Offensive July: The Ethics Of… ‘Cunt’

How’s that for a title, eh? For many people those inverted commas are the only thing saving this entire article from being condemned as outright obscenity. As it is I can’t wait to see some of the moral outrages this will net me on facebook.

But that was the point, wasn’t it? Who in their right mind throws around the C-word without expecting a reaction? Even in Australia (where some groups seem to be making a strangely dedicated effort to adopt it into our slang) the word is obviously and massively offensive.

Even the people trying to use it casually know this – why else would they show such an interest in using it when we already have so many colourful phrases for exclamation available? I’ll remind you this is the country that invented such phrases as the baffling ‘Kangaroos loose in the top paddock’, the totally redundant ‘Mad as a cut snake’, and the frankly sinister ‘His blood’s worth bottling’ to express ourselves. Saying a word is low class in Australia is a pretty serious statement.

But put a bit of thought into it and the word ‘cunt’ being offensive is completely ridiculous; referring to a woman’s genitals is pretty bland at the best of times, but especially so when you consider all the other names we have for it that we don’t seem to have a problem with; ‘pussy’ and ‘twat’ might both be kind of low-brow, but hardly rate anywhere near ‘cunt’ on the offensiveness scale. And while the word ‘vagina’ makes me vaguely uncomfortable (for reasons that remain a complete mystery to me) it definitely isn’t offensive to anyone other than the dedicated prude.

But, of course, the actual definition isn’t why the word is offensive. When we call someone a cunt it’s not because we’re comparing them to female genitalia (Freudian slips and high-level gender politics aside), any more than we actually mean that a fool sports a phallus on their forehead, or that the object of our derision has, indeed, copulated with one or more mothers (and that this is a bad thing for some reason).

No, we call someone a cunt because of what it signifies in our culture. And what it signifies is that we could not think of a less offensive word that could adequately describe another person. ‘Cunt’ is for when the gloves come off, the chips are down and we’re not even pretending to be nice any more. It is the currently-designated Worst Thing You Can Say. Bust that baby out and everyone knows where they stand – and they won’t like it at all.

In other words, ‘cunt’ isn’t offensive because of what it is but because of what it describes. And using it automatically labels your target as The Worst Thing We Can Think Of. The word is merely a placeholder for a concept, offensive because we all agree it is.

But wait up a second, that’s not really true is it? The placeholder idea is all very sensible, but ignores our reaction to the word – one of automatic, unhesitating outrage. Outrage that is not directed at the target of the word, but at the person who said it.

Walk into your local supermarket, drop the C-bomb and you can guarantee that the next thing that happens will not be an investigation into the source of your anger – as you would expect if ‘cunt’ was just a way of denoting something particularly awful. No, the next thing that happens will be a indignant shit-storm of outrage directed your way, with total disregard for your current circumstances. You could be laying underneath an overturned shelf, covered in a mixture of pasta sauce and your own blood, with a faceful of glass to boot – but say ‘cunt’ just once, and I guarantee you that some old biddy will overcome her hysterics just long enough to smack you with an umbrella and give you a talking to about civil language. Such is the incredible cultural power of the word.

And consider it from a different angle; if the power of ‘cunt’ was indeed just a product of what it described then why is it that we’re totally fine with describing these terrible ideas, provided we keep the language ‘civil’?

If we were going for the worst possible thing to call a person, then my money is on ‘Paedophile’. Or maybe ‘Bad parent’, or ‘Bigot’ if the audience is particularly left wing (we will turn on you like a pack of animals, I swear). And while throwing these terms at someone will definitely get them angry, who is the person that the audience will automatically look down on? Hell, say it loudly and repeatedly enough and it might not even matter if it’s true.

Even more amazing, if you couch these same ideas in fancy-schmanzy words and deliver them like a condescending twit, people will actually applaud your manners, even if they find your meaning terrible. Seriously, which of these is a worse thing to say about another person?

  • ‘They’re a cunt’.
  • ‘They are a failure so complete that they are incapable of comprehending their own shortcomings – for surely no mere mortal mind could withstand such an overwhelming blow of disappointment’.

Christ, find a snobby enough crowd and they might even give you a round of applause for the second one. But be so vulgar as to swear… Apparently destroying another person is fair game, provided that you’re polite about it.

I’ve said before that offense is subjective and swearing is the perfect example of that; random words, the actual definition of which is irrelevant, are given taboo status by a culture so that we have something to offend each other with. We then throw the word around at each other for a decade or so until the word starts to get too watered-down (see the gradual acceptance of ‘crap’, ‘shit’, ‘fuck’ and more recently ‘motherfucker’ into everyday acceptable language), then switch over to a newer, spicier word to keep the offensiveness going (though I’m quite curious where we go after ‘cunt’. ‘Mothercunter’ doesn’t have the same ring).

Swear words, including the dreadful ‘cunt’, are offensive because we find them offensive and for literally no other reason.

The actual definitions for these words are totally bland. The words do not denote any specific idea or concept that we’re not fine with in different words. And since the words we seem to find so terrible change over time (look up the original definitions of ‘bugger’ or ‘sophisticated’ if you don’t believe me), then the idea of these words having weight in-and-of themselves is obviously daft.

So this is where it gets fun: if swearwords are only offensive because we consider them offensive, then is it not also true to say that the only reason you are offended by them, is because you are offended by them?

And since this implies that the source of the offence is your reaction to the word – rather than the qualities of the word itself – does it not follow that the only one offending yourself is you?

Sounds like you should give yourself a damn good talking to. You rude cunt. Look, you did it again!

All the moral outrage about swearing only exists because we decide that we should find particular word offensive – and as such that outrage could immediately be satisfied by refusing to be offended by those words. Remove that implicit outrage and all you have left is… a word. A word being used out of context, and potentially with some malice, but still… just a word. It’s the malice I’d be worried about if I was you, not the semantics.


There are exceptions to this neat little analysis. Exceptions which some of you might have already spotted, and which will, somehow, give me an even more objectionable title next week! Now if that doesn’t keep you tuned, I don’t know what will.

10 thoughts on “Offensive July: The Ethics Of… ‘Cunt’

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    • There’s always going to be interplay between the intended meaning of the word and the way it is perceived. This can be tricky to resolve since both are a matter subjective taste (except in cases like ‘nigger’ when they refer to something objective that everyone knows about). I’m all for avoiding offense for the most part (makes life easier) but if the choice is between telling the truth (as best as I can see it) or protecting people’s feelings, then the answer is easy. Also, sometimes using offensive words is a good way of emphasizing the seriousness of a topic, if a pretty simplistic way.

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