Every language has its share of words that fall into the realm of the taboo. These untouchable words are, for whatever reason, laced with a special sort of venom or social gravity and are often among the most offensive words one can mutter, shout or expectorate.
If you’re sensitive to strong language this post may not be to your taste – consider yourself warned.
I’ve been thinking for a while now about a particular word and resulting phenomenon that I feel falls within the realm of legitimate linguistic examination. A word that seems to carry a lot of malice and tends to be considered unacceptable in most circles. I’m talking about “The C Word”.
Lets all hold our breath for the stern rebuke from Jezebel…
All my life that has been one of the great English no-nos, ranked high among the echelons of racial slurs and historically hatetful terms that no self respecting man in the United States could ever get away with saying. It’s one of those words most young boys are told by their fathers never to use.
Several years ago when I was in college a friend of mine participated in our drama department’s rendition of The Vagina Monologues. For anyone who isn’t familiar with this piece it’s essentially a series of short skits designed to spread awareness of and appreciation for womens’ sexuality and rights.
Many universities and colleges in the US, and I assume around the world, perform selections from the VM repertoire, but in case you’ve never seen or heard of it it’s usually simultaneously hilarious and depressing, featuring some skits that are designed to be purely entertaining and humorous and others that attempt to bring about a more deep emotional response.
Among the more amusing skits is one called “Reclaiming CUNT”. This skit transforms the word from a hurtful, taboo subject into something empowering and oddly endearing.
The performance is a poetic description of the nasty little four letter word that attempts to shed a new light on the term, essentially tearing it down from its poisonous pedestal and making it mundane. It was a powerful piece and I recall all of my female friends began using the word left and right for a while thereafter.
The word had lost its insidious potency.You can watch the skit here:
It’s been almost seven years since I sat in that little college theater, and in that time I feel like the word has transformed from something horrendous that no self respecting person – particularly no man – would dare utter into something useful, flexible, and strikingly common.
People I’ve only just recently met will use the word casually, synonymous with the long-since-softened “bitch”, another word that has managed to lose its avarice and become a common component in most peoples’ speech.
Eve Ensler, Composer of
The Vagina Monologues.
I’m still extremely cautious about who I use the word around, it is after all not quite in the green, but it has started to become a far more common, less powerful word in just about every circle I’m involved in – from the online language community, to my closer co-workers, to friends from college and high school (and most of these perpetrators are women.) Their mothers would be so disappointed….
I’m excited by this shift in the nature of the word. It has become empowering. Women can now make the word their own and use it as armor against the very misogyny that ten years ago might have been using it as a weapon.
And I have to agree with the Vagina Monologues skit, from the point of view of a linguist at least, that the word has a wonderful little punch to it. The sound, the contour of it, is so strong and forceful and dirty that it’s hard not to like it just a little bit.
A single syllable with the force of a canon ball; if you’re looking for new insults to hurl you can affix this sucker to a host of other colorful words that will really make your grandmother shrivel.
So what do you think about the word “cunt”? Is it still as offensive as it once was? What do you think is responsible for its increased commonality? Does it have the same impact in your countries or circles?
What are some words in your languages that carry or formerly carried a similar weight? Share them with us in the comments – don’t be shy.
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