My initial thrust in writing about the word “fuck” earlier this year (“Truman Talks: Fuck,” Jan. 24) was to satisfy two non-rutting stags in my brain: the constant questioning voice that seeks out the new in words and their evolution and a somewhat juvenile desire to disrupt, nay offend, the unsuspecting reader. When my editor opined that I would struggle to bring anything new to an oft-covered topic, the alpha male of my mind was awoken: the stubborn “I’ll show you!” that has compelled, impelled, and propelled me most of my life. It was in a similar vein that I began to circle the notion of writing about the word “cunt.” Ruffle some feathers. Break taboos.
I remember clearly the jolt with which I heard my first TV “cunt.” It was from the lips of Tony Soprano, the eponymous anti-hero of the taboo-breaking HBO show. Honestly, though, once you say the word aloud a few times and see it in print, there is really nothing much to it. Its force is becalmed.
Yet there is an interesting history. The word appeared quite readily in English street names, with at least 20 “Gropecunt Lanes” to be found in the 1400s. The name was a literal descriptor of what was on offer in the same way that one might encounter Swordmaker Street, Asshole Avenue, or Pisskidney Place (h/t British sitcom wordsmiths David Mitchell and Robert Webb).
Geoffrey Chaucer’s never knowingly un-ribald Canterbury Tales features multiple, perhaps euphemistic, references to “queynte” (pronounced q-went-a), meaning a clever device or ornament, though others contend that the former led to the latter etymologically. For my part, I look to the origins of Middle English in Old Norse (“kunta”), Middle Low German (“kunte”), and Middle Dutch (“conte”), all making non-pejorative reference to female genitalia.
When I started sharing with friends that I was fixing to write about the most taboo of all words in the English language, our discussions uncovered a growing body of thought about women taking back “cunt” in much the same way “nigger”/“nigga” was reclaimed decades earlier by African-Americans and “gay,” “queer,” and “fag” by the LGBTQ community. On encountering this notion, my mission shifted, becoming something like, Show people how fearless and smart I am by writing something at once offensive yet erudite and thought-provoking.
Oh! It is also worth pointing out that a couple days into my thinking, researching and discussing the whole “cunt” thing, Samantha Bee served up a spot-on summation of the Pussy Grabber in Chief’s daughter and “special adviser,” heretofore referred to as Ivankunt. (There is definitely something very creepy about the sexualized nature of their relationship, but that is a whole article unto itself.)
So I have probably dealt with the offensive part of my revised goal. Let’s get us some erudition and provoking of thought. In researching this piece, I have encountered myriad articles championing the feminist origins of our mot du jour and more still calling for a rematriation of it for the purpose of empowering women while disempowering the pejorative invective of men. Works for me.
Silpa Kovvali makes a strong case in a Salon article that the “pearl clutching” (see what she did there?) around the uttering of “cunt” by women plays to patriarchal notions of women as defenseless, that any use of the word is misogynistic because a poor little woman is inherently vulnerable, while the obverse is not true in calling a big, strong man a “prick,” “dick,” “cock,” or “bell end.”
In speaking with women friends, it is evident that the reclaiming of “cunt” is alive and well and living in The Fort though not exclusively. Women are choosing their “cunt” carefully, using it selectively as a pejorative but also, among the linguistic leading edge, to talk about their vaginas (a word, by the way, with Latin origins that describes a sheath and in so doing offers a poetic and physically accurate descriptor) in healthy, positive, and empowering ways. So, yeah, more power to reclaiming “cunt.” I look forward to hearing female friends greet each other with, “How’s it going, cunt?” And to men finally being able to locate a “cunt” button (though bros will still need female assistance, of course, ’cos, you know, making sense of lady parts while browsing a store is double difficult for them. Middle rack, top, left a bit …).
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