C is for Cunt

While the world is only just coming to terms with saying the word vagina out loud, cunt remains a term that takes people’s breath away as they cringe at the sheer power it contains. Pushed underground, banished from conventional language, cunt has long since been appropriated by patriarchs and misogynists and used as an utterance that disgusts or insults in the worst possible way.

But cunt has not always been the most taboo word around. It was originally a term used to revere the wisdom of women, in particular the wisdom of her genitals. In pre-agrarian days, cunts were tacitly celebrated as purveyors of pleasure and knowledge.

Vaginas, on the other hand, have often been the locale of war, violence and disdain since the inception of patriarchy–that cruel, women-hating inclination which saw female bodies become sites of restraint, control and oppression.

The etymology of vagina dates back to the 1680s. From Latin, it means a sheath or scabbard in which to thrust a sword. So the word contains the notion that a vagina is something to be potentially violated–entered forcefully with a weapon of war.

It can be no mistake that the term originated at about the time of insane witch hunts in Europe that saw thousands of women being raped, tortured and burned at the stakeapparently because vagina-bodied people were evil, their sexuality unbridled. Women were often accused of having intercourse with the devil himself.

Despite modernity, the contemporary vagina continues to be a locale of violence, suffering and exploitation. Stories now flood the media around issues pertaining to this contested and vilified part of the female anatomy, mostly centered on violence towards women or the pornification and pacifying of women’s bodies.

The scourge of rape is also as high or higher than ever, being used as a weapon in wars premised on land grabbing and the seizing of natural resources. In the Congo, for example, hundreds of thousands of women have been raped by marauding militias that are often funded by multinationals.

In the West, we see vagina-cruel practices such as vagina bleaching, vagina tightening and labiaplasty. In the United States, the uber-misogynistic war on the vagina which has recently taken on the form of a veritable witch hunt, with absurd and backward legislation put forth to stifle women’s reproductive rights. In Africa and parts of the Middle East, especially, we see forced genital mutilation (FGM). Rape takes place everywhere. Vagina violation and vilification is a global phenomenon.

But on the other side of the spectrum, we have the those who fight for the rights of the vagina to be free, in all her natural, hair-covered, musky, fragrant, quirky, curled, creased, folded, humid, orgasmic, beautiful self: from Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues to artist Jamie McCartney’s Great Wall of Vagina to the Russian anarchist punk protest group Pussy Riot to the many ordinary women reclaiming words such as vagina and slut to the women in Africa who rescue young women from FGM and early marriage. It seems that the more some try to push the vagina underground, the more others make it center stage.

When we look to the etymology of the word cunt, it has a much more celebratory and empowering origin than vagina.

Etymologist Eric Partridge, writes in his book A Charm of Words that the the prefix “cu” is an expression of “quintessential femininity,” confirming “cunt” as truly a woman’s term. Tony Thorne, in his Dictionary of Contemporary Slang writes; “The synonymy between ‘cu’ and femininity was in place even before the development of written language: In the unwritten prehistoric Indo-European languages ‘cu’ or ‘koo’ was a word base expressing ‘feminine’, ‘fecund’ and associated notions.”

Matthew Hunt, who draws from the above writers in his offerings on the history of cunt, says that the Proto-Indo-European “cu” is also cognate with other feminine/vaginal terms, such as the Hebrew “cus;” the Arabic “cush,” “kush,” and “khunt;” the Nostratic “kuni” (woman); and the Irish “cuint” (cunt). He goes on to say that the word cunt is inherent in many goddess’s names such as the Indian goddess Kunt and the energy force known as Kundalini.

Furthermore, while the word vagina implies a singular orifice for organ, cunt speaks of the textured nature of female genitals and includes the vulva, clitoris, labia and canal. Cunt speaks of the multidimensionality of women’s sexual pleasure–not just the sheath in which a man can thrust his erection. It denotes a sexuality that is rooted in pleasure and orgasm, not one denied orgasm by patriarchal doctrine.

I believe that the word cunt has to be dug up and given a good historical dusting so that the beauty, force and power of the word is  reinstated into the feminine discourse. When women finally reclaim and speak this word, its full potential will be released and women will repossess their collective cunt-power and rise up against misogyny and patriarchy with the absolute intent of ending it.

(The author is currently making a film entitled C is for Cunt, which explores the etymology of taboo feminine words.)

Photo via Flickr user janoma.cl licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

 

Comments

  1. I really enjoyed this article! More people should be comfortable with the word “cunt.”

  2. I love this post and the movie sounds awesome. Good luck.

  3. Refreshing. Repossesion of the “C word” is long overdue.

  4. Nicole Merciless says:

    I like to use this word and my bf absolutely cringes, almost writhes with discomfort.

  5. Can someone explain to me whether is the word “pussy” ok to use and non-offensive? I’m from Russia, so sometimes do not have a feel for some words, so to say. It seems that this word is minimizing the vagina, makes it non-threatening, non-important. I really don’t understand!

    • From what I’ve seen, some of your fellow Russians have put that word to use in the most feminist of ways…

      • I’m not going to expand on this here, but unfortunately Pussy Riot have little to do with feminism and the three women were used by those who hired them, by the husband of one one of them, by their lawyers and by the media.

        • The women of “Pussy Riot” have issued cogent statements in their own defense. They did not sound like puppets of men.

          Any documentation not linked to apologists for the Russian Orthodox Church like Israel Shamir would be greatly appreciated.

  6. Awesome article. A woman at the DMV called another woman a “cunt” and I wanted to yell something like, “Nothing wrong with that!”. By the way, is there any chance you can do an article about why society thinks it’s okay to use “vagina” to refer to the vulva?

  7. i don’t really care about etymology, in a living language the origin of a word has practically zero relevance to understanding the way a word is used and understood in the present. the fact is, the word cunt has been used by misogynists to brutalize women, and with so many misogynistic women out there, it’s stupid to think you can use a word used to hurt people like that and just trust that everyone who hears you will understand you don’t mean it that way.

    • Absolutely. I’m not about to start saying this word around other people, men in particular, who will only interpret this as another example of women hating women.

  8. A friend and I just got the yoni symbol tattooed on our bodies. To both of us, it’s a beautiful reminder of the power and grace of the vagina. From now on, though, I think I’m going to introduce it as my “cunt tattoo”.

    That’s always been a favourite word of mine; now I have even more reason to support it. Thanks!

  9. Words that include “cu” or “cun” can take on new layers of meaning when you understand where their original root came from: cunning, country, jocund…

  10. barbara Mor says:

    A social class/linguistic aspect of the words ‘cunt’ & ‘vagina’ is important to know: Cunt, as the article describes, is an ancient Indo-European word root, which
    was retained in Western European languages & in particular in Old & Medieval English;
    i.e. ‘cunt’ was an indigenous word spoken by the peasants, who were then the huge
    majority of the population, as was their land-based lifestyle. Vagina, a Latin word,
    was introduced later by the Roman invasion & colonization of Western Europe; it was thus a part of the language of the State, Court, & Church. It was, in other words,
    part of ‘aristocratic,’ ‘refined’ & ‘high class’ speech. Cunt, the people’s words, was disparaged for being just that: low class, folk speech, a word of the original people, not of the ‘superior’ conquerors & their culture, which was located in the
    growing urban centers & presumed to set standards for ‘accepted linguistic behavior.’
    In this way, a words that were originally class-based evolved into descriptive terms with morality attached: ‘vagina’ may be used on air, in school lectures etc, it is
    the ‘scientific’ term. ‘Cunt’ remains associated with lowdown street talk, & remains on the broadcast censor’s list. As George Carlin demonstrated, you can get seriously fired from your media or educational professional saying one of these words, but it’s now okay to use the other.(Check it out: fuck, cunt, prick, piss, shit etc are NoNos, while fornicate, vagina, penis, urinate, defecate etc are officially accepted. The difference between these 2 lists? The 1st is all Old English: peasant talk; the 2nd is all Latin: upperclass lingo. Of course, as we’ve seen in recent elections, in some states all parts of the female body are ‘dirty words’ regardless of their linguistic provenance. In those cases, you go to the polls & vote their reactionary bumbutts out of office (‘bum,’ & ‘butts’ too are good old English words).

  11. Very interesting article.

    However, I’d like to make the point that FGM stands for Female Genital Mutilation and not for forced genital mutilation.

    I would advise to be careful with the use of the word “forced” as it might imply that some women go through FGM voluntarily; which is not the case. Most victims of this human rights violation are millions of girls under 15.

  12. what do people think about the use of cunt and bitch by gay men as an insult or term of endearment?

  13. Oh my. The dreaded C word. Or as I read here, the oh so celebrated one. A lot of us don’t even know the history and power behind some of these so-called taboo words. Nice piece! It reminded me of this one from Venus Blogs: http://venusblogs.com/the-vagina-youre-looking-for-cant-be-found-2/

    Both of your sites rock!

  14. So Gillian and I disagree on this. I don’t mind cunt; I mind when people use it to describe/label/name anything but a vulva. Cunt = vulva. Cunt =!= rude person who cuts you off in peak traffic.

  15. JJ Marks says:

    Cunt is still used in the same vein as faggot – a word moronic others resort to when their vocabulary escapes them for a slur. Also, one doesn’t see groups of women friends saying to each other, “Hey their cunt. Pass me the pinot!”

    Sorry, this change will be a long time coming. I abhor the term. Most people could care less about etymology and only about shaming/hurting. (Although Eve Ensler has been very effective in her method.)

  16. I celebrate the word but still use it as a swear word… such is the power of connotations. I will use this piece as a reference in the future. I loved learning about the etymology and fecund is a new word that I am adding to my vocabulary… thank-you.

  17. Thank you for sharing this great post. More men and women need to be aware of the power of the word ‘Cunt’. We ought to celebrate the word in all it’s glory for it is the epitome of life itself. I have shared this entry in my own blog: http://dearaphroditeblog.blogspot.com.au. Thank you again.

  18. Loved this article. Very empowering to know what it’s actual meaning is.

  19. It is one great word with a big history and has its glorification in its use by poet William Shakespear in his plays ‘Hamlet” or “Twelfth Night” whereas the word p*ssy lacks the charm.

    Hamlet: Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
    Ophelia: No, my lord
    Hamlet: Do you think I meant country matters? That is a fair thought, to lie between maid’s legs.

    Though he did’nt use it explicitly, he didn’t use it with any derogatory meaning. Pl see Wikipedia also.
    If used between a man and a woman in privacy it should be an arousing word and fit into the romantic situation. If used to mean the genitals of a woman they(women) should not be hurt. Well, they are the owners of it and all men cherish it.

    It may still remain an abusive word if applied to men. That is the case in several languages worldover with equivalent words.

    For the better part of it it needs to be reclaimed than deprecated.

  20. Thank you for keeping the conversation alive, Gillian. A few comments:

    I) I think it’ll be decades before the shift toward a positive connotation for cunt is finalized, however the process could certainly be accelerated if:
    i) everyone- particularly the 50+% of the English speaking population possessing a cunt- to add it to their daily lexicon. This would perhaps also require increasing women-on-women compliments, enhancing solidarity which in effect would further strengthen the women’s movement. For example, “A chica in the front row of my economics class is always commenting on the reading. The business world needs more smart cunts like her.” Or, “damn, look at that cunt! I wonder where she gets her hair done; it is fabulous”
    ii) At the very least someone possessing any positive opinion on the matter updates the entry for ‘cunt’ urbandictionary.com
    iii) A “Celebrate Cunts” holiday was established. Festivities would include artwork by famous cunts such as Frida Kahlo and these ladies: http://blkwomenart.com/ and at the end of the festival an enormous replica of a sword in a sheath is engulfed in flames by torched bras and myriad flammable beauty products.

    II) As mentioned, FGM is the acronym for female genital mutilation, though no doubt forced in one way or another. A site for starters: http://www.fgmnetwork.org/intro/fgmintro.html

    III) HOW could you leave out Inga Muscio? Perhaps you were not aware of her book “Cunt: A Declaration of Independence”? I appreciate the male support quoted in the article, though!

    • P.S. I) iii) : **entry is meant to read “festivities include *viewing* artwork”. .. Just in case anyone thought I might have meant torching the art…

  21. The thing that offends me is that people are less offended by the word when used as a derogatory term to demean another person than by the sexism and misogyny that is behind the misuse of the word and the abuse of the object. I love the word “cunt” when it is used to refer correctly to a woman’s vulva and vagina. <3

  22. Blackbird says:

    Your article connects well with a play staged by students from UWC called ‘Reclaiming the P-Word’. Google it and see. It is just sad the way women are treated in SA and in Africa. Till today the Nigerian school girls had not been found, 5 months after being abducted. It just means that the female is not valued in African culture. I had a lot of respect for African culture before, but it is fast eroding. I have to state that and I am black. Its just depressing.

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