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A Brief History Of The C-Word

Our self-contempt originates in this: in knowing we are ‘cunt’.

Illustrations by Katie Tandy

By Mina Moriarty

From Hindu Goddesses and Pagan rituals to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the c-word has had an ancient and powerful history that spans centuries and cultures. Why, then, is “cunt” still considered one of the most offensive words in the Western Hemisphere?

According to author and historian M. Geller, its first appearance in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1972 saw the word having been first sighted in London in 1230 as the street name “Gropecunte Lane,” a supposed Red Light District. Lexicographers also argue a connection to the Romance languages, with the word “vagina” rooted in the Latin cunnus, meaning “sword sheath.”

While “vagina” is used much more commonly in colloquial speech to refer to the genitals of people with vulvas than “cunt” is, its origins are defined by its service to male sexuality, making “cunt” — interestingly enough — the least historically misogynistic of the two. “Cunt” has also been used in Renaissance bawdy verse and in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, but it was not until Shakespeare’s era that its meaning began to fundamentally shift, during the dawn of Christian doctrine.

The precise etymology of the word “cunt” is a matter of debate and an admittedly — sometimes egregiously — convoluted subject that, aside from a couple of features here and there (such as the Independent’s interview with Germaine Greer—whose long-noted transphobia makes such an interview dubious at best—from 2006) has attracted little investigation in contemporary mainstream media and pop culture.

For some, “cunt” epitomizes a disconcerting global attitude toward the sexualities of female and non-binary people and their accompanying position within our patriarchal system. Author Kate Millett in her book Sexual Politics summarizes the still-potent degradation and shame of “being a Cunt”:

“Somehow every indignity the female suffers ultimately comes to be symbolized in a sexuality that is held to be her responsibility, her shame […] It can be summarized in one four-letter word. And the word is not fuck, it’s cunt. Our self-contempt originates in this: in knowing we are cunt.”

1. Kunti

The Hindu Goddess Kunti, or great “Yoni of the Universe,” represented the beauty and power of the female body in Mahābhārata, a major Sanskrit epic of ancient India. (And soon to be movie.) The Mahabharata was a historical Hindu text, believed to have been written between 200 and 400 BC, containing mythological and didactic tales of heroism and the sovereign rivalry between two families. Not only did Yoni lead a powerful matriarchy that rivals the discourse of contemporary gender politics, but she encompassed life itself; she was worshiped at hundreds of shrines across the ancient Eastern world.

2. Christianity And The Demonization Of Female Sexuality

In the Middle Ages, Christian clergymen preached the idea of a woman’s genitals as a potent source of evil, referring to the “Cunnus Diaboli,” meaning “Devilish Cunt.”

Shrines across South Asia depicting any reference to the Goddess Kunti were also destroyed; they were deemed grotesque and blasphemous.

3. Culturally Diverse Origins

3a. Originating in India through the Goddess Kunti, the word has since evolved from the Old Norse “kunta,” referring to vulvas, with many variations existing in other Germanic and Scandinavian languages, including the Danish “kunte” and the modern use of “kont” in Dutch, meaning “buttocks.”

3b. In Anglo Saxon, “Cu” is one of the oldest word sounds in recorded language, a feminine meaning that has evolved into words such as “cow,” “cunt,” and “queen,” though the earliest “cunt” has been used in English is during the Middle Ages.

3c. Since the etymology of “cunt” remains contested, there is also the possibility that it stems from the Latin for rabbit hole, “cuniculus,” connected to the Latin “cunnus,” meaning “vulva.” (Another possible source is the Latin “cuneus,” meaning “triangular wedge.”)

4. Middle English Euphemism

The Oxford English Dictionary also suggests “quaint,” queynte in Middle English, as a euphemistic substitution for cunt, with one of the best-known examples being found in the late 14th century in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In Miller’s Tale, Nicholas attempts to seduce the miller’s wife, he “prively […] caught her by the queynte.”

5. A Cunt-ish Country

The 1500s saw Shakespeare, rather than directly referring to “cunt” or “cunny,” alluding to the word in suggestive disguise forms like “cut,” “constable,” and “country.” This is evident in Act Three Scene 2 of Hamlet, in which Hamlet says, “Do you think I mean country matters?” followed by, “That’s a fair thought to lie between a maid’s legs.”

6. Scottish Rabbits

The slang word “cunny” is also found in 1719 in the first volume of Thomas D’Urfrey’s Wit and Mirth: Or Pills to Purge Melancholy, where it is associated with “coney” — a word that came to mean “rabbit.”

“Cunny” was also regularly used in Scottish bawdy verse such as that of Robert Burns in “My girl she’s airy” when he says, “Her taper white leg wth an et, and a, c, / For her a, b, e, d, and her c, u, n, t.”

7. The Cunt Liberated

In 1929, D.H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was banned for promoting adultery. And although viewed as “obscene” in the early part of the 20th century, we are now — with the glorious benefit of hindsight — able to read this novel as a progressive, largely joyful account of promiscuous sex from a female point of view. Lawrence believed in the redemptive power of mutual orgasm, and so it comes as no surprise that “cunt” was used freely in this text to express sexual pleasure, “a woman’s a lovely thing when ‘er ‘s deep ter fuck, and cunt’s good.”

8. Just Beat It

Beat writers such as Jack Kerouac used “cunt” liberally as a means of conflating love, desire, and sexual aggression in their characters — it served as both a means to normalize the word and shock the reader into confronting their relationship with it. The original scroll version of On The Road boasts, “I wanted to jump down from a mast and land right in her cunt.”

9. Reclamations

Eve Ensler calls women to reclaim the word in — what else — “Reclaiming CUNT” with her play the Vagina Monologues. “I call it cunt,” she writes. “I’ve reclaimed it, ‘cunt.’ I really like it.”

10. A (Possible) Chapel Of Cunt

Germaine Greer’s investigations on the BBC’s Balderdash and Piffle see her paint “CUNT” in bright red letters on a white wall and ask, “Why is this the most offensive word in the English language?” She goes on to discuss its fraught etymology and speaks to members of the public about how they view the word — and why.

Can we ever truly reappropriate “Cunt”? Can we use it with pride? Can we chip away at the palace of the phallus and instate a chapel of Cunt in its wake?