They have to be blokes, do they?

You know how people keep telling us – over and over, with an air of patient “everybody knows this” superior wisdom – that “cunt” is not a sexist epithet in the UK? It’s used solely for men, so much so that it would sound weird to call a woman it? That it’s lost its original meaning i.e. female genitalia?

As in this comment by “Minow” on January 8 for instance:

What offensive word? “Cunt” obviously. The others wouldn’t be “offensive” enough to be worth mentioning.

No it was ‘bitch’ according to press reports. Nimmo is British and it is quite rare in Britain to use ‘cunt’ for a woman, it sounds a bit peculiar, like calling a woman a ‘cock’. This might be changing as we Americanize in that way but I think it is still generally true. ‘Cunts’ have to be blokes, usually hard-arses in a bad way.

I call Rachel Bailey to the stand.

Scott and Bailey, Season 3 episode 5. Spoiler alert – a suspect trips up when Rachel is interviewing him, and he says something that convicts him. She is telling the roomful of detectives what happened, and concludes with “…and that’s when he called me a – ” pause “…rhymes with stunt, brunt, front” and everyone laughs.

It’s at 42:25 in case anyone wants to check my arithmetic.


  1. Ray Moscow says

    For women, it usually has the adjectives ‘stupid’ or ‘dumb’ in front of it. But it’s fairly common and is understood to be an insult.

    When used for men, it has a different meaning.

  2. says

    So I’m given to understand. Which is annoying to me as a (very sporadic) songwriter, because I have one about the ‘drummers are idiots’ trope, in which ‘Berkshire hunt’ is the perfect rhyme, but I also try to be as scrupulously non-discriminatory in my lyrical language as I can. Clearly, it’s got to give, but what to replace it with is a real puzzle…

  3. RJW says

    Er…..on the basis that the epithet is usually directed at men in the UK, was the suspect, in fact, questioning Constable Bailey’s gender?

    BTW, I wish Bailey would sort out her chaotic private life and get back to police work.

  4. sawells says

    @11 : I live in the UK. It is flatly untrue that “cunt” is mostly directed at men. It’s just a lie that people tell when they don’t want to admit that it’s a blatantly misogynistic insult.

    In general: a shame indeed about “berk”, I was sorry to lose that one.

  5. jefrir says

    “Cunt” in the UK is not predominantly directed at women in the way “bitch” or “cow” are, and in the way “cunt” seems to be in the US. However, it retains both its denotative meaning and its rudeness – no Brit is going to be confused by a woman referring to “my cunt”, and it’s one of the few words you will not hear on the BBC. Anyone claiming different is either ignorant or lying.

  6. AsqJames says

    Even if (and I don’t actually accept this) it “usually has the adjectives ‘stupid’ or ‘dumb’ in front of it” I’m not sure how that would make it any less unacceptable. If anything tying those words together layers further implications and imputations on top of the existing ones. It’s saying: “not only is your entire worth to me encapsulated by your sexual organs, the fact you have that particular arrangement of reproductive equipment makes you my intellectual inferior too”

    Despite being a British male, I don’t get why it’s considered OK when used between male friends either. I don’t call any of my white friends “nigger” or “paki”. When pushed to a hard bargain, I don’t laughingly/admiringly ask fellow gentiles if they are trying to “jew” me (although that expression has been used in that way in my presence).

    All these linguists who defend its alleged common British usage probably also proclaim the “language of Shakespeare” the richest in the world too – so why can’t they find another word to bestow on the local hard case?

  7. stevebowen says

    I’ve been using the word “berk” for 50 years and never come across the Berkshire Hunt derivation. It’s odd too because most Brits pronounce Berkshire as “BARKsher” and no – one gets called a bark…

  8. Acolyte of Sagan says

    Ophelia Benson
    January 24, 2014 at 12:27 pm (UTC -8) Link to this comment

    I’m told that “berk” itself is rhyming slang. Berkshire Hunt, you see. Possibly that’s what you meant?

    January 24, 2014 at 12:29 pm (UTC -8) Link to this comment

    Got it in one!

    Nope, you’ve got it arse-aboout-face, as they say. ‘Berkshire (or more commonly ‘Berkeley’) Hunt’ is indeed rhyming slang but has nothing to do with ‘berk’, which is not an abbreviation of Berkshire. Berk is pronounced ‘b-u-rk’ whilst Berkshire is pronounced ‘B-a-rkshire’ and Berkeley is ‘B-a-rklee’.
    ‘Berk’ originated from the North-West of England and is an ages old slang term for a native of Birkenhead, now a suburb but formerly a village close to Liverpool where the locals had a reputation for stupidity.

  9. Acolyte of Sagan says

    Ophelia Benson
    January 24, 2014 at 1:09 pm (UTC -8) Link to this comment

    If it’s not predominantly aimed at women why is it the word the psychopath chose when he needed the worst thing he could think of to call Bailey?

    Because the scriptwriters were lacking in imagination?*

    *Tongue very firmly in cheek!

  10. says

    Hmm. Anybody got any authoritative linguistic citations either way?

    I know that’s lazy of me, Google is my friend, do my own homework, etc, but I’m doing some posts instead of researching the real meaning of “berk.”

  11. AsqJames says


    Given Birkenhead is separated from Liverpool by the River Mersey and thus mostly retained it’s pastoral nature until well into the industrial revolution, I find it hard to believe it was either large enough or well known enough to require an “ages old slang term” to refer to its residents. Said residents might bristle at having their town laelled a suburb of Liverpool too, given that when it did grow it developed around the shipbuilding industry on that side of the Mersey.

    Not that this is proof, but the dictionaries all seem to contradict your theory, do you have any sources?

  12. Gordon Willis says

    Acolyte makes an interesting point. I suspect, though, that the usual pronunciation of “berk” is a product of the spelling. It’s not in my Shorter Ox, but my Reader’s Digest dictionary — which has an impressive panel of linguists including David Crystal (on usage) — gives rhyming slang as the source (though no dates). The apparent anomaly, then, would be the British pronunciation of Berkshire and Berkeley, which is a product of the normal change of sounds over time and has nothing to do with the old-fashioned spelling which we can’t seem to do anything about.

    Anyway, here we are, doing this all over again. I suppose we must, but it’s really boring. Being British, I can only endorse sawells’ comment at 12. It is simply not true that the word “cunt” is used “normally” for men. And what’s more, the fact that it is used to insult a man shows not only that the object is reckoned to be as inferior as a woman but that he is as inferior as a woman’s “shameful parts” (pudenda) to which every woman is by implication and long-standing tradition reduced. So however it is used it reinforces the assumption that women are inferior, shameful and disgusting. That is where it derives its force as an insult. In a society that aspires to equality there can be no possible defence of using such a word.

  13. says

    Never heard @17’s explanation for berk, very much rhyming slang where I come from… If you want a good word I find pillock works well, although given it’s etymology you may be accused of “misandry”. But the best northern word is wazzock, pretty sure no one knows where the hell that came from so no problematic history.

  14. Vicky says

    Being both strategically foul-mouthed and local to Scott & Bailey Country, I’m quite sure that the word in question was chosen for its gritty, northern edge, as well as to show that she’s coming in for all the abuse a male officer would receive, and taking it in her stride. It struck me as a very neat, economical bit of character development.

    My own accent (mild West Lancashire) tends to get a lot stronger and take on a Manchester edge when I’m arguing with e.g. an uncooperative letting agent; I certainly feel more confident if I can channel Godzilla (Amelia Bullmore, not the lizard).

  15. Tim Harris says

    Rhyming slang is (mostly) Cockney in origin, and I suspect that many Cockneys didn’t, perhaps don’t, pronounce ‘Berkshire’ with a fruity upper middle-class ‘bark’.

  16. stevebowen says

    Not to get all Zen on your ass, but: if a word has a sexist etymology, but nobody remembers, is it still sexist?

  17. sacharissa says

    Rhyming slang is no longer common in the UK and in my experience few British people know the origin of a lot of the surviving words. “Berk” is a mild jocular insult and a lot of people who use it would be shocked to know its origins. Likewise, most people are vaguely aware that “cobblers” is a polite euphemism for “balls!” (as an expletive, you wouldn’t use it as a synonym for testicles”). Few know that it is rhyming slang: “cobblers awls”, probably because most people don’t know what an awl is (it’s a tool for making holes in leather).

    When Spain had a president called Zapatero (=shoemaker, or cobbler). It was very funny to some British people that they had a had a president called Mr. Cobbler. I once tried and failed to explain the humour of this to a Spanish friend. Of course, we actually have a politician called Mr. Balls.

    As for “cunt” in the UK. It is usually applied to men. The problem with it is that the rudest rude word of them all is the word for the lady parts and the worst thing you can call a man is a vagina. Of course, there are a lot of rude words in the UK that relate to the male genitalia as demonstrated above.

  18. sacharissa says

    Oolon, you’ve just demonstrated to me the point about not knowing the origin of words. I’ve always liked the word “pillock” as a mild derogatory term but it was not until reading your post that I actually checked out its etymology.

  19. Bernard Bumner says

    I would agree that the insult cunt is typically aimed at men in the UK. Certainly, as a jocular term if endearment, it is almost universally applied to men. I would also say that the word isn’t very commonly used to refer to genitalia, and in most cases there is no conscious connection between the two. It is almost as though the two terms exist as homonyms – one of them simply being the rudest word in the language. However, even in that case, the reason that it isn’t generally aimed at women? Sexism, again.

    Because it is the rudest word in the language, it reserved only for the angriest or blokiest situations – it isn’t generally considered appropriate for use in the presence of or towards women.

    Hence, when a drama needs to portray the worst of the worst, someone directing it towards a women. In this case, I think that it is actually invoked as a lazy indicator of the mask of quiet politeness dropping away to reveal a raging psychopath who realises that he has been caught. Personally, I wouldn’t understand from that scene that he chose the term as a sexist insult.

    The use of cunt certainly appears, from all of these discussions over many years, to carry different connotations in the UK, but it would be untenable to suggest that the term isn’t problematic and sexist.

  20. arthur says

    In my experience of coming from the Northern UK, the C-word means something like “shameless bastard”. Usually referring to men – but not exclusively – and spoken by both men and women.

    I’ve discussed this C-word US/UK discrepancy with fellow English men and women for years, and they invariably share this same experience and definition. Regardless of social or political positions. The US definition – which is clearly different – is slowly becoming known among Britons due to the internet, but it seems to remain largely unheard of. I first came across on a Larry David TV episode.

    When female friends (all feminists) refer to people as Cs, which has not been uncommon in the past, they mean approximately that the subject is a “shameless SOB”. They say this with no realization that the word is a sexist epithet elsewhere.

    I don’t use the C-word myself, but myself and others are not making this up when we say it means something different to many people in the UK.

    As for “berk”, I’ve never heard that story before, but I suspect it is an urban myth and false, and it has nothing to do with ‘Berkshire Hunt’, which I’ve also never heard of in any form (including as an actual event – which certainly isn’t famous in England).

  21. arthur says

    @22 Oolon: “If you want a good word I find pillock works well, although given it’s etymology you may be accused of “misandry”. But the best northern word is wazzock,”

    I like the word “git” which substitutes neatly with the C-word (at least its commonly understood definition in Yorkshire).

    Another useful Northern word is “numpty”.

    One of the more flexible epithets is “cock” – which works as a friendly term in one context, and as an aggressive insult approaching the C-word in another. Calling some a “cock” in the second context means roughly the same as calling them a C-. A “cock” in this context is someone who is a shameless, unpleasant piece of work. I’m not sure if this usage is widespread, but exclaiming “You Cock!” to someone’s face in passing is pretty fierce and aggressive behaviour. Not recommended.

  22. rnilsson says

    Uhmm. Sowwy, I jest don’t git’it.

    Also, please explain for the innocents 🙂

    *Tongue very firmly in cheek!
    Ophelia Benson

    January 24, 2014 at 1:31 pm (UTC -8)

    Hmm. Anybody got any authoritative linguistic citations either way?

  23. Jimmy Boy says

    You know how people keep telling us – over and over, with an air of patient “everybody knows this” superior wisdom – that “cunt” is not a sexist epithet in the UK?

    Yeah – but it is though, whether the user knows it or not. It’s sexist because it still definitely does refer to a vagina. No question. Try the following playground insult “bucket-cunt” – in the slut-shaming stable. No question but – even if you’d never heard it before – you’d know that could only refer to a woman.

    It’s used solely for men, so much so that it would sound weird to call a woman it?

    That’s a bit strong – it does get used about women. I don’t hear it used about women very often – it is used predominantly about men. But it wouldn’t sound weird. Doesn’t stop it being sexist though. Is there something of the denigrating ‘down to the level of a woman’ about that usage?

    That it’s lost its original meaning i.e. female genitalia?

    That it definitely hasn’t. Anyone claiming that has an agenda…

  24. yahweh says

    I’ve spent most of my working life in the City of London and can assure you that although there are precious few women there is no shortage of complete and utter cunts. Fred Goodwin and Bob Diamond are just two amongst many.

  25. yahweh says

    It may be difficult to accept, but Minnow is giving you an honest report of the facts. Personally I find it hard to believe that cunt, in the US, is a derogatory term for a woman, but if you say it is I suppose you must be right. After all, you live there – I don’t, and you should know. Likewise, you have no reason really to suppose any different of Minnow.

    Watch to the exert again. The suspect is not American 😉 It is Rachel Bailey’s behaviour which is being criticised, not her sex. In fact, the words gain force precisely because they are – unusually – being said of a woman.

    Whether the term should be used in this way, or any offensive way, is another matter.

  26. says

    Rachel Bailey’s behavior is being criticized by calling her a Female Genitalia, and not just a Female Genitalia but a drastically pejorative epithet for Female Genitalia. It is not possible to do that completely independent of her gender.

    Yes, Minnow lives there and I don’t (although I have lived there in the past), but on the other hand I have heard from many other people who do live there who vehemently disagree that “cunt” is not sexist.

    Also, there’s another variable; I’m a woman, and you and Minnow are not.

  27. AsqJames says

    Also, there’s another variable; I’m a woman, and you and Minnow are not.

    Yes. It does seem, from my experience, that almost all the people claiming the UK use is not sexist or almost exclusively aimed at men are themselves men. Such men might like to consider 2 things.

    First, why do we hear so few UK women defending the apparently non-sexist UK meaning?If it’s so widely known that the word is not degrading to women, women must be aware of this. You may see the occasional woman defending it, but I’d bank on them being outnumbered 20 or more to 1. So you’re argument is basically 95% of UK women are wrong…oh, and a good number of UK men too.

    Second, how often do you hear women use the word? If UK specific usage is generally not derogatory of women, and is generally aimed at men, and this is widely known and accepted, why do women so rarely use it when insulting men? Under those conditions it would seem to make sense for women to use it much more than (in my experience) they do.

  28. says

    It’s extraordinary to me that so many men are so comfortable doing that. Compare white people feeling comfortable telling black people that racist epithets aren’t really racist because blah blah. There are some who will do that, but I think it’s much less common.

  29. yahweh says

    I wasn’t suggesting for a minute that the word is not offensive to women nor that it is not sexist. I was confirming Minnow’s account of how it is used and suggesting that you should accept what you are being told as fact – even though you do not like it or approve of it.

  30. Gordon Willis says

    In a world which consists almost entirely of men, insults will be used almost entirely of men. The laddish habits presupposed by minow and yehweh are naturally assumed by them to be the norm because they are unaware of any other sections of society — maybe not in principle but certainly in their general mode of thought as revealed by their comments. It is true that “the lads” use the word all the time, while it is generally carefully avoided by the majority of the population, but that doesn’t mean that it is not used of women, however odd “the lads” might think it.

    But all this rubbish about who says what to whom is a mere distraction in the given context. Minow, as so often, simply doesn’t get the point. For surely (thinks minow, no doubt sincerely), if men use a word of men, how can it be sexist? Do we laugh or cry?

  31. says

    And I was suggesting that you’re wrong to suggest that because it’s not “fact” and there’s little reason for me to “accept what [I am] being told as fact” when what I’m being told by Minnow is not all I’m being told, and does not match up with what I’m being told by other people, especially women. Many people in the UK strongly disagree that it’s used only of men.

  32. says

    The “c-word” is very flexible and can be deployed in a variety of ways with a variety of intended meanings, including entirely innocuous and descriptive ones, and including unpleasant and sexist ones.

    There is no basis whatsoever for the assertion that it can only be used of men. The historic citations given by the Oxford English Dictionary include some examples of it being used of women, so QED.

    I note some fellow British posters saying it seems to be used *mainly* as men. That may be possible, in their limited social experience at least, but if so that’s not because of any restriction on meaning. It could be because there’s a recognition of how offensive it is when used of a woman, or because certain groups or sub-groups of men deploy expletives like confetti more often than groups of women do (on average, generalising etc).

    According to my copy of “A Dictionary of Historical Slang” (originally edited by the legendary Eric Partridge, my edition is a 1972 abridgement), it was a perfectly ordinary Old English word, but was avoided in polite society from the C15th century on puritannical grounds. And from around 1700 it was treated as obscene, to the extent that it almost never appeared in print, and not in any dictionary, not even the Oxford English Dictionary, until the 1965 Penguin English Dictionary. The reason given by the Dictionary of Historical Slang is the word’s “powerful sexuality”, which is probably already a sexist reaction. So there would be a transgressive thrill in using it in the face of such a taboo. And from the obscenely sexual it’s no great leap to the offensively negative.

    By the 19th/20th centuries, according to D. of Historical Slang, it becomes used to mean, reductively, “woman”, and, by sexist extension, anyone you dislike. There are other connotations too of course. Now, there are male-related words like “prick” which can also be insulting, indeed any sexual term seems to end up as an insult, which is fascinating; but they are comparatively mild, never suffering the fate of being excluded from dictionaries or all/most written material.

  33. says

    In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary entry proceeds as follows:

    1. The female external genital organs.
    [various quotes given]

    2. Applied to a person, esp. a woman, as a term of vulgar abuse.

    Note the second definition. Interestingly, the five citations given in support only include one actually used of someone identifiably a woman, but that from 1965. The earliest citation is 1929. Seems to me this is another occasion the OED could do with a wider range of quotation sources!

    Anyway, here is a clear authoritative source undermining the “men-only” myth, and also providing evidence not only that it can be used of women (with a 50 year-old quote), but also that it is “especially” directed at women.

  34. says

    A Dictionary of Historical Slang also helps out with “berk”, in the sense that “berk” does not appear at all!

    “Berkeley” is in, and this is what it says [I refuse to print the C-word in full, in case my mother googles me again]:

    “Berkeley. The pudendum muliebre: C.20. Abbr. Berkeley Hunt, a C***. 2. in the pl, and from ca 1875 – never, obviously, with Hunt – it denotes a woman’s breasts; F. and H. adduce Romany ‘berk’ (or ‘burk’), breast, pl. berkia. cf:

    Berkshire Hunt. The female pudend: rhyming s.: ?mid-C.19-20. Franklyn, ‘Rhyming’, believes it to form hte original of the synonymous Berkeley Hunt and the Berkeley form to be accidental.”

    The Oxford English Dictionary says, in its entry on “berk” [again, I’m censoring]:

    “Etymology: Abbrev. of Berkeley (or Berkshire) Hunt, rhyming slang for c***.

    earliest citation given by the OED: “1929 R. Graves Lars Porsena (1931) 94 There are other examples of rhyming slang in connection with words of abuse. E.g.: ‘Gehout you berk.’ Berk = Berkeley = Berkeley Hunt = z.”

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