The performativity of class status


Ally Fogg on the other hand has an interesting (as opposed to familiar and deadly-boring) post on the meanings and resonances of “cunt” in the UK, with an emphasis on the class aspect.

In my last blog, I noted in passing that I am prone to using very offensive language, including the word ‘cunt.’ I think it was coincidence, but around the same time Ophelia blogged on that very topic, and inadvertently created a perfect case study of the phenomenon I was discussing.

It was entirely coincidence; I hadn’t seen Ally’s post when I wrote mine. I wrote mine because of the inspiration of Ricky Gervais’s Facebook post.

As PZ noted in a follow-up called ‘How to drive a Brit crazy’, anyone objecting to the use of that word is likely to reap a torrent of comments saying “it’s a perfectly acceptable word; everyone says it in England.”

I’ll return to the question of whether ‘everyone says it in England’ in a minute, but first let me observe that what PZ describes is a classic example of the “you shouldn’t be offended by that” fallacy. Irrespective of how the word is used in other cultures, to many people – and especially to most Americans – ‘cunt’ is a deeply offensive, sexist and misogynistic word. In truth I use it very rarely on the internet / social media, because I know there will be people reading who will be upset by it and I have no wish to hurt them. I quite consciously modify my language out of respect for the sensibilities of some people who might read my words. That just seems like the decent thing to do.

Well that’s it, isn’t it. Why wouldn’t that be what you do?

Mind you, you need at least one additional adjective along with (or, perhaps better, instead of) “offensive.” Some people (though certainly far fewer than when I grew up swearing like a sailor) find mere swearing offensive as such, and I don’t defer to that when I’m writing. I don’t give a flying fuck about swearing; it’s epithets I care about; I think some are vicious and should be avoided. It’s perfectly possible to use the word “cunt” not as an epithet, obviously, and I have no problem with that – in fact, the more the better, because maybe eventually that would destroy its utility as The Worst Epithet Of All and then maybe there could be one that doesn’t denigrate women. That would be nice.

Occasionally I will weigh up that risk of offence against whatever point I wish to express by using it, and jump in with both feet. If someone objects, I may or may not apologise or regret my choice of word, but never would I tell someone that s/he is wrong to be offended. That would be outrageously presumptuous. The “But in England…” defence is indeed a pile of cack.

That said, the debate raises (or more accurately, misses) a point about the c-word that I find fascinating. In my experience, whenever foreigners, and especially Americans, fail to grasp a nuance of British habits, it is because they are almost entirely oblivious to the function and history of our class system, which runs like deep scars into every aspect of our society, our politics and – above all – our culture. The c-word is a quite splendid example of this in action.

It is simply not true that everyone in England says “cunt” all the time. It is not commonly considered sexist or misogynistic (note, I’m not saying it isn’t – I’m saying that’s not how it is considered) however it is undoubtedly considered exceptionally vulgar. Vulgarity in British culture is inextricably wrapped up with the performativity of class status.

Ah yes…he’s right, I have been neglecting or overlooking that aspect. I am at least somewhat aware of it, but naturally I don’t get all the nuances.

That’s what Dave was saying in his amusing comment on Saturday

I think it is rather more “argument getting carried away after skimming a few pages of an Irvine Welsh novel”. Not even everybody from Glasgow calls everyone they meet a c**t; and the notion we should set our threshold of social acceptability at “drunken teenager looking for a fight” is so absurd as to require no further comment.

It’s a fine line, innit – between performing not being a posh git and being the epitome of a drunken teenager looking for a fight. That’s the case here, too, you know – we do class performativity, it’s just not so clearly labeled. Look at George Bush – one extended example of bizarro-world performativity of class status.

Read Ally’s post for erudition about Chaucer and Shakespeare and Burns, and a lot more.

Where I grew up in Eastern Scotland, the word cunt is used prolifically. I once heard two elderly women in Dundee talk about their grandchildren, including the memorable phrase “och, the pair wee cunt’s got the maist affy colic” (translation: “Oh, the poor little soul has the most terriblestomach pains.”). Such usage serves a social and political function. It states, very forcefully, that the speaker resides proudly among the vulgar, not the refined. It is used in full knowledge that it will cause upset and offence to those of a delicate disposition. It is a statement of political identity, and I have no doubt that largely explains why it is so much more prevalent in the further flung homelands of Scotland and Ireland – not to mention Australia – than it is in England. Even within England, it is used more commonly the further you get (both geographically and sociopolitically) from the ruling class and the bourgeoisie.

This is not a justification or a defence. I could be entirely correct about the above and it could remain true that when used as a slur, the word is deeply misogynistic, positioning women’s bodies and sexuality as something dirty and negative. It can also be true that words change, gather or lose layers of meaning over time. Even if it was once used without intrinsic misogyny does not mean it remains free of those semantics today.

So in that sense, I am not seeking to shift the debate as to the acceptability of the word in either direction. However I am convinced that there is a profound difference between British and American usage. In Britain the word is mostly used for the performative power of its vulgarity, and its misogyny is unnoticed and incidental. In the US, the word is mostly used for its performative misogyny and it is the vulgarity, in terms of social class, which goes unnoticed and incidental.

There have long been – and continue to be – debates amongst British people as to the c-word’s function and acceptability. Even amongst women and within British feminism there is no kind of consensus on either side, and anyone who claims there is must be disingenuous or mistaken. I do not seek to persuade anyone that the word should be considered harmless or benign, but I would call on everyone to understand that to British people, the politics of cunt are perhaps much more profound, complex and encumbered with historical baggage than you could possibly imagine.

I believe it.

Fortunately I don’t have the power to meddle with what people in the UK say to each other in person, or even to remark on it (unless people tell me stories about it, which they mostly don’t). But on international social media like Facebook and Twitter? Different story.

 

 

Comments

  1. quixote says

    “the word is mostly used for the performative power of its vulgarity, and its misogyny is unnoticed and incidental”

    Very good point and rings true. It also describes my issues with the use of “fuck” as verbal pepper. I know that people use it to prove their un-git-ishness. Blanche in another thread made the point that neutral slurs like fuck are preferable, and that brought me up short.

    I have never heard “fuck” as ungendered. It’s a curse because it means “horrible, wasted, ruined” etc etc. Nobody ever uses “Oh, go get laid” as a curse because it has none of those connotations.

    But then if “fuck” just means “having sex,” where do the connotations come from? From an endemic and stupid hatred of sex, which people maybe think they’re protesting ironically by using it. Except it doesn’t seem to work that way. It just keeps meaning “Horrible and ruined and cursed.” So if there’s supposed to be some kind of reclaiming happening, it isn’t.

    And then, what to me is the worst point, it’s not the penetrative side of the expression that’s destroyed. It’s the penetratee. It’s a way of saying “go get raped” to my ears. So why have the non-gits taken something so misogynist as their badge of keepin it real?

    I know I’m just about the only person in left blogland who feels this way, but I really don’t get why so many people are okay with it.

    “and then maybe there could be one that doesn’t denigrate women. That would be nice.” That’s what I’m waiting for.

  2. Uncle Ebeneezer says

    Ok, I’m taking Ally’s point to be: don’t assume that someone in the UK using the c-word in a sexist way because they may be doing it in the tradition of (insert the long, fascinating history he cites here, “complex history”) so an assumption of sexism is bad faith and could be totally off-base. But wouldn’t that only be the case when we know the speaker of the c-word is familiar with/speaking from “complex history” AND that his audience is ALSO familiar with “complex history” and interpreting his use of the c-word through that lens? Is Ally’s perspective really shared by the majority of c-word users and their audience in the UK? And it still leaves the problem that people offended by (and concerned with the usage of) the c-word in the very common sexist way, have no way of knowing who’s who and effectively puts the pressure on the offended to bite their tongues and further allow sexist c-word use to go unchallenged when the environment provides enough cover.

  3. says

    I don’t buy it. Seriously.

    I do not seek to persuade anyone that the word should be considered harmless or benign, but I would call on everyone to understand that to British people, the politics of cunt are perhaps much more profound, complex and encumbered with historical baggage than you could possibly imagine.

    Politics of c**t encumbered with historical baggage? So is the “politics” of the N-word. Should we keep using that as well?

    And yes, I am allowed to use the N-word to show solidarity with my own, brown-skinned people who were once enslaved by the British, ruled by them for over 200 years, and often referred to by that epithet during that period in our history.

    And yet, I choose NEVER to. Because it is an offensive word and continues to reverberate with a justifiable sense of outrage and a remembrance of offensive acts in an offensive time.

    And this is the fucking 21st century. Hiding behind “historical baggage” in order to continue justifying a sexist, misogynistic slur – the use of a woman’s genitalia as terms of insult – is offensive in itself, especially because it reinforces the regrettable notion that we are incapable of learning from history or going beyond ourselves.

    C-word’s “acceptability” can FOADIAF.

  4. Shatterface says

    Back in the Eighties Alexei Sayle said there were basically two kinds of alternative comedian; those who used the word ‘cunt’ and those who didn’t.

    Sayle was a self-defined ‘cuntist’ and very deliberately used the word to identify himself with the working class: he certainly attempted to keep middle class comedians like Ben Elton at a distance. I think the same goes for Keith Allen.

    I think the record for the number of times it was used on TV in the UK used to be held by Queer as Folk; it peppered the more US gay drama Looking (also created by British writers). There’s no specific class dimension in either show but I don’t know if the word has a similar function as a cultural marker.

  5. says

    I admire Ally’s work as a general rule, and I’ll defer to him on linguistics north of the border [and indeed, perhaps, with Alexei Sayle in the mix, north of the Mersey]; but speaking as someone who clawed his way up out of the southern English working classes – which are perhaps, not quite working class enough for some people, but up yours – nobody I knew as a child didn’t understand exactly which bit of the female anatomy you were comparing someone to when you called them a c**t, as we regularly did in our merry playground encounters, and nobody thought that that wasn’t the dirtiest word you could use. So, join the dots…

  6. Blanche Quizno says

    *snork* “pile of cack”

    So what does “cack” mean, anyhow? My friend from Texas delighted me when, as I was telling him my suspicions that the neighbor man had faked his death for the insurance money, my friend suggested that perhaps his wife “cacked” him. As in knocked him off. Rubbed him out.

    It’s truly a great word, right up there with “berk” and “ponce” and “prat”. Now if I could only figure out what it means…

  7. Shatterface says

    Stuart Lee and Richard Herring use the word quite frequently – but in Lee’s case he’s generally directing it at himself.

  8. Blanche Quizno says

    I have never heard “fuck” as ungendered. It’s a curse because it means “horrible, wasted, ruined” etc etc. Nobody ever uses “Oh, go get laid” as a curse because it has none of those connotations.

    But then if “fuck” just means “having sex,” where do the connotations come from? From an endemic and stupid hatred of sex, which people maybe think they’re protesting ironically by using it. Except it doesn’t seem to work that way. It just keeps meaning “Horrible and ruined and cursed.” So if there’s supposed to be some kind of reclaiming happening, it isn’t.

    Wait – what?? So telling someone annoying to “Fuck off”…what?? See, to me, that just communicates the strongest sense of rejection and noncooperation, stronger than “Get the hell away from me.” What about “hell”? Are we REALLY conjuring up images of red men with pointy horns and pointy tails and pointy pitchforks there, too? Does everybody except me get all literal? That would come as a surprise to me – I’m usually the one who gets caught up in all that.

    SPEAKING OF WHICH, I have read analyses that link the worst cuss words, like “fuck” and probably even “cunt”, with a conquered people’s language. The invaders’ language became the upper-crust language, with decent, sterile words like “sexual intercourse”, and it was only the vulgar, disdained superseded language of the conquered riffraff that was adopted as the rude, unacceptable terminology – a fitting slap in the face to the conquered people. But I’ve also read analyses that debunk the evidence cited in the former analyses.

    And then, what to me is the worst point, it’s not the penetrative side of the expression that’s destroyed. It’s the penetratee. It’s a way of saying “go get raped” to my ears. So why have the non-gits taken something so misogynist as their badge of keepin it real?

    I know I’m just about the only person in left blogland who feels this way, but I really don’t get why so many people are okay with it.

    Yeah, I don’t get that either O_O Not that there’s anything objectionable about YOU or your position on purple prose, of course. I rarely use “fuck” except in the most extreme of situations, like telling someone offensive with whom I wish no further contact that they can “fuck the hell right off” or “FUUUUCK YOU!!” with the fuck nicely drawn out for emphasis. Casually, I’m quite content with “oh gawd” or “dammit” with the occasional “shit” thrown in for spice.

    Brits have put this strange masturbatory connotation onto “toss”. Like in that Harry Potter movie where he says, “Oh, he’s a real tosser.” That is meaningless here in the US – it’s only if one has familiarity with British slang that it’s 1) understandable and 2) funny. Similarly, a book I’m reading about ancient Greece – written by a Brit – describes the founding mythology of Athens as including “a discarded toss rag.” Yes, folks, the goddess Athena wiped her horny, rapey brother Hephaestus’s ejaculate off her thigh and where that rag landed, there was founded Athens. “Toss.” To me, it only means “to throw casually” as in to toss the throw pillows onto the sofa or toss an apple core into the garbage. Unless it’s in Brit context, in which case it’s hilarious.

    “and then maybe there could be one that doesn’t denigrate women. That would be nice.” That’s what I’m waiting for.

    Oh, there are plenty! Just surprise people with something new – see my friend’s usage of “cacked” – and you’ll surprise them and crack them up at the same time.

    I don’t know quite where I stand on “tit” – I realize that when people use it to describe stupid, incompetent boobs (there it is again!), it’s got a “woman’s breast” “feel” to it, sorta kinda, but it was hilarious in “Snatch” where the mob guys were looking at the surveillance camera footage of the failed robbers and described them as “a coupla tits”. So is “boob” wrong, too? That’s been a commonplace slang for “stupid, clumsy, oafish” forever… From my experience, it has a humorous jokey air to it while “fuck” is more potentially serious. Though I’ve used “great oaf” to great effect once or twice…just sayin’…

  9. says

    I’m neither British nor American, but I come from a working class stock as working class as you can be (you don’t get any more working class than miner). And yep, my grandpa cursed* and he had some colourful epitephs for the rich. Yet i never heard him use the German equivalents of c*nt etc. He lived through a time when linguistic shifts happened, when the N-word was labelled racist and he simply went along instead of throwing a tantrum and trying to be a #bravehero against those posh people with college degrees.
    He would probably be deeply offended if somebody told him such a story and then went along saying “well, but it’s OK for them because they are working class“.
    And anyway, I still fail to see what this has to do with somebody using the English language not as a sociolect within a very specific speech community but as a lingua franca on social media.

    *There’s cursing, there’s calling people names and there’s slurs. One of these things is not like the others.

  10. Seth says

    “Cack”, in Ally’s usage, comes from the Latin for ‘shit’, I believe. (See ‘cago’ in Spanish, for example.)

    For my part, I only ever use ‘cunt’ as a synonym to refer to an actual vagina, and never to a person. My usage of ‘cock’ is similar. I don’t know if that counts as ‘reclaiming’ the word or not, and I understand if such usage is still offensive to some people, but I find it a beautiful, non-clinical, elegant word when employed in that way. It is disheartening to see it turned into a weapon against other people by small-minded, woman-hating thugs who think the most vicious way to attack someone is by comparing them to a vagina.

    I hope that we can correct that impulse without having to delete the word ‘cunt’ itself from our vocabulary in every context. I love cunts, and I respect the people who have them.

  11. opposablethumbs says

    cack = excrement. Works as a verb, too – you could, conceivably (though I haven’t heard the whole phrase in one go) cack your kecks (shit your trousers).

    cack-handed = a) clumsy and b) left-handed (people historically having such a charming view of those who are left-handed, as usual)

    /derail

  12. Seven of Mine, formerly piegasm says

    So, is there a slang word for penis that has similar historical baggage? Because if not, then Ally’s post just reads to me like a better informed version of “but we don’t mean it that way in the UK.” If there’s not a male analogue and “cunt” is the word that people defiantly use to proudly identify as a member of the working class precisely because it’s the most vile thing you can say…welp. That’s every bit as misogynist as we’ve been saying it is.

    @quixote re: “fuck”

    I don’t see it as a gendered word but I’m not fond of it and have encountered plenty of people who agree. “Fuck you,” “fuck off,” “fucked up,” “fucked over” all imply bad things. They’re things you say to people who are behaving badly and about things that have gone badly wrong. “Fucking” can be a general superlative but things can be superlatively bad as well as good. So, it strikes me that the net result of the way we use “fuck” is pretty sex negative. I’ve been less than successful at removing it from my lexicon because it’s so ubiquitous that it springs very readily to mind but I do try.

  13. Ally Fogg says

    Hi everyone

    Forgive me if I don’t get sucked into extended conversation over here, as I’m already trying to keep tabs on my own thread, but just a few quick points

    @Ophelia:
    Thanks for the post and the kind words

    @KausikDatta:
    Please understand that I am not trying to persuade anyone that they should use the word. I’m not even trying to persuade anyone that it is fine for me (or anyone else) to use it. I don’t expect anyone to read my post and change their mind on that question (in either direction). What I was hoping to do was explain some of the missing context to the debate, and correct a few canards that were floating around (on both sides). I also thought some readers, particularly Americans might be interested in trying to understand why so many Brits – including progressive / liberal / left types remain ardently attached to the word and continue to use it. .

    @Everyone
    I would reiterate that the c-word can be used in many ways, including ways that are deeply misogynistic, and it often is. There is a deeply disingenuous defence made by some people who just want a get out of jail free card, and it won’t wash, IMO. The main purpose of the blog was to make that point clear.

    Anyway, thanks for the interesting feedback.

  14. tiko says

    The use of the word c**t in Britain may have originally been ungendered (I don’t personally believe this) and it may have had something to do with class.But the abuse of women on the internet is a recognised phenomenon and the intent of using that word doesn’t change depending on the country the victim or abuser lives in.
    If the internet was only available to the privileged few it might be different,however this is not the case and c**t is the word of choice for bullies no matter where they come from.
    Also as mentioned previously, surely it takes more effort defending it than trying to stop.

  15. says

    The “fuck” thing: Fuck has never only meant sexual intercourse. And from what I can tell, the sex connotation is at least secondary. The way a lot of people use it, it doesn’t mean particularly anything – it is just verbal punctuation, somewhat approximating “!” (“bang” -what are the odds, right?) to varying degrees.

    Some uses, however, clearly imply some sort of violation wished upon the target. But mostly they seem mixed to me, as the multiple meanings sort of mix.

    I dunno, it’s a very weird word, and it’s been a long time since I’ve read any thoughtful or scholarly treatments on it.

  16. Stacy says

    Ally is not trying to justify using the word as a slur.

    This is not a justification or a defence. I could be entirely correct about the above and it could remain true that when used as a slur, the word is deeply misogynistic, positioning women’s bodies and sexuality as something dirty and negative.

    He’s sharing background information. A lot of people over the past few days have insisted that the word isn’t common in the UK. There are places in the UK where yes, the word is common–and, as in the case of the grandmother referring to her grandchild as a cunt, not always as a slur. The people who live in those places are the inheritors of entrenched poverty and prejudice. Like victims of poverty and prejudice everywhere, they tend to be invisible except as objects of scorn.

    It’s possible to reject the misogyny of cunt-as-slur (or cunt-as-epithet, even when not intended as slur) and still recognize the class issues.

    And no, the class dimension shouldn’t trump the sexist one. Fuck that shit.

  17. Stacy says

    Aaand Ally posted while I was working on my comment. Call me Little Miss Superfluous. :)

  18. says

    It’s no mystery why some British people are attached to using the c-word. Some people are jerks and act accordingly. Yeesh. Some white Americans get super frustrated about not being “allowed” (meaning they can’t do it without social disapproval) to use the n-word. So the fuck what?

  19. Pen says

    What Allly says about class is exactly what I was trying to hint at in my last comment. I’ll add that Ally is educated and cosmopolitan and knows what is expected linguistically in various national and international circles and knows how to moderate his language. Whereas the features of bugs of working class life often include poor education, enforced provincialism and limited access to public speech. I think even Ally misses the point in saying that vulgar language is used deliberately to assert a class identity – it just is how people talk in certain circles and they don’t give it a second thought. Oh, they know they’re considered vulgar, uneducated and barbaric by those refined people higher up, but there are no alternative practices in the actual circles they frequent.

    In the mean time, you, Ophelia and several of the commentators are still failing to grasp that in these particular limited provincial circles, the word ‘cunt’ DOESN’T denigrate women. Not those who hear it or those who use it, or those who are associated with men who use it. It’s only when it moves into a wider national or international circle that it begins to be taken that way.

  20. quixote says

    Seven of Mine: it’s “sex-negative.” That’s maybe a better way to articulate what I mean. I don’t think we (leftists) should be. Sex-negative, I mean. Or women-negative. Maybe we could transition to using “fracking” instead. 😀 That could really use more negative connotations!

    As for the derivation of “fuck,” yes, it does mean sex and originally meant simply the act, the way we use the term mating or breeding. It’s still used that way in Dutch, for instance. “Fokken” is used to talk about breeding animals. Like other names derived from trades, like Smith or Miller, Fokker is a not uncommon Dutch name. A person of that name founded a once-well known aiplane company. One of their models was the Fokker “Friendship.” If you want to experience the term with zero connotations, learn Dutch :D.

    All the other connotations that it has came from sex negativity. And we use it because that gives it more power than terms without a sex component, like shit or hell. And that’s also why “cunt” is used. The two performances are related. But language is all about usage, so there’s no requirement to be consistent.

  21. says

    Ophelia and several of the commentators are still failing to grasp that in these particular limited provincial circles, the word ‘cunt’ DOESN’T denigrate women. Not those who hear it or those who use it, or those who are associated with men who use it.

    Seriously? “Doesn’t”, because you say so? How difficult is it to understand that the usage of words that represent a woman’s body part, as slurs, invectives or epithets is a deeply sexist and misogynist practice – regardless of who does it and why, notwithstanding its historical perspective?

    Sheesh!

  22. says

    quixote at #1…

    So where would you put phrases like “fuck off” and “fuck you” and “you’re a fuckin’ douchebag” and “FUCK!”? I’m not sure how those can be seen as sexual in any sense. On the other hand, I actually agree with you about phrases like “go get fucked”, and avoid them myself.

    But if you were to ask me to define the word “fuck”, I’d be stumped. I know about the sexual definition (“I need a good fuck”, “let’s fuck”, etc), but I’m quite sure that that’s not the only, or indeed main, definition. And unless I’m much mistaken, “Fornication Upon Consent of the King” is a myth, or at least came about long after the word was already in popular usage.

    On a separate note… can we have a conversation about the word “asshole”? Seems to me that most if not all gendered slurs refer to the same, or at least similar, behavior that the word “asshole” refers to, and asshole enjoys the privilege of not being a gendered slur. So why is it so hard for people to simply replace gendered slurs with the word “asshole”? It’s what I’ve done…

  23. theoreticalgrrrl says

    C*nt is meant to dehumanize, it’s not “offensive” it’s dehumanizing. Yes, men are sometimes called a cunt, but they are dehumanized by it because comparing a man to a woman is extremely degrading. How often do you hear a woman being called a dick or penis? They don’t, because being compared to men isn’t dehumanizing, it’s a step up in the world. “She has balls,” is a compliment.

    When you can dehumanize a group of people that casually, you can justify all sorts of abuse and violence against them. And that is what is happening. Look at the world and tell me how much esteem women and girls are held in. Look at the statistic of violence against women all over the globe. We don’t need derogatory, hateful words for women to be even more normalized than they already are.

    If you’re a man and you cling to that word, and get offended when anyone expresses that they have a problem with it, you are acting in a sexist manner. You may actually believe you aren’t, but you are. It’s the kind of sexism that’s so pervasive that it becomes completely invisible. Like telling women to shut up and learn to accept being called a cunt.

  24. Seven of Mine, formerly piegasm says

    Pen @ 19

    Do you understand what insults are? If you’re using a word as an insult, it’s because the thing or person or concept represented by that word is a bad thing to be. If it wasn’t a bad thing to be, it would never have occurred to anyone to use it as an insult. Because that’s what insults are.

    The fact that some percentage of British people use it callously and obliviously without considering the impact of their words doesn’t automagically negate the impact of their words which is the denigration of women.

    The fact that the attachment of British people to that word stems from its use as a more generalized political statement doesn’t change the fact that that particular word was chosen precisely because it was the most vile thing anyone could think of to say. You seriously don’t perceive anything denigrating to women in the fact that words referring to their genitals are the most socially unacceptable words one can utter? I call bullshit.

  25. Bernard Bumner says

    Even in those contexts where the speaker does not intend misogyny, and I know I always tend to harp on this, there is often a different sexist element at play, which is that the word is rarely used by males towards females – a sexist recognition of the power of the word, and the need to protect the delicate sensibilities of women.

    It also strikes me that the pointedly, deliberately misogynistic usage may be gaining significance here, since it seems to commonly feature in stories of British online harassers as a word of choice directed in Twitter abuse towards female celebrities (and of course, we have seen this…). As such, this debate is rapidly becoming moot, and anyone who is aware of the potential harm should make efforts to avoid this unnecessary word.

    I think that there is something very interesting about the way that the word transitioned from a bawdy anatomical term, acceptable in open use by Chaucer, to the most offensive taboo word in the language. But it is very easy to take an interest in something dangerous when you aren’t on the wrong end of it.

  26. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    Seven of Mine, formerly piegasm

    So, is there a slang word for penis that has similar historical baggage?

    There’s “prick” and “dick” with the connected “dick-head”. I don’t think they’re considered as obscene as “cunt” now, and they’re comparative neologisms, but they were unprintable for a long time, so it’s hard to say what was more offensive in the past. There’s also the question of just how much historical baggage obscene words have: just because they weren’t allowed to be printed we don’t know much about how they were used or their associations. The French con has long been printable and seems to have nearly lost its sexual/sexist connotations and to be respectable- and meaningless- now.

    “Fuck” derives from an Old English or Germanic word mean “strike” or “beat”, I think, so there could be something inherently misogynistic or hostile to women in its original meaning. It got into the first O.E.D. in the compound “windfucker”, a term for the kestrel. Oddly, “fuck off” and “fucker” are still considered more offensive than “bugger off” and “bugger”, though buggery was long illegal in Britain The fact that “bugger” was a term of endearment when people were hanged for buggering each other shows the complexity of the situation though.

  27. Blanche Quizno says

    Y’know, it occurs to me that my maternal grandmother, who died in 1997 at 96, had a habit of referring to something cute, in the sense of baby-animal cute, with the word “cunnin’,” a sort of diminutive of “cunning.” Note that this usage has *NO* connotation of sneakiness, craftiness, foxiness, or cleverness – it’s completely a description of gentle, helpless, babylike sweetness. I have also run into this term used in this sense, which seems to have gone wholly out of common usage, in older books – I’m particularly remembering from “Laddie: A True Blue Story” by Gene Stratton-Porter, who also wrote “A Girl of the Limberlost”, one of the first environmentally focused novels. Her last book was “A Magic Garden,” which it sounds like I should read at some point…

    Anyhow, notice the similarity in sound between “cunnin'” and “cunt”. The grandmother’s usage of “cunt” to refer to a grandbaby makes me wonder if she weren’t really using some variant on “cunnin’.” It’s too bad we can’t ask the old dears what the *spelling* was of the “cunt” word they were overheard using!

    Though at least the 3rd or 4th generation born over here in the US, this grandmother of mine was of English stock.

  28. Blanche Quizno says

    “So where would you put phrases like “fuck off” and “fuck you” and “you’re a fuckin’ douchebag” and “FUCK!”? I’m not sure how those can be seen as sexual in any sense. On the other hand, I actually agree with you about phrases like “go get fucked”, and avoid them myself.”

    Perhaps you remember in Pulp Fiction, where Vincent Vega, upon discovering his boss’s wife ODed, exclaims, “Fuck me! FUCK ME!!!” He knew he was completely fucked. So while I’m sure some might insist this has rapey connotations, to be “totally fucked” means that you’re “up shit creek”, possibly “without a paddle.” You’re in “deep doo doo,” in other words. You’re toast. Done for. Dead.

  29. quixote says

    I know the linguists have a term for it, but I don’t remember what it is. It’s for words-that-lend-emphasis. Words that are supposed to make you feel slapped with a wet fish. Swearing generally is in that class. “Hell, no” or “Fuck, no” are stronger than just “No.”

    My point is that “fuck” derives its strength from sex negativity, especially from a kind generally attached to women, and that every time it’s used — which is precidely because it has strength — it’s another drop on the stalagmite of an attitude we should be demolishing, not feeding.

  30. says

    Blanche Quizno

    Note that this usage has *NO* connotation of sneakiness, craftiness, foxiness, or cleverness – it’s completely a description of gentle, helpless, babylike sweetness.

    See, that is what is not actually possible, because connotations exist on both sides of communication*. I don’t know the etymology, it’s possible that there is polysemi (when two words that are not actually related end up looking the same like ear (body part) and ear (plant part)), it’s possible that there was some rare regional drift in meaning. It doesn’t matter. People hear one word and the other meaning comes up just the same. And even if one meaning doesn’t come up in 90% of a particular speech community, it can still come up and it will most certainly come up when the receiver belongs to another speech community. Therefore defending the word by claiming “intent” is just bullshit.
    Connotations are a wide field. While some may be widely shared within a culture (red roses = romance), others are not. They are also not always conscious, which is something many people also don’t understand and which is an argument you often get about “hysterical”: Nobody knows what it actually means anymore, therefore it is no longer a gendered insult. But then they totally ignore that it is a word almost exclusively used for not-men, i.e. women and children.

    *I’m not picking on you or your gran, I’m just using it as an example.

  31. davidmc says

    I gave up “cunt” a couple of years ago thanks to Ophelias arguments at the time, along with all gender specific slurs. Well mostly anyway, its really hard when Cameron comes on the telly…. ARSEHOLE! I sometimes go weeks or months without slipping, and try ,in my limited way, to explain why gender slurs shouldn’t be used. But there is nothing quite as satisfying as a good FUCK…OFF!

  32. says

    I recall that the usage of the term was rather widespread in usenet groups related to football. Naturally the groups would be dominated by British blokes and the term would be used to denote, basically, any group of assholes that the poster had their eye on. However, I seem to remember it was mostly aimed at groups rather than individuals, and also mostly at males (football being what it is). Now you might argue that there is still the misogynist connotation (as is often the case when people refer to sportsmen as girls), but I believe it was used more along the lines indicated in the article you write about.
    Also, these usenet groups were rather close-knit and we all know how the usage of words changes between the public and private domains.

  33. says

    I use it (not often, admittedly) and don’t personally perceive it to be sexist although a) I acknowledge it can be used in that way, particularly in the US, and b) I acknowledge others perceive it to be sexist full stop, and unacceptable, and I understand why, so I would avoid using it in their presence.

  34. says

    Because I don’t personally think it’s sexist – unless it seems used with that intent. I used to, but then I changed my mind. Sexist or not, it can be used in an unpleasantly aggressive or abusive way – but it can also be used rather humorously. I wouldn’t use it on your blog because I know you don’t like it.

  35. Uncle Ebeneezer says

    @Giliell 31- Well said. I wanted to comment something along those lines but couldn’t quite formulate it. Even if a word has two commonly used connotations, if one of those is highly offensive, why use it? I struggle to imagine any sentence or scenario where someone could use the harmless version of the c-word with 100% certainty that no listener might hear the harmful one. And even if context, environment etc., could make it absolutely clear that no offense is being intended, a person can still be offended by it. I’m reminded of 11th grade Russian class when my teacher would ask how’s life “kak zhizn?” and we would all giggle even though we were fully aware that her intent was not to talk dirty to us.

  36. says

    Oh, well wait – what do you mean “use it”? Just as a word? Or as an epithet? I’m not arguing against using it humorously. Gervais’s example was (very obviously) of its use as an epithet.

  37. hoary puccoon says

    I’m finding the tone-deafness toward other people’s feelings displayed by some of British on this topic pretty hilarious, since I’ve repeatedly run into British people who have hypersensitive hearing for anything said by an American that might, just possibly, if you tilt your head and squint hard enough, reflect badly on the British. On Pharyngula, a British gentleman wrote that he finds the term “Brit” quite offensive. Actually, that’s a term I’m careful not to use, just on the suspicion that a British citizen might find it unpleasant. But that hasn’t always protected me from the wrath of the (former) empire. For instance–

    1. A British woman snarled at me, “I don’t *have* an accent. I’m English.” At the time, we were discussing GB Shaw’s “Pygmalion’ which– silly me– I thought was largely about different English accents. But apparently not. Who knew?

    2. A Welshman got quite irate with me for inadvertently calling him English. I could see his point, and ever after referred to anyone who sounded like they came from Great Britain as British. Which ran me afoul of—

    3. An Englishman, who snapped, “I’m not British. I’m English.” Apparently, I was supposed to be able to tell that from his accent. Which he didn’t have. (See point 1.)

    4. And another Englishman who threw a foot-stomping fit, screaming, “you Americans think you own everything,” when I referred to Puerto Rico as American soil. Which was bemusing, to say the least, since Puerto Ricans call themselves an Estado Libre Associado (Associated Free State) of… the United States of America!

    And now, the British are telling *us* that we shouldn’t be so sensitive about language!

    I’m sorry, I just can’t help laughing.

  38. arthur says

    Totally agree with davidmc here and Alley Fogg.

    I’m from the North of England – growing up, the c-word generally referred to someone who was a “shameless bastard” or SOB – and was used liberally by all, with no notion that it had sexist connotations. I heard feminists use the c-word without caution – plenty of times. I use the word “git” or “arsehole” which means roughly the same thing.

    Lots of people, including myself, became aware of the wider / other / US connotations of the word quite recently. Through the internet.

    The discussion should be about education. People from particular backgrounds need to be educated that the word can be seen as misogynistic and offensive to others.

    As a linguistic aside, I find it fascinating that when a powerful word bores itself into one’s consciousness, it’s really difficult to untangle the connotations. So it seems impossible for folks in the US to see the c-word being used, and take on board the fact that it is being used in a totally different context to the one they are familiar with.

    I’ve written all this before on this site. More than once. But I think it is important to stress that when certain people are saying the c-word has a very different meaning to them, they’re not trying to take some obnoxious stance and they’re not making it up. They’re telling the truth, and a glance at most English word usage dictionaries would confirm that.

  39. Bernard Bumner says

    And now, the British are telling *us* that we shouldn’t be so sensitive about language!

    I’m sorry, I just can’t help laughing.

    Because all Brtish people said and think all of those things?

    You’re trying to have your cake and eat it on this one. The diversity of opinions expressed by Britons above should tell you that this is not a British argument.

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