive word to polled citizens. It trumped "motherfu__er" and the "F" word for the top spot.
At its root, the "C" word is feminine. It's meant for women, either as an insult or a genital nickname for "vagina." The connection between the two affects the word's offensiveness.
"A NASTY NAME FOR A NASTY THING"
Unlike "bitch," which generally refers to an unlikable woman with a bad personality, or "slut," which may refer to their sexual promiscuity, the "C" word holds special power. "Bitch" and "slut" are constantly used in the media – from rap songs to reality shows – and many people use them either as insults or terms of affection, says Lisa Bertagnoli, a freelance writer and linguist who wrote a 2004 article for the Chicago Tribune about the "C" word. At the time, she believed its use was on the rise among female-to-female friendly interaction. "Bitch" and "slut" were losing their power, so another was rising to take its place.
The article, which was re-titled by the copy desk as "You C_nt Say That (Or Can You?), never mentioned the actual word by name, editors determined it wasn't fit for the Chicago Tribune's family audience. The story printed, but was then physically pulled from each issue. About 10,000 copies slipped into public hands, Bertagnoli says. She received no negative feedback from readers.
The "C" word is still taboo and calling a woman a slang term for "vagina" breaks them down to sexual objects, Bertagnoli says. At the same time, calling a man a "dick" just doesn't quite have the same impact. The word's stigma is deeply engrained in our culture. In 1785, lexicographer Francis Grose simply defined the word as "A nasty name for a nasty thing" in "A Classical Dictionary of The Vulgar Tongue." But the word's offensiveness might also be partly attributed to its harsh sound and hard syllables.
"I would rather be called ‘m-fer' [or] ‘B' than called that one syllable word," Bertagnoli says. "There's just something about it. It's an ugly sounding word. For me, personally, it's never lost its taboo."
In her Chicago Tribune article, Bertagnoli concluded that young, edgy women freely use the word while older women might "faint" if they were called "C."
But the word's true meaning might be engrained into our psyche even deeper than that, Hunt says.
"It is more controversial than ‘dick' because the vagina is more strongly tabooed than the penis," says Hunt, who cites the vagina dentata myth as an example, where men once believed some women held teeth in their vagina. "Male notions of the vagina as an abject organ have resulted in ‘cunt' becoming a synonym for disgust or hatred."
IT'S NOT WHAT YOU SAY; IT'S HOW TO SAY IT
"Sex and the City" raised a generation of young women, showing them how high-powered women can turn men into sexual toys, just like men did to women for centuries. Call it vile or empowering, but the show addressed taboos head on. And few were quite as shocking as the scene that gave merit to Bertagnoli's "friendly use" theory.