A Rumination on the ‘C’ Word

Kathleen Deveny questions our squeamishness about the C word:

[A]s the proud owner of the anatomical bit derided by the word in question, I have begun to wonder why we ever got so worked up about it in the first place. Why has it retained the power to outrage when other coarse language has found its way onto the playground? The C word has been in use since at least 1230, according to the Oxford English Dictionary online, when it referred to a street name, Gropecuntelane (bet I can guess what went on there). It has gradually been finding its way into mainstream American culture since the 1970s. Think of Travis Bickle’s rant in Taxi Driver, Hannibal Lector’s delightful salutation to Agent Starling, or the last words Adriana heard before being shot to death on The Sopranos. And don’t forget Citizens United Not Timid, best known by its acronym, a Hillary-bashing group that got media attention during the last campaign.

It’s true that nicknames for male genitalia are myriad, and often pretty amusing, but none is as offensive as the C word (certainly not that other C word, a piker by comparison). The derogatory term for vagina just seems so foul, so dirty, so … down there. But wait: isn’t the perfectly neutral word “vagina” enough to send most men screaming from the room? Our aversion to the C word may simply reflect our cultural aversion to the C. “The suggestion is that, from the Middle Ages through to the 19th century, and perhaps beyond, men have feared the unknown quality of a woman’s sexuality, most specifically her ability to deceive when it comes to conception,” writes linguist Ruth Wajnryb in Expletive Deleted. She adds that since “the c— is the place where deception and betrayal transpire … the male ego would feel sufficiently threatened to need to deride and denigrate the female quintessence.” Plus, I hear some of them have teeth!

Years ago on the occasion of this story (found via our own Joe Gandelman) about a British school that permitted use of the f-word in class up to five times a lesson (the tally would be kept on the chalk board and students who abstained from such use were to be sent “praise postcards”), I swore off cursing.

Now careful readers might point to my use of the word “sucks” in a recent headline and wonder how I justified it. Truth be told, I was uncomfortable about it. But I blame Seth Stevenson:

Sucks is here to stay. And what’s more, it deserves its place in our lexicon… Sucks is the most concise, emphatic way we have to say something is no good. As a one-syllable intransitive verb, it offers superb economy.

So does it suck or does it rock?