Definitions

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Cunt

[kuhnt]
Cunt (IPA:/kʌnt/) is an English language vulgarism referring generally to the female genitalia. The earliest citation of this usage in the Oxford English Dictionary, circa 1230, refers to the London street known as "Gropecunt Lane".

"Cunt" is also used informally as a derogatory epithet in referring to either sex, but this usage is relatively recent, dating back only as far as the late nineteenth century. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary defines "cunt" as "an unpleasant or stupid person", whereas Merriam-Webster defines the term as "a disparaging term for a woman" and "a woman regarded as a sexual object"; the Macquarie Dictionary of Australian English defines it as "a despicable man".

The word appears to have been in common usage from the Middle Ages until the eighteenth century. After a period of disuse, usage became more frequent in the twentieth century and, in particular, in parallel with the rise of popular literature and pervasive media. The term also has various other derived uses and, like "fuck" and its derivatives, has been used mutatis mutandis as noun, pronoun, adjective, participle and other parts of speech.

Etymology

Although it has been said that "etymologists are unlikely to come to an agreement about the origins of cunt any time soon", it is most usually stated to derive from a Germanic word (Proto-Germanic *kunton), which appeared as kunta in Old Norse, although the Proto-Germanic form itself is of uncertain origin. In Middle English it appeared with many different spellings such as cunte and queynte, which did not always reflect the actual pronunciation of the word. There are cognates in most Germanic languages, such as the Swedish, Faroese and Old Norwegian dialect kunta; West Frisian and Middle Low German kunte; Middle Dutch conte; Dutch kut; Middle Low German kutte; Middle High German kotze (prostitute); German kott, and perhaps Old English cot. While kont in Dutch refers to the buttocks, kut is considered far less offensive in Dutch-speaking areas than cunt is in the English speaking world. The etymology of the Proto-Germanic term is disputed. It may have arisen by Grimm's law operating on the Proto-Indo-European root *gen/gon = "create, become" seen in gonads, genital, gamete, genetics, gene, or the Proto-Indo-European root *gwneH2/guneH2 (Greek gunê) = "woman" seen in gynaecology. Relationships to similar-sounding words such as the Latin cunnus (vulva), and its derivatives French con, Spanish coño, and Portuguese cona, have not been conclusively demonstrated. Other Latin words related to cunnus: cuneatus, wedge-shaped; cuneo v. fasten with a wedge; (figurative) to wedge in, squeeze in, leading to English words such as cuneiform (wedge-shaped).

The word for the female genitalia dates back to the Middle English period, c.1325. Its exact origin is unknown, but is related to the Old Norse kunta, a word with cognates in several other Germanic languages. From the Proverbs of Hendyng, a manuscript from sometime before 1325:

Offensiveness

Generally

The word "cunt" is generally regarded in English-speaking countries as unusable in normal public discourse and has been described as "the most heavily tabooed word of all English words", although John Ayto, editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Slang, has disputed this, saying Use of the word is also documented as the argot of some sections of society and in recent years attempts have been made to mitigate its connotations by promoting positive uses.

Feminist perspectives

Some radical feminists of the 1970s sought to eliminate disparaging terms for women, including "bitch" and "cunt". In the context of pornography, Catherine MacKinnon argued that use of the word acts to reinforce a dehumanisation of women by reducing them to mere body parts; and in 1979 Andrea Dworkin described the word as reducing women to "the one essential - 'cunt: our essence ... our offence'".

Despite criticisms, there is a movement within feminists that seeks to reclaim cunt not only as acceptable, but as an honorific, in much the same way that queer has been reclaimed by LGBT people. Proponents include Inga Muscio in her book, Cunt: A Declaration of Independence and Eve Ensler in "Reclaiming Cunt" from The Vagina Monologues.

The word was similarly reclaimed by Angela Carter who used it in the title story of The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories; a female character describing female genitalia in a pornography book: "her cunt a split fig below the great globes of her buttocks".

Germaine Greer, who had previously published a magazine article entitled "Lady, Love Your Cunt", discussed the origins, usage and power of the word in the BBC series Balderdash and Piffle. She suggests at the end of the piece that there is something precious about the word, in that it is now one of the few remaining words in English that still retains its power to shock.

Usage: pre-20th century

Cunt has been in common use in its anatomical meaning since at least the 13th century. While Francis Grose's 1785 A Classical Dictionary of The Vulgar Tongue listed the word as "C**T: a nasty name for a nasty thing", it did not appear in any major dictionary of the English language from 1795 to 1961, when it was included in Webster's Third New International Dictionary with the comment "usu. considered obscene". Its first appearance in the Oxford English Dictionary was in 1972, which cites the word as having been in use since 1230 in what was supposedly a current London street name of "Gropecunte Lane." It was however also used before 1230 having been brought over by the Anglo-Saxons, originally not an obscenity but rather a factual name for the vulva or vagina. "Gropecunt Lane" was originally a street of prostitution, indicating a middle ages red light district. It was normal in those times for streets to be named after the goods available for sale therein, hence the prevalence in cities having a medieval history of names such as "Silver Street", "Fish Street", and "Swinegate" (pork butchers). In some locations, the former name has been Bowdlerised, as in the City of York, to the more acceptable "Grape Lane".

The word appears several times in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (c. 1390), in bawdy contexts, but it does not appear to be considered obscene at this point, since it is used openly. A notable use is from the Miller's Tale "Pryvely he caught her by the queynte." The Wife of Bath also uses this term, "For certeyn, olde dotard, by your leave/You shall have queynte right enough at eve ... What aileth you to grouche thus and groan?/Is it for ye would have my queynte alone?" In modernised versions of these passages the word "queynte" is usually translated simply as "cunt". However, in Chaucer's usage there seems to be an overlap between the words "cunt" and "quaint" (possibly derived from the Latin for "known"). "Quaint" was probably pronounced in Middle English in much the same way as "cunt." It is sometimes unclear whether the two words were thought of as distinct from one another. Elsewhere in Chaucer's work the word queynte seems to be used with meaning comparable to the modern "quaint" (charming, appealing).

By Shakespeare's day, the word seems to have become obscene. Although Shakespeare does not use the word explicitly (or with derogatory meaning) in his plays, he still plays with it, using wordplay to sneak it in obliquely. In Act III, Scene 2, of Hamlet, as the castle's residents are settling in to watch the play-within-the-play, Hamlet asks Ophelia, "Lady, shall I lie in your lap?" Ophelia, of course, replies, "No, my lord." Hamlet, feigning shock, says, "Do you think I meant country matters?" Then, to drive home the point that the accent is definitely on the first syllable of country, Shakespeare has Hamlet say, "That's a fair thought, to lie between maids' legs. Also see Twelfth Night (Act II, Scene V): "There be her very Cs, her Us, and her Ts: and thus makes she her great Ps." A related scene occurs in Henry V: when Katherine is learning English, she is appalled at the "gros et impudique" English words "foot" and "gown," which her English teacher has mispronounced as "coun." It has been suggested that Shakespeare intends to suggest that she has misheard "foot" as "foutre" (French, "fuck") and "coun" as "con" (French "cunt", also used to mean "idiot"). Similarly John Donne alludes to the obscene meaning of the word without being explicit in his poem The Good-Morrow, referring to sucking on "country pleasures".

The 1675 Restoration comedy The Country Wife also features such wordplay, even in its title.

By the 17th century a softer form of the word, "cunny", came into use. A well known use of this derivation can be found in the 25 October 1668 entry of the diary of Samuel Pepys. He was discovered having an affair with Deborah Willet: he wrote that his wife "coming up suddenly, did find me imbracing the girl con my hand sub su coats; and endeed I was with my main in her cunny. I was at a wonderful loss upon it and the girl also....".

Cunny was probably derived from a pun on coney, meaning "rabbit", rather as pussy is connected to the same term for a cat. (Philip Massinger: "A pox upon your Christian cockatrices! They cry, like poulterers' wives, 'No money, no coney.'") Largely because of this usage, the word coney to refer to rabbits changed pronunciation from short "o" (like money and honey) to long "o" (cone, as in Coney Island), and has now almost completely disappeared from most dialects of English; in the same way the word "pussy" is now rarely used in America to refer to a cat.

Robert Burns used the word in his Merry Muses of Caledonia, a collection of bawdy verses which he kept to himself and were not publicly available until the mid-1960s. In "Yon, Yon, Yon, Lassie", this couplet appears: "For ilka birss upon her cunt, Was worth a ryal ransom".

Usage: modern

In modern literature

James Joyce was one of the first of the major 20th-century novelists to put the word "cunt" into print. In the context of one of the central characters in Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, Joyce refers to the Dead Sea and to Joyce uses the word figuratively rather than literally; but while Joyce used the word only once in Ulysses, with four other wordplays ('cunty') on it, D. H. Lawrence used the word ten times in Lady Chatterley's Lover, in a more direct sense. Mellors, the gamekeeper and eponymous lover, tries delicately to explain the definition of the word to Lady Constance Chatterley: The novel was the subject of an unsuccessful UK prosecution for obscenity in 1961 against its publishers, Penguin Books.

  • Henry Miller's novel Tropic of Cancer uses the word extensively, ensuring its banning in Britain between 1934 and 1961 and being the subject of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Grove Press, Inc. v. Gerstein, .
  • Samuel Beckett was an associate of Joyce, and in his Malone Dies (1956), he writes: "His young wife had abandoned all hope of bringing him to heel, by means of her cunt, that trump card of young wives.
  • In Ian McEwan's 2001 novel Atonement, the word is used in a love letter mistakenly sent instead of a revised version, and although not spoken, is an important plot pivot.

Usage by Meaning

Referring to women

In referring to a woman, cunt is an abusive term usually considered the most offensive word in that context and even more forceful than bitch. In the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the central character McMurphy, when pressed to explain exactly why he doesn't like the tyrannical Nurse Ratched, says, "she's something of a cunt, ain't she, Doc? It can also be used to imply that the sexual act is the primary function of a woman; for example, see below in relation to Saturday Night Fever.

In 2004, University of Colorado president Elizabeth Hoffman fanned the flames of a football rape case when, during a deposition, she was asked if she thought "cunt" was a "filthy and vile" word. She replied that it was a "swear word" but she had "actually heard it used as a term of endearment". A spokesperson later clarified that Hoffman meant the word had polite meanings in its original use centuries ago. In the rape case, a CU football player had allegedly called female player Katie Hnida a "fucking lovely cunt".

Similarly, during the UK Oz trial for obscenity in 1971, prosecuting counsel asked writer George Melly "Would you call your 10-year-old daughter a cunt?" Melly replied "No, because I don't think she is.

Referring to men

Frederic Manning's 1929 book The Middle Parts of Fortune, set in World War I, is a vernacular account of the lives of ordinary soldiers and describes regular use of the word by British Tommies. The word is invariably used to describe men: Whilst normally derogatory in English-speaking countries, the word has an informal use, even being used as a term of endearment. Like the word fuck, use between youths is not uncommon, as exemplified by its use in the film Trainspotting, where it is an integral part of the common language of the principal characters.

Referring to inanimate objects

Cunt is used extensively in Australia, Ireland and also in some parts of the UK as a replacement noun, more commonly among males and the working classes, similar to the use of motherfucker or son of a bitch among some Americans in extremely casual settings. For instance, "The cunt of a thing won't start," in reference to an automobile; or "Pass me that cunt," meaning "Pass me that item I need"; or "Those cunts down the road," referring to people in the vicinity. When used in this sense, the word does not necessarily imply contempt nor is it necessarily intended to be offensive.

Other uses

The word is sometimes used as a general expletive to show frustration, annoyance or anger, for example "I've had a cunt of a day!", "This is a cunt to finish".

Australians have a habit of pairing the word with another to give a more specific meaning such as cunt-rash (visible disorder of the female genitalia, again normally a general insult). The phrase "sick cunt" is sometimes used as a compliment by such sub-groups as Australian surfers, although the term originated within non-Australian groups who combined their use of the term "sick" with what they saw as a typically Aussie expletive.

A modern derivative adjective, cuntish (alternatively, cuntacious), meaning frustrating, awkward, or (when describing behavior) selfish, is increasingly used in England and has begun to appear in other regions, such as Scotland and Ireland.

Cunting is routinely used as an intensifying modifier, much like fucking. It can also be used as a slang term for criticism as in "Did you see the cunting he got for saying that?"

The word cunty is also known, although used rarely: a line from Hanif Kureishi's My Beautiful Laundrette is the definition of England by a Pakistani immigrant as "eating hot buttered toast with cunty fingers," suggestive of hypocrisy and a hidden sordidness or immorality behind the country's quaint façade. This term is attributed to British novelist Henry Green.

Cunted can mean to be extremely under the influence of drink and/or drugs.

Usage in modern popular culture

Theatre

Theatre censorship was effectively abolished in the UK in 1968; prior to that all theatrical productions had to be pre-vetted by the Lord Chamberlain; this relaxation made possible UK productions such as "Hair (The Musical)" and "Oh! Calcutta!". But "cunt" was not uttered on a British stage for some years.

Television

Broadcast media, by definition, reach wide audiences and thus are regulated externally for content. To minimise not only public criticism but also regulatory sanctions, policies have been developed by media providers as to how "cunt" and similar words should be treated. In a survey of 2000 commissioned by the British Broadcasting Standards Commission, Independent Television Commission, BBC and Advertising Standards Authority, "cunt" was regarded as the most offensive word which could be heard, above "motherfucker" and "fuck". Nevertheless, there have been occasions when, particularly in a live broadcast, the word has been aired outside editorial control:

However "cunt" has crossed over from accidental to purposeful use:

  • The first scripted use of the word in the United Kingdom was in the ITV drama "No Mama No", broadcast in 1979.
  • Jerry Springer - The Opera was shown by the BBC in January 2005. The performance included the phrase "cunting, cunting, cunting, cunting cunt" (a description of the Devil). However, more controversy was generated by the Christ saying that he "Might be 'a bit gay'" than by the use of "cunt".
  • In July 2007 BBC Three dedicated a full hour to the word in a detailed documentary ("The 'C' Word") about the origins, use and evolution of the word from the early 1900s to the present day. Presented by British comedian Will Smith, viewers were taken to a street in Oxford once called 'Gropecunt Lane' and presented with examples of the acceptability of "cunt" as a word.

In the US the broadcast use of "cunt" is still rare; nevertheless, the word has slowly infiltrated into broadcasting:

Film

The word has few, if any, recorded uses in mainstream cinema prior to the 1970s, the first known being in Carnal Knowledge (1971) in which Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) asks "Is this an ultimatum? Answer me, you ball-busting, castrating, son of a cunt bitch! Is this an ultimatum or not?" Its subsequent use was limited for a while to films restricted to adult audiences, such as The Exorcist (1973) in which Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran) addresses the butler, Karl (Rudolf Schündler): "Cunting Hun! Bloody damn butchering Nazi pig!" and Taxi Driver (1976) in which Travis Bickle (Robert de Niro) describes himself as "A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up."
Saturday Night Fever (1977) was released in two versions, 'R' (Restricted) and 'PG' (Parental Guidance), the latter omitting or replacing dialogue such as Tony Manero (John Travolta)'s comment to Annette (Donna Pescow) "It's a decision a girl's gotta make early in life, if she's gonna be a nice girl or a cunt." This differential persists, and in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Agent Starling (Jodie Foster) meets Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) for the first time and passes the cell of "Multiple Miggs", who says to Starling: "I can smell your cunt." In versions of the film edited for television the word is dubbed with the word scent.
More recently, use of the word "cunt" in film is still capable of generating controversy; in 2002 Ken Loach's film Sweet Sixteen was given an "18" rating by the British Board of Film Classification, ensuring that young people of the age depicted in the film were unable to view it legally. This rating was imposed because of the language used, with an estimated twenty uses of "cunt".

Comedy

In their Derek and Clive dialogues, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, particularly Cook, arguably made the word more accessible in the UK; in the 1976 sketch "This Bloke Came Up To Me", "cunt" is used over thirty times. The word is also used extensively by British comedian Roy 'Chubby' Brown, which ensures that his stand-up act has never been fully shown on UK television. Australian comedic singer Kevin Bloody Wilson makes extensive use of the word, most notably in the songs Caring Understanding Nineties Type and You Can't Say "Cunt" in Canada. The word appears on George Carlin's list of the seven dirty words.

Popular music

In 1977, during a concert at New York's Bottom Line, Carlene Carter introduced a song by stating, "If this song don't put the cunt back in country, I don't know what will." The comment was quoted widely in the press, and Carter spent much of the next decade trying to live the comment down. However use of the word in lyrics is not recorded before the punk rock band Sex Pistols' 1978 version of My Way, which marked the first known use of the word in a UK Top Ten hit, as a line was changed to "You cunt/I'm not a queer". The following year, "cunt" was used more explicitly in the song "Why D'Ya Do It? from Marianne Faithfull's album Broken English:

Since then, the word has been used by numerous non-mainstream bands, such as Australian band TISM, who released an EP in 1993 "Australia the Lucky Cunt", and a single in 1998 entitled "I Might Be a Cunt, but I'm Not a Fucking Cunt", which was banned. The American grindcore band Anal Cunt, on being signed to a bigger label, shortened their name to AxCx.

Big Pun is a rapper who has used the word, referring to the vagina, in the song "I'm Not a Player" from his 1998 debut album Capital Punishment. He says in a line "Excuse me for bein' blunt, but I've been eatin' cunts".

Eminem is another rapper who uses the word, in his songs "Brain Damage" from his 1999 album The Slim Shady LP and "Who Knew" from his 2000 album The Marshall Mathers LP.

Computer/Video Games

In the 2004 title The Getaway: Black Monday by SCEE was the first videogame to use the word. It is used several time during the game.

In the 2008 title Grand Theft Auto IV by Rockstar North and distributed by Take Two Interactive, available on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 consoles, the word, amongst many other expletives, was used by at least one in-game character as a general expletive towards another in-game character or characters.

Linguistic variants and derivatives

Various euphemisms, minced forms and in-jokes are used to imply the word without actually saying it, thereby escaping obvious censure and censorship.

Spoonerisms and acronyms

Deriving from a dirty joke: "What's the difference between a circus and a strip club?"- "The circus has a bunch of cunning stunts...", the phrase cunning stunt has been used in popular music. Its first documented appearance was by the English band Caravan who released the album Cunning Stunts in July 1975; the title was later used by Metallica for a CD/Video compilation, and in 1992 the Cows released an album with the same title. In his 1980s BBC television programme, Kenny Everett played a vapid starlet, Cupid Stunt, and more recently comedian Al Murray has hosted a British television comedy game show, Fact Hunt.

There are numerous informal acronyms, including various apocryphal stories concerning academic establishments, such as the Cambridge University National Trust Society.

See also See you next Tuesday

Puns

The name Mike Hunt is a frequent substitute for the unspeakable; it has been used in a scene from the movie Porky's, for a character in the BBC radio comedy Radio Active. and in the title of a 2004 exhibition at the British Library, "Has Anyone Seen Mike Hunt?" Apart from more directly obvious references, Stephen Fry famously defined countryside on I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue as the act of 'murdering Piers Morgan' and in Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, Donna and Gaz are perusing erotic novels when they come across The Count of Monte Cristo. However, Gaz helpfully informs Donna that 'it doesn't say Count'. Similarly, in an episode of Spaced, Sophie tells Tim that she can't see him as there's been a misprint on the title of one of the magazines she works on - Total Cult. In all these uses, the audience are left to make the connection.

Even Parliaments are not immune from punning uses; as recalled by former Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam:and Mark Lamarr used a variation of this same gag on BBC TV's Never Mind the Buzzcocks. "Stuart Adamson was a Big Country member... and we do remember".

Rhyming slang

Several celebrities have had their names used as euphemisms, including footballer Roger Hunt, actor Gareth Hunt, singer James Blunt, and 1970s motor-racing driver James Hunt, whose name was once used to introduce the radio show I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue as "the show that is to panel games what James Hunt is to rhyming slang".

A canting form of some antiquity is berk, short for "Berkeley Hunt" or "Berkshire Hunt", and in a Monty Python sketch, an idioglossiac man replaces the initial "c" of words with "b", producing silly bunt. Scottish comedian Chic Murray claimed to have worked for a firm called "Lunt, Hunt & Cunningham".

Other meanings

The word "cunt" forms part of some technical terms used in seafaring and other industries.

Nautical usage

A cunt splice is a type of rope splice used to join two lines in the rigging of ships. The two ends are side spliced together with a gap between the two parts, forming a short section where the two lines lay side-by-side when taut. In recent times its name has been bowdlerised to "cut splice".

The Dictionary of Sea Terms, found within Dana's 1841 maritime compendium The Seaman's Friend, defines the word cuntline as "the space between the bilges of two casks, stowed side by side. Where one cask is set upon the cuntline between two others, they are stowed bilge and cuntline." The "bilge" of a barrel or cask is the widest point, so when stored together the two casks would produce a curved V-shaped gap.

The glossary of The Ashley Book of Knots by Clifford W. Ashley, first published in 1944, defines cuntlines as "the surface seams between the strands of a rope." Though referring to a different object than Dana's definition, it similarly describes the crease formed by two abutting cylinders.

US military usage

U.S. military personnel refer privately to a common uniform item, a flat, soft cover (hat) with a fold along the top resembling an invagination, as a cunt cap. The proper name for the item is garrison cap or overseas cap, depending on the organization in which it is worn.

Hot-metal printing

In the traditional hot-metal printing industry, a cunt lead was a term that was formerly used to describe a small additional inter-line gap, usually of less than 1pt. The term is derived from the term leading which describes more generally inter-line gaps (from the strips of lead that were used to provide the separations).

Others

  • Cunt hair (sometimes as red cunt hair) has been used since the late 1950s to signify a very small distance.
  • Cunt-eyed has been used to refer to a person suffering from a squint.

Notes and references

Further reading

External links

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