Back in 1972, the late American comedian, George Carlin, delivered his classic monologue: “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television”. The words were ‘shit’, ‘piss’, ‘fuck’, ‘cunt’, ‘cocksucker’, ‘motherfucker’ and ‘tits’. At the time, this hilarious act was as hugely popular as it was reviled for how “filthy” it was. Today, 40 years later, these words still bear the “dirty word” stigma despite the fact that they now flow freely from television programming, movies, the Internet, magazines, high and low literature, etc.
Why? And what possessed me to write about this? I thought about George Carlin after I was out for drinks the other night with a predominantly female crowd. As has happened umpteen times before in similar situations, one of the girls bitterly complained about how odious the word ‘cunt’ is. All of the other girls chimed in their assent and, as we discussed, one of them could not even bring herself to actually say the word. She would spell it out instead: “I just think c-u-n-t is such a terrible word”!
When I pressed the girls on why ‘cunt’ occupies the # 1 spot in the English language’s worst dirty words list, there was no consensus and they clearly struggled to articulate their abhorrence.
“It’s such a horrible description of a vagina”.
“But it’s a noun, not an adjective”, I said.
“Shut up, Andrew. It’s demeaning”.
“Why”? I asked. “No one gets nearly as upset about using the word ‘cock’”.
“It’s so insulting!”
“But why is ‘pussy’ okay? I mean that’s a dirty word for vagina. Is it because it connotes a cuddly pussycat curled up in front of a roaring fire”?
“Cunt simply sounds gross”, concluded one of the girls, picking up on my pussy observation, and this struck me as about the best reason provided because there is something about the sound of the word that makes us recoil. And it is not just girls. If you ask any guy what the worst swear word is in the English language, he will automatically say “cunt” (probably because all of us guys have borne the terrible wrath of a girlfriend after using the word in an absent-minded moment of bitterness). Interestingly, if a guy really wants to insult another guy, he will select ‘cunt’ in replacement of ‘asshole’ – and then better be prepared to put up his fists to defend himself.
To follow up on this, the difference in the way heterosexual men and women use dirty words to insult each other is curious. When men insult men, while ‘asshole’ is the default, they will draw from the entire repertoire of dirty words including: ‘bastard’, ‘shithead’, ‘cock’, ‘dick’, ‘cocksucker’, ‘motherfucker’, ‘son-of-a-bitch’, etc. Men will also call each other ‘bitches’, ‘sluts’, ‘whores’, ‘pussies’ and, of course, ‘cunts’. On the other hand, when women insult women, their choices are far more constrained. They will invariably rely on ‘bitch’ as the primary insult and, when super pissed off, even resort to the hated ‘cunt’ word. In instances of sexual rivalry, women will also call each other ‘sluts’ and ‘whores’. Why is this the case? You never hear women call each other ‘assholes’, ‘shitheads’, ‘pussies’, ‘fatherfuckers’, ‘pussylickers’, ‘daughters-of-bastards’, etc. And while men call each other ‘pussies’ and ‘cunts’, women never call each other ‘dicks’ or ‘cocks’.
Also, there are basic differences in the dirty words heterosexual men and women use to insult the opposite sex. When men insult women, the almost universal default is ‘bitch’ or, when super pissed off, ‘cunt’. If wanting to cast aspersion on sexual proclivity, men will call women ‘sluts’ or ‘whores’. Men never call women ‘assholes’, ‘shitheads’, ‘cocks’, ‘dicks’, ‘fatherfuckers’, ‘daughters-of-bastards’, etc., (and, of course, men don’t call women ‘cocksuckers’ because, in their view, that would be a compliment!) On the other hand, when women insult men, they will run the full gamut of insults: ‘asshole’ being the default along with ‘bastard’, ‘shithead’, ‘cock’, ‘dick’, ‘cocksucker’, ‘motherfucker’, ‘son-of-a-bitch’, etc. Women will sometimes call men ‘sluts’ and ‘pussies’ but never ‘bitch’ or ‘whore’.
So the breakdown is like this:
Men insulting men: everything (with no distinction in situations of sexual rivalry); ‘asshole’ = default
Women insulting women: ‘bitch’ and ‘cunt’ (in situations of sexual rivalry: ‘slut’ and ‘whore’); ‘bitch’ = default
Men insulting women: ‘bitch’, ‘cunt’, ‘slut’ and ‘whore’; ‘bitch’ = default
Women insulting men: everything except ‘bitch’ and ‘whore’; ‘asshole’ = default
Difficult to explain, no? The main common thread through all of this is that the worst word anyone can call anyone else is ‘cunt’. What surprises me, in this age of empowerment, is that women do not take ownership of the word ‘cunt’ in the same way that African-Americans have taken ownership of the word ‘nigger’. What I mean is that blacks in the United States liberally refer to each other affably as ‘nigger’ but you better make your funeral arrangements in advance if you are not black and plan on calling a black person a ‘nigger’ to his/her face. Similarly, African-Americans in the US will derisively call non-blacks ‘nigger’ as a grievous insult. What if women did the same and regularly called each other ‘cunts’ in a friendly context and castrated any man who dared call them a ‘cunt’ to their face (well, admittedly, the analogy breaks down a bit here as women will already do that to men but you get my point)?
Anyway, these observations are made purely in the North American context. If you have ever been to London, you will notice that ‘cunt’ is featured in virtually every other word in everyday conversation without anyone batting an eye:
Joe: Alright cunt, I better be getting home to the cunt.
Beth: Okay, cunt, what are you doing this cunting weekend?
Joe: Ugh, I have to go to my boss’s cuntry house for an office BBQ. What a cunt.
Beth: I cunt believe it!
Joe: I know and I have to take the cunt and the little cunts too. Anyway, cheerio cunt!
Beth: Cheers, cunt!
What an enlightened, ahem… country I hail from!