The most offensive curse word in English has powerful feminist origins

A word with fine universal origins is still taboo to use.
A word with fine universal origins is still taboo to use.
Image: Reuters/Philippe Wojazer
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Cursing is a good way to be bad. It’s mostly harmless and signals authenticity to listeners. For the linguistically bold, vulgarity is just one element of a rich vocabulary, a spice for speech. Yet even those of us who curse like sailors shirk the word “cunt.”

Breathe deep, because we’re about to cover an awkward topic. But it’ll be fun and we’ll be more free when we’re done. Go ahead, say it. Just once. “Cunt.”

It’s a tough, clipped, harsh word with hard sounds; two consonants and a guttural stop. It’s powerful, sounding almost like an assault. The taboo against using it is extremely strong too, according to ”radical” anthropologist Camilla Power of East London University, who illuminates the history of “The C-word” on the July 25 episode of the Very Bad Words podcast.

Still, there’s reason for women to reclaim this word. While cunt’s exact origins are unknown because the word is so very old and has sounds that are common to both European and Indian languages, there’s evidence it was used throughout the ancient East and West—and not as a pejorative. For example, in The Story of V: A Natural History of Female Sexuality, published in 2003, Catherine Blackledge noted that kunthi referred to female genitalia in sanskrit. A Hindu nature goddess bore the name Kunti as well.

In addition, the word kunt was found in the writings of Ptah-Hotep, an Egyptian vizier who lived in the 25th century BC. It referred to women and appears to have been a term of respect. The Egyptian word for mother was k’at, which meant “the body of her,” a sign that reference to the body could apply to even the first beloved woman in a person’s life and was just fine.

In the 1983 book Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (pdf), Barbara Walker noted that 20th century Egyptologists were shocked to discover Ptah-Hotep’s language. But Walker says that the word’s “indelicacy was not in the eye of the ancient beholder, only in that of the modern scholar.”

From fine to pejorative

The process of cunt’s pejoration—going from a good or neutral word to a bad one—is inextricably tied to ancient human history, according to anthropologists. Once upon a time, about 10,000 years ago in the Stone Age, people wandered. They lived in societies where men and women had multiple sexual partners and female sexuality was not problematic.

But women with sexual power got a bad reputation when ancient nomadic societies stopped moving and began grabbing and holding lands for families. Men then needed to know who their children were, which meant keeping women monogamous was a must. Women’s roles shifted. For children to inherit, societies became patriarchal, and so the notions of female sexual power and goddesses disappeared, as described by anthropologist Joseph Campbell.

The end of women’s sexual liberation tarnished the reputation of female sexuality. But the word cunt was a simple descriptor for a long time after that, and it can be heard in old Norse and Germanic tales. It lived on in English and shares linguistic origins with noble words like queen, king, and country, and harmless terms like quaint, linguistic anthropologist Evelyn Dean Olmsted explains.

In medieval England, the word cunt wasn’t totally taboo. It first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1230. As recently as the 1400s, there were even about 20 “Gropecunt Lanes” in the country; that was a practical description of what might be obtained in these red-light districts, just as one might visit Meatcut Lane for a steak.

Wits referred to the cunt more subtly. In Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, published in 1478, the Wife of Bath asks, “Is it for ye wolde have my queynte allone?” While this sounds like a reference to cunt, and is often cited as such, “queynte” actually means a clever device, and is presumably used euphemistically in this context.

A more accurate descriptor

Today, many feminists argue that cunt must be revived. One reason is simply because it’s a better descriptor for female genitalia than “vagina.” The word vagina has Latin origins, and refers to a sword sheathe—the female sex organ, in this linguistic rendition, is simply a holster for the penis.

Technically speaking, vagina refers only to the “sexual passage of the female from the vulva to the uterus.” Cunt, however, describes the whole shebang, external and internal, including labia, vulva, pudendum, vagina, and clitoris. Thus, it accounts for and allows female sexual pleasure. To reclaim the power of their sex, women must take back the word that best describes their sex organ, feminists argue.

Politics of language

Despite its fine lineage, saying cunt can be awkward, however. Very Bad Words podcast host Matt Fidler—a long time public radio producer who loves salty language—was nervous about covering this particular curse, he told Quartz. “I grew up in a house where swearing was okay, and my mom doesn’t censor herself. But that’s one word she never uses, which intrigued me,” he says.

He began digging into the history of cunt and was stunned by what he found. Fidler had no idea his research would take him to the start of human history. “I wanted to talk about it but I didn’t want to mansplain it since we still live in a patriarchal society and I do need to careful with some of the language I choose to explore,” he says.

But when he dared to talk about it, he discovered that female friends were already embracing the positive power of cunt. Writer Katrin Redfern, who co-hosted the c-word episode with him, had already thought a lot about this topic, for example. Redfern read Inga Muscio’s 1998 book Cunt: A Declaration of Independence and it changed her life. She came to understand that the word is only an insult if you think strong women with sexual desire are a bad thing.

Still, Fidler was hesitant to utter the word when speaking to Quartz, as if he couldn’t get over the fact that it sounds very, very, very bad indeed, even to the indelicate. He admitted it’s still hard to say. “It’s just language but language is all about context,” he explains. “In the current cultural understanding cunt is still an insult for many people. But when I taught young women in broadcasting classes in New York, many seemed to be re-appropriating it, and things may change. I heard them use it a lot.”

Facing facts about sexuality

Evidence that strong young women are reclaiming the word includes musician Azealia Banks’ charming 2011 debut music video, 212. At the time, Banks was only 20 and cute as a button, her hair done in two braids like a child, her smile sweet. Wearing cutoff jeans and a Mickey Mouse sweater, she declared repeatedly, “I guess that cunt getting eaten.”

The song, video, and Banks were a huge internet sensation, but even those thrilled with her hit found her sexuality shocking. In a December 2011 story for Self-Titled magazine, Banks’ interviewer Arye Dworken admitted, “It’s jarring hearing a young girl say ‘cunt’ so often.”

Banks replied, “It’s so funny because I didn’t know it was that offensive…I feel like cunt means so feminine.”

So, should you start saying cunt, and when would doing so be okay? It all depends. It may be an empowering move when used in the right spirit. But do consider context. “I do use it now, partly in jest, knowing it’s offensive but not meaning it that way,” Fidler says. “But I still wouldn’t say that word around my mother.”