You know the one I’m talking about. Not cash. Not coconut. Not commitment. The one and only C-word, the one that infuriates and insults you like no other. Cunt.
Linguistically speaking, the source of this four-letter delight is relatively harmless. It appears in Middle English (including several citations in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) in plain speech – not the language of high society, but certainly not profane. It originally meant chink (NOT a person of Chinese descent, okay?), crevice, gap, or niche, and by the Middle Ages had come to be used as a common term for a woman’s genitalia. Really common. Men and women alike used the word with no particular stigma.
Why, then, is it such a deadly curse now? Yes, language shifts over time – I know that better than most people. When used to indicate the body part itself, it’s horribly vulgar, rude and tasteless; when used to address a woman, it’s a grave insult that usually calls for slapping, groin-kicking, drink-throwing and the like. Why such an extreme reaction? You can call me a dick or a prick, and I’m okay with that (since it’s probably true). You can call me a pussy (also common since the middle ages) and I’ll deal with it. If somebody calls you a cunt, though, it’s about the worst thing in the English language (in America, anyway) that can be said to a woman. Why this particular word and not others?
Let’s get the debate rolling. Clearly, it isn’t because it’s a bodily reference – again, there are too many others that don’t elicit this response. Why then? Forgive the pun, but what’s up with that?