on the etymology of c***, censorship, & such divers matters

Originally published 2005CE, but I'm no longer that comfortable with it. For an updated take, see here.

See, aren't I good? I've starred out the offending letters in the "bad" word in the title just so that I don't offend any readers. Having no particular wish to alienate anyone, if you will be genuinely upset by reading "the word" without stars, then don't read. Otherwise, read on.

Johnny Rotten's recent appearance on Channel 4's "I'm a Celebrity.. Get Me Out Of Here" gave me food for thought on several levels, not least of which was the fact that even without watching an episode of the program, I was unable to avoid knowing what was happening in some detail, through the BBC News website, & from just talking to friends. But the most interesting issue raised, it seemed to me, was the relatively mild but undeniably real reaction of the British media to Johnny's choice words to the British public; he called them "a bunch of fucking cunts".

Now John is, of course, no stranger to this kind of cunning stunt, having famously sworn on the BBC in the 70s before crossing to a commercial channel to do the same. But the fact that "Cunt" can still outrage in the way that it can seems, to me at least, almost anachronistic. Conservative reaction to this sort of linguistic realism in culture seems to have been waning for some years, & the words "Fuck" & "Shit", while generally considered pretty coarse, are tolerated after the famous "9 O'Clock Watershed". Yet still the C word is unacceptable. Why?

For one thing, not only does it offend the Mary Whitehouses of this world (who appear to believe that the word is almost magic, that simply hearing this single syllable is enough to corrupt & deprave the listener, that it has the power to bring down civilisation - hope springs eternal, eh readers?), but it also offends the feminists. Allow me to point out that I have no problem with feminism - indeed I support it wholeheartedly - I just think that they've really got their heads up their collective arses on this one.

Feminism complains, correctly enough as far as it goes, that the word has a history of oppression behind it; even if feminism essentially finds censorship distasteful, & even though it's just a word to describe female genitalia, the fact remains that it is impossible to use it without invoking centuries of patriarchal authority and contempt for women. (I have also met many feminists who say that it is simply an ugly, agressive word, not just in connotation, but in its sound - gutteral followed by dental with little in between. This seems to me little more than a rationalisation of the "magic word" thinking of the censors.)

To an extent this begins to seem less likely when you consider the word's history & development. "Cunt" comes from the Middle English word "quoint", from which we also get "quaint". "Quaint" is not just something that American tourists write in guestbooks when they come to England, it has retained its original sense: it means something that you don't see very often, something rare and special. "Cunt" is just an archaic word meaning "privates", except more positive, if anything. It's there in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales - "he grasped her by her quoint", an instance which the church-sanctioned translation for many years rendered as "apron" (which almost seems to me an even greater symbol of female oppression...)

Shit means defecate, or defecation. Fuck means penetrate with the penis. Cunt is another word for vagina. These are words, perfectly functional, generally understood words. The reason that they are swear words is that people consider them to be swear words. The reason that people use them is because they're not supposed to use them.

Otherwise intelligent people seem unable to grasp the simple psychological principle that by forbidding a word you are charging it with offensive power, which at some point is going to be unleashed upon you. If you supply your enemy with ammunition, then you can expect little sympathy when it is used against you. If you tell someone that they're not supposed to use the word cunt, don't be surprised when they call you a cunt next time they want to annoy you.

The word may have a history of oppression, but only because the word was interdicted in the first place. As long as you are offended by it, as long as you choose to find it offensive, it will continue to have a history of oppression. In not reclaiming a perfectly functional word for a perfectly wonderful part of the human anatomy, you are perpetuating the history of oppression.

Censorship always causes more problems than it solves.

You fucking cunts ;-)
MK