Thursday, 4 October 2012

Four letters that spell magic?

This post is prompted by another one, from Behind the Chintz Curtain, a blog about erotic matters that I was helpfully pointed to the other day by Justine Elyot via Twitter.

The post makes the point that while the success of Fifty Shades of Grey has shown there clearly is a much larger market for erotica than had previously been imagined – even despite the boost erotica received from the rise of ebooks – its readers, most of them almost certainly female, aren’t happy about ‘vulgar’ terms for female genitalia and prefer slightly euphenistic terms. In particular, while ‘pussy’ is generally acceptable, ‘cunt’ is off-putting.

This has been recognised by the more popular publishers of erotica ever since they discovered there was a female market for it. When I first started writing for Xcite Books, for example, I was sent a house style sheet that specifically stated they didn’t use that word – my memory says the word itself wasn’t even spelled in full in the style sheet, but rendered as ‘c**t’.

But this does raise a question in my mind – why has the word acquired such negative connotations?

I’ve lately been reading Henry Hitchings’ The Language Wars: A History of Proper English. And he discusses swearwords at some length. He cites George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London: ‘The whole business of swearing, especially English swearing, is mysterious. Of its very nature swearing is as irrational as magic – indeed it is a species of magic.’ It’s a naming of things that are secret or forbidden, and it carries a shock value – until it becomes so commonplace it becomes something more like a pause in speech.

Until the 1960s, the word was ‘banned’ in England, in the sense that its appearance in a print publication was likely to result in prosecution for obscenity – though it was (and remains) common in speech as a swearword and an insult.

And yet, for a word that attracts such strong feeings, it’s been around a long time. The Online Etymology Dictionary traces it to Middle English (cunte), notes its similarity to Old Norse (kunta) and to Latin (cunnus), with suggested links even further back into several Pre-Germanic and Proto-Indo-European roots – which would mean the word has been around in one form or another for well over five millenia. And the derivations are generally from words whose meanings include ‘wedge’, ‘hollow place’, ‘slit’, ‘concealed’ and possibly even ‘woman’. The first appearance of it in English was as part of a street name, Gropecuntlane, in Oxford in 1230 – presumed by later commentators to indicate a street where prostitutes worked.

Nonetheless it hasn’t been used in ‘polite society’ since about the 15th century and was considered obscene since the 17th. But it has well over 500 more or less fanciful synonyms, though most of them probaby wouldn’t work that well in contemporary erotic writing: examples include cookie, fancy bit, goatmilker, Itching Jenny, jelly-bag, penwiper, prick-skinner, seminary, and aphrodisaical tennis court. The dictionary entry cites some Dutch poetic slang – liefdesgrot (‘cave of love’) and vleesroos (‘flesh rose’) - that might, though, hold some attractions.

And there’s an alternative form, ‘cunny’, which seems to have appeared around 1622 and (i.e. when ‘cunt’ itself became impolite) and become common by 1720, but which has a different derivation, from ‘coney’, a common word for rabbit. It’s partly the similarity in the words, partly because it sounds like a familiar or diminutive form, and perhaps partly a punning association because the propensity of rabbits to breed has been well-known since ancient times.

All of which suggests that a good, earthy word in use since before English was even a proper language became ‘forbidden’ around 500 years ago, and obscene around 300 years ago. And it’s remained so until very recent times apart from its having been appropriated as a swearword because it had that obscene quality – though this perhaps also explains why many women don’t like it applied to their own bodies.

But that being the case, is there an argument now for reclaiming the word? For making it a robust part of the erotic vocabulary of English? It’s a fanciful thought, because ‘reclaiming’ a word tends to be the kind of thing that happens when words have distict social values and labels attached to them – for example the recent ‘slutwalks’ to protest the way the label of ‘slut’ is used disparagingly, and with serious consequences, against women. But I’d think there’s some possibility for the word to become more popular in future – because don’t a lot of women feel that the usages of 'polite society', far from protecting them, actively constrain them and discriminate against them? Don't many women actively embrace the idea that some part of their self-identity is about the mysterious, the taboo, the forbidden, and magic?

And that’s all connoted in this simple four-letter word and in its history.


  1. That small word is a word that I use in my fiction, though I never say it, it does not occur to me to use it as an expletive.

    My tales are mostly read by men, from what I can make out, and men don’t appear to have a problem with the word. I don’t write it for its shock value, and I don’t splatter it throughout my tales. Maybe it’s because I write specifically to arouse that I use it. It’s weird, because while I don’t have a problem with “cunt”, I cringe when I read a story describing the female genitalia as “pussy”. (I also cringe when I read the word “horny”) And I would never, ever use the word “twat” which is just another word for the word you are talking about.

    A very intriguing and thought provoking essay -- thank you. I really enjoyed reading it!

  2. Interesting, and thank you. I have the sense that in terms of specific vocabulary, publishers know what their typical readers do and don't like - and you're clearly not typical! If your own writing has a primarily male readership then 'cunt' is probably the expected word. I'm sure some men won't like it but I'd guess they'll be in a small minority.

    As to 'horny' and 'twat' - haven't heard the former used in everyday speech for a long while, and 'twat' has complex associations of meanings due to its occasional use as a verb (e.g. 'I'm going to twat you') that I think make it just not quite the right word to use unless it's as part of dialogue.

    Tell you what, though. My next novel, which should be out in a month or so, is set in the near future. In the first draft when people swore in the dialogue I had them say things like 'He's a fucking loser' but in the second draft, to give a slightly futuristic feel, I changed 'fucking' to 'frelching'. If you haven't come across frelching as a sexual practice yet I advise you don't bother looking it up!

  3. I think with language the two of us are getting into Anthony Burgess "Clockwork Orange" territory! Have you read it? It's not for the faint hearted -- but it is an interesting comment on language.

    As for the little word "cunt" I have used it in my last submission to Xcite books -- so now I know why my stuff gets rejected by them!

    Clearly a case of me not bothering to read the guidelines!

  4. Clockwork Orange territory - maybe! Yes, I've read it. Did you know there's a Nadsat dictionary? - the nearest translation for 'Naked Delirium' is probably 'Nagoy Sneety' though I don't think it quite captures the essence of the book...

    Sorry to hear about the rejection. But there are plenty of other publishers out there (look at e.g. And there's a line of thought now that says self-pubbing is they way to go. I won't rehearse all the arguments, but I have a collection in progress that may hit the market next year as self-pubbed piece because I don't think publishers would find it fits within their conception of the current market structure.