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
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.