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?

JOE WINDISH, Technology Editor
Leave a replyComments (9)
  1. dmf August 30, 2009 at 11:04 am

    personally, i find squeamishness about any mere collection of letters or syllables to be confusing and rather unenlightened.

  2. Father_Time August 31, 2009 at 8:20 am

    Such subject mater.

  3. Moms Hugs August 31, 2009 at 9:04 am

    Joe, the phonics of letters ‘F’ & ‘S’ (sucking sounds) and the letter ‘K’ (smacking sound) resonates with male sexuality & emotional expressions of anger, horror or even wild approval. Given men think of sex every 6 minutes on average, using words that begin & end with those letters should come as no surprise. Women having had no money nor power historically, it should also be no surprise they have adopted men’s crude talk as they have adopted their clothing (jeans, loose shirts, sweat pants/shirts, pant suits). Using crude words when inappropriate is the crux of the matter. As the pendulum swings too far one way, it will reach its full thrust & begin its return path (no pun intended).

  4. roro80 August 31, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    “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?”

    I’ve found that most men who run screaming from the room at the mention of the correct anatomical term “vagina” are the same ones who throw the c-word out as an epithet. I think that while the quote above is true, it does not lead to the following at all:

    “Our aversion to the C word may simply reflect our cultural aversion to the C.”

    It is because of the cultural stigma toward the awful act of having a vagina that men feel the need to throw around the c-word as an epithet while being uncomfortable with the idea of the actual anatomy. Of course, as the men run screaming from the v-word, we women are fully expected to hear all about the awesomeness of the fallus. If that’s uncomfortable for us, we’re considered prudes with no sense of humor.

  5. DLS August 31, 2009 at 4:17 pm

    “. Why has it retained the power to outrage when other coarse language has found its way onto the playground”

    It hasn’t been any different, overall, than the other words.

    Now through a distorted PC lens, it could well be different, but the problem there isn’t with the word.

  6. JWindish August 31, 2009 at 4:35 pm

    MomsHugs, I read, recommend and admire Ariel Levy’s insightful Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. If you’ve not read it you might like it.

  7. DLS August 31, 2009 at 6:08 pm

    Don’t neglect the book mentioned in the material Joe quoted! “Expletive Deleted” is great reading.

  8. Moms Hugs August 31, 2009 at 9:57 pm

    My daughter read “Raunch” with her book club & became quite worried for her 11 yr. old daughter’s future. We had a long talk about raising girls and the building blocks of self-confidence necessary to become responsible women able to in turn become strong mothers. Teaching our girls & boys their self-worth as human beings is absolutely necessary if we are to reverse the last 40 years of instability in male-female relationships that has lead to unstable parenting. Sexual clothing for girls did not arrive by magic. Adult women enabled this trend by creating, marketing & purchasing such porn-star knock-off clothes for even our little girls. Mothers not enabling this trend desperately need fathers to speak up & set higher standards. The same goes for “raunch” talk & behavior. Frankly, crude behavior has become the norm and will remain so unless we all step up our standards of speech & behavior in our every day lives to show respect for one another.

  9. archangel September 1, 2009 at 7:53 pm

    not sure which age men are cringing and running away from words that portray the feminine genitalia. My two cent’s worth, why would any het want to run away from what they love, adore, need, want, cherish, find so mysterious. I am laughing. I hope you are too. My sense, from exp, is that this ‘cringing’ may be mainly generational. Even so, there are exceptions in each age group I imagine. The pity. For them. There are so many funny and affectionate names for both genders’