Tuesday, November 16, 2010
"Vice Pioneers" : "Cunt"
Namesake: Gropecunt Lane
Shakespeare: hidden cuntery in literature
Jack Nicolson: first scripted "cunt" in mainstream cinema
Cunt. How does hearing it make you feel? If your sentiment is in line with the masses, it infuriates you. Considered the most offensive word in language (in the United States and abroad), it has the power to rile people up like no other word. It is no secret that I am not part of the masses when it comes to this word and that it is thoroughly embraced at Metal Taboo. However, I never really looked into its history. Here's a look into this distinct four letter word.
Although it has been said that "etymologists are unlikely to come to an agreement about the origins of 'cunt' any time soon," the word is most often thought to have derived from a Germanic word (Proto-Germanic *kuntō, stem *kuntōn-), which appeared as kunta in Old Norse. Scholars are uncertain of the origin of the Proto-Germanic form itself. In Middle English, it appeared with many spellings, such as coynte, cunte and queynte, which did not always reflect the actual pronunciation of the word. There are cognates in most Germanic languages, such as the Swedish, Faroese and Nynorsk kunta; West Frisian and Middle Low German kunte; Middle Dutch conte; Dutch kut; Middle Low German kutte; Middle High German kotze (prostitute); German kott, and perhaps Old English cot. The etymology of the Proto-Germanic term is disputed. It may have arisen by Grimm's law operating on the Proto-Indo-European root *gen/gon = "create, become" seen in gonads, genital, gamete, genetics, gene, or the Proto-Indo-European root *gʷneH2/guneH2 (Greek gunê) = "woman" seen in gynaecology. Relationships to similar-sounding words such as the Latin cunnus (vulva), and its derivatives French con, Spanish coño, and Portuguese cona, have not been conclusively demonstrated. Other Latin words related to cunnus are cuneatus = "wedge-shaped"; cuneo = "I fasten with a wedge", (figurative) "I wedge in", "I squeeze in", leading to English words such as cuneiform (wedge-shaped).
The word in its modern meaning is attested in Middle English. Proverbs of Hendyng, a manuscript from some time before 1325, includes the advice:
Ȝeue þi cunte to cunnig and craue affetir wedding.(Give your cunt wisely and make (your) demands after the wedding.)
Usage: pre-20th century
Cunt has been in common use in its anatomical meaning since at least the 13th century. While Francis Grose's 1785 A Classical Dictionary of The Vulgar Tongue listed the word as "C**T: a nasty name for a nasty thing", it did not appear in any major dictionary of the English language from 1795 to 1961, when it was included in Webster's Third New International Dictionary with the comment "usu. considered obscene". Its first appearance in the Oxford English Dictionary was in 1972, which cites the word as having been in use since 1230 in what was supposedly a London street name of "Gropecunt Lane". It was, however, also used before 1230, having been brought over by the Anglo-Saxons, originally not an obscenity but rather a factual name for the vulva or vagina. "Gropecunt Lane" was originally a street of prostitution, a red light district. It was normal in the Middle Ages for streets to be named after the goods available for sale therein, hence the prevalence in cities having a medieval history of names such as "Silver Street", "Fish Street", and "Swinegate" (pork butchers). In some locations, the former name has been bowdlerised, as in the City of York, to the more acceptable "Grape Lane".
The word appears several times in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (c. 1390), in bawdy contexts, but it does not appear to be considered obscene at this point, since it is used openly. A notable use is from the "Miller's Tale": "Pryvely he caught her by the queynte." The Wife of Bath also uses this term, "For certeyn, olde dotard, by your leave/You shall have queynte right enough at eve ... What aileth you to grouche thus and groan?/Is it for ye would have my queynte alone?" In modernised versions of these passages the word "queynte" is usually translated simply as "cunt". However, in Chaucer's usage there seems to be an overlap between the words "cunt" and "quaint" (possibly derived from the Latin for "known"). "Quaint" was probably pronounced in Middle English in much the same way as "cunt". It is sometimes unclear whether the two words were thought of as distinct from one another. Elsewhere in Chaucer's work the word queynte seems to be used with meaning comparable to the modern "quaint" (charming, appealing).
By Shakespeare's day, the word seems to have become obscene. Although Shakespeare does not use the word explicitly (or with derogatory meaning) in his plays, he still plays with it, using wordplay to sneak it in obliquely. In Act III, Scene 2, of Hamlet, as the castle's residents are settling in to watch the play-within-the-play, Hamlet asks Ophelia, "Lady, shall I lie in your lap?" Ophelia, of course, replies, "No, my lord." Hamlet, feigning shock, says, "Do you think I meant country matters?" Then, to drive home the point that the accent is definitely on the first syllable of country, Shakespeare has Hamlet say, "That's a fair thought, to lie between maids' legs." Also see Twelfth Night (Act II, Scene V): "There be her very Cs, her Us, and her Ts: and thus makes she her great Ps." A related scene occurs in Henry V: when Katherine is learning English, she is appalled at the "gros, et impudique" English words "foot" and "gown", which her English teacher has mispronounced as "coun". It is usually argued that Shakespeare intends to suggest that she has misheard "foot" as "foutre" (French, "fuck") and "coun" as "con" (French "cunt", also used to mean "idiot"). Similarly John Donne alludes to the obscene meaning of the word without being explicit in his poem The Good-Morrow, referring to sucking on "country pleasures".
Usage in modern popular culture
In the United States the broadcast use of "cunt" is still rare; nevertheless, the word has slowly infiltrated into broadcasting:
***The HBO TV shows Oz, Sex and the City, The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire and True Blood, as well as the Showtime series Weeds, Californication & Brotherhood also make frequent use of the word; and two episodes of the sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm are devoted to the comical repercussions of its inadvertent use.
***An episode of the NBC TV show 30 Rock, titled The C Word, centered around a subordinate calling protagonist Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) a "cunt" and her subsequent efforts to regain her staff's favor. While the word was never uttered on camera, it is strongly implied that this is the offensive term used.
***Jane Fonda did utter the word on a live airing of the Today Show, a network broadcast-tv news program, in 2008 when being interviewed about The Vagina Monologues.[
The word has few, if any, recorded uses in mainstream cinema prior to the 1970s, the first possibly being in Carnal Knowledge (1971) in which Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) asks, "Is this an ultimatum? Answer me, you ball-busting, castrating, son of a cunt bitch! Is this an ultimatum or not?" Its subsequent use has been limited to films restricted to adult audiences, such as The Exorcist (1973) in which Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran) addresses the butler, Karl (Rudolf Schündler): "Cunting Hun! Bloody damn butchering Nazi pig!" and Taxi Driver (1976) in which Travis Bickle (Robert de Niro) describes himself as "A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up."
Saturday Night Fever (1977) was released in two versions, "R" (Restricted) and "PG" (Parental Guidance), the latter omitting or replacing dialogue such as Tony Manero (John Travolta)'s comment to Annette (Donna Pescow) "It's a decision a girl's gotta make early in life, if she's gonna be a nice girl or a cunt." This differential persists, and in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Agent Starling (Jodie Foster) meets Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) for the first time and passes the cell of "Multiple Miggs", who says to Starling: "I can smell your cunt." In versions of the film edited for television the word is dubbed with the word scent.
In Britain, the word "cunt" remains perhaps the only word that can alone result in an "18" rating from the British Board of Film Classification. Ken Loach's film Sweet Sixteen was given an "18" in 2002, ensuring that young people of the age depicted in the film were unable to view it legally, because of an estimated twenty uses of "cunt". The BBFC's guidelines at "15" state that "the strongest terms (for example, 'cunt') may be acceptable if justified by the context. Aggressive or repeated use of the strongest language is unlikely to be acceptable." The 2010 Ian Dury biopic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll was given a "15" rating despite containing seven uses of the word.
In 1979, during a concert at New York's Bottom Line, Carlene Carter introduced a song about mate-swapping called Swap-Meat Rag by stating, "If this song don't put the cunt back in country, I don't know what will." The comment was quoted widely in the press, and Carter spent much of the next decade trying to live the comment down. However use of the word in lyrics is not recorded before the Sid Vicious' 1978 version of My Way, which marked the first known use of the word in a UK Top Ten hit, as a line was changed to "You cunt/I'm not a queer". The following year, "cunt" was used more explicitly in the song "Why D'Ya Do It?" from Marianne Faithfull's album Broken English:
"Why'd ya do it, she screamed, after all we've said,
Every time I see your dick I see her cunt in my bed."
Since then, the word has been used by numerous non-mainstream bands, such as Australian band TISM, who released an extended play in 1993 "Australia the Lucky Cunt" (a reference to Australia's label the "lucky country"). They also released a single in 1998 entitled "I Might Be a Cunt, but I'm Not a Fucking Cunt", which was banned. The American grindcore band Anal Cunt, on being signed to a bigger label, shortened their name to AxCx.