I mean it; this post is a discussion of some of the most offensive words in the English language. I will be mentioning many of them as I go on, and I will not apologise if you find them to be offensive. This post is not intended to be funny or titillating; it is intended to be a serious meditation on language. I am going to need to mention all of these words, and their backgrounds, rather a lot, and that will very likely not be to the taste of many of you. I am telling you this now, before you get upset, OK?
Basically, if you’re not happy to read the words cunt or twat, you should fuck off as soon as possible.
Excellent: now that that’s done, we can get down to the nitty gritty. Why are the words we find so offensive quite as offensive as they actually are? More importantly, do the sources of their meaning – for there is usually just one – cloud the use of the word itself? Would it be better if we separated the word cunt from the understood physiological root of the word? Does it stand up on its own yet? A corollary of that would be asking why cock, prick and dick are not even nearly as offensive as cunt.
Like a frog being slowly boiled, and not noticing, I will build up the levels of offence from a low level, rising to the most horrendous language, including words I will never use in conversation. Be warned.
Why do two words with largely similar literal meanings have such markedly different uses? Take the word twat, for instance. It’s a foolish word, similar in usage to bell-end, or prannet. If someone is being a twat, then they are acting stupidly and, more than likely, making a fool of themselves. To my mind the word twat is equivalent to all of the penis based words we have at our disposal. But why? I’ll come back to this again and again, but this class of swearwords just feels very silly to say.
Twat and cunt both describe the same area of a woman’s body – as do minge, snatch and clopper – but they both – all – have very different usage. I’d imagine that to a non-native English speaker this differentiation by usage would be deeply frustrating. Like it or not, however, cunt is a word which is often used to describe the very worst people in society: Robert Mugabe, Kim Jong Un, or anyone who puts an empty milk bottle back in the fridge. You’ll notice that most of those people are men.
Reducing female genitalia to purely negative connotations is seen by some as a deliberate move by the patriarchy to subjugate women. I don’t think men have such grand visions in mind; I’m not sure we really have it in us; more on that later. The way our usage changes is rarely a deliberate shift.
Either way, I strongly feel that repurposing all female body parts to negatives is a bad path, and one which needs to be reversed. I just don’t want to be a tit about it. I think that the use of these words comes from the way they feel when shouted: cunt is an explosive word; twat feels ineffectual. Like fuck: it is such a powerful sound to come out of the mouth, yet the context has very little, perhaps nothing, to do with the literal meaning of the word. Mouth-feel is as important in swearing as eating. Swearing is a tool to punch the negative emotions out of the body in to the air: they are a release.
On the other hand, is arsehole ever likely to be strong enough? It is a unisex bodily swearword, and it is the source of all of the shit in the world. It gives the idea that someone is on the receiving end of wrath, but it is nothing compared to calling someone a fucking cunt. Until we can create something artificial – something without the linguistic context of our existing bodily swearwords – we seem to be stuck with cunt as the strongest weapon in the arsenal of aggression. However, the message we are sending our daughters with that word is far from a positive one. We should do better for them.
Is the answer some form of societal amnesia? Forget the origins; retain the usage? I don’t know.
I suppose the analogy which must be used is racist slurs. These words, as far as I am concerned, are out of bounds: I would happily see them taken out of the English language, and never returned. The reason I feel that way is that for centuries, non-white people have suffered white people using the colour of their skin, or the nationality of their parents, as an insult. That causes suffering, even now.
It is not remotely negative to have black skin; it is not remotely negative to be from Pakistan. Yet, people who look just like me have treated people like sub-human scum for having those attributes.
If this usage were lost in the mists of time; if this usage did not rest so squarely on the subjugation of others; if this usage were not so steeped in centuries of pain, it may be possible to separate racial slurs from their context, and reclaim them in to English. I’m afraid we’re all a long way off from that.
That said, who am I to say? These words have been used to belittle and abuse non-white people for hundreds of years: why should a white man have any say in how they are used now, except to say that I am not about to use them? Being reclaimed by those they have been used to crush may well be the first step to their redemption, if redemption is at all needed. I am not so sure that it really is.
One thought process: if we can shift the words we use for our genitals on to a set of new ‘innocent’ words, then the old ‘dirty’ words can be shorn of their meanings. If we could forget once and for all that cunt is a synonym for female genitalia, then it could be used to describe arseholes again.
Is part of the impact of cunt tied up in the lack of alternatives for a girl to describe her genitals in her childhood? In our house we have vacillated between “hoo-haa”, “whatsit” and “girl-parts” with our daughter: none of which are nearly good enough. There are so many family friendly words for penis that boys have no issues describing their own anatomy as they grow up. We could do worse than to copy the Swedish, and not for the first time: Their child-friendly words for genitals are too perfect.
Another approach would be to create a new word for the most despicable people in humanity. The satirist in me would love to name such things after a despicable person alive today, but that would get stale all too quickly. A replacement swearword would need to have the plosive punch of fuck or cunt, but none of the heritage. Fitbin has a lot of punch to it, and a meaning thankfully lost in time. Cunk, on the other hand, is Old Armenian for “knee”. Now stop being a fitbin cunk and fit right off.