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.
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.
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.
It is not a huge exaggeration to say the debate over the c-word began at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. For the next 400 years or so, English peasants spoke endless regional variations on middle English, (the language of Chaucer, most famously.) The ruling class (nobility) spoke Anglo-French. Over a couple of hundred years, roughly between the times of the Tudors and the Georgians, the English language began to standardise, and people learned to perform a place in the social hierarchy according to whether one’s vocabulary and vocal stylings leaned more to the Norman / Anglo-English or the older, more ‘vulgar’ Anglo-Saxon.
Before spelling was standardised, Chaucer had the freedom to improvise, and makes a rather clever visual pun by spelling the word cunt as ‘queynte’ – deliberately echoing the word ‘quaint’ meaning ‘a pleasing thing’ and he used it liberally and without any hint of embarrassment. By Shakespeare’s time, the bard was reduced to hinting at it like a naughty schoolboy – and he did, often.
However, there was no United Kingdom at the time of Chaucer or Shakespeare. The further you drifted from the Norman influence, the less the people’s language was polluted by the aristocratic gentility and Latin constructions of the Normans. We Scots had 0ur own languages (lowland Scots, a close relative of middle-English and Highland Gaelic – which we share with the Irish) the Welsh had theirs of course, and still do.
So long before the notion of sexism or misogyny had even been conceived, the word ‘cunt’ had become a battleground in a long-running and bitter culture war and those who were most keen on its erasure were the aristocrats, the theocrats, the patriarchs, and those irritating Puritans that we shunted off on the Mayflower and hoped to never hear from again. As Laurie Penny rightly points out here, excising ‘cunt’ from people’s language was in itself an exercise in controlling and shaming women’s bodies and sexuality. The modern British taboo against saying ‘cunt’ in the presence of a “lady” has much more to do with perpetuating the patriarchal Madonna-whore dichotomy than any kind of acknowledgement of sexism.
As late as 1790, the Scots’ national poet (and a personal political hero, incidentally) Robert Burns was not just toying with vulgarity, he was positively revelling in it. Sometimes it was jocular, 18th century vaudeville, like his poem superficially about a hat called ‘Cock up Your Beaver‘ at other times he didn’t even bother with the pretence. Burns, the son of a ploughman, had a strained relationship with the nobility in both Edinburgh and England whom he felt courted his talent while patronising him and mocking his origins. By writing such unapologetic vulgarity, Burns was very deliberately performing the role of the common man, for the common man – and woman.
Jump forward another couple of hundred years, and to one of my all time favourite films, Shaun of the Dead. Near to the beginning, Shaun (Simon Pegg) is in the pub, trying to explain to his pretentious, upwardly mobile friends that his best mate Ed is really a good guy. Ed cheerfully strolls up to the table and beams “Can I get any of you cunts a drink?”
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 terrible stomach 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.