Mewling quim

It started with an e-mail in 2012 from a Londoner named John Stewart. He was writing to me because I conduct a blog called “Not One-Off Britishisms,” which deals with British words and expressions that have gained currency in the U.S.

Stewart directed me to a post on the Bleeding Cool website about a moment in the then-current film The Avengers, written by the Americans Joss Whedon and Zak Penn. Loki (a bad guy) addresses Black Widow with the two-word epithet that’s the title of this post. The site said:

This is possibly the most offensive line in the film. … It is just that some people aren’t too familiar with the derivation. In more modern English, this would be “whining cunt”. In American English, “cunt” is generally used as a misogynistic insult, mostly used against women, insulting their very nature of being female. British English doesn’t use the female-specific aspect of this in an insult, which loses much of the misogynistic tone. Indeed, it’s more likely to be used against a man, an exaggerated form of “wanker”. But “quim,” though rarely used, is done so in a misogynist fashion. It’s only used about women, and is very much about reducing them to their gender, as if that by definition, reduces their importance. And that’s how Loki uses it in Avengers.

My post, a short one, consisted mainly of the above. But then something odd happened. “Mewling quim” became, and continues to be, among the most read and most commented of the nearly 400 posts on Not One-Off Britishisms. The blog got 267,106 hits in 2014. “Mewling quim” received the second-most hits, behind only “European date format,” a perennial favorite. (The rest of the top five, in order, were “streets ahead,” the e-mail signoff “xx,” and “cuppa.”)

What’s the fascination? Not to be overlooked is the first word in the phrase, which I take to be not so much a  Britishism as an archaicism. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “whimpering, feebly crying, whining” and cites Shakespeare, in As You Like It: “The Infant, Mewling, and puking in the nurse’s arms.”

Quim is a slightly newer word, the OED‘s first citation being from a 1613 line quoted in J.O. Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words (1847): “In sooth it was not cleane, it was as black as ever was Malkin’s queme.” All the cites for the next two and a half centuries are from bawdy verse, e.g., “Ever since then his prick was always limp, Sodden, yet horny, like an ill-boiled shrimp; Besides he never cared for quim.” (Harlequin Prince Cherrytop, 1879). The OED has the word enters prose through Henry Miller’s 1936 Black Spring: “Taking a bill out of his pocket he crumples it and then shoves it up her quim.” (Of course, Miller is famous for his liberal — and, some say, loving — use of cunt.) At roughly the same time, quim starts showing up as a generalized insult, for men and (more frequently) women.

The Google Books database must not include bawdy ballads or Black Spring, as the Google Ngram Viewer (which draws on Google Books) doesn’t have the word showing up until the 1960s. (I included possessive pronouns in the search to get rid of OCR errors and other noise.)

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 9.40.01 AM

The ascending lines in the ’90s correlate to increasing visibility of quim in popular works, including Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne, in the 1995 film Rob Roy, in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and in a novel I’m currently reading, Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, where it’s frequently invoked by the well-bred 19th-century heroine. It would seem that the last three present it as anachronistically mainstream, but that’s why they invented poetic license. In any case, the prominent use in The Avengers has undoubtedly insured a long run in the spotlight for quim.

Bleeding Cool’s observation on the use of cunt by British men in reference to males rings true.  The OED gives this its own entry for this meaning, quoting Beckett’s Malone Dies (1956): “They think they can confuse me… Proper cunts whoever they are.” Perhaps a future OED edition can include Monty Python’s “Travel Agent” skit, in which the tourist played by Eric Idle can’t say the letter “c.”  The travel agent, Mr. Bounder, asks him if he can say the letter “k.”

Tourist: Oh, yes, khaki, kind, kettle, Kipling, kipper, Kuwait, Keble Bollege Oxford.

Bounder: Why don’t you say the letter ‘K’ instead of the letter ‘C’?

Tourist: What you mean, … spell bolour with a K?

Bounder: Yes.

Tourist: Kolour. Oh, thank you, I never thought of that. What a silly bunt.

In any case, my Not One-Off Britishisms post on mewling quim has been not only much read but also much-commented, and there’s been a lively discussion around the difference connotations and frequency of cunt and quim in American and British usage. A British reader wrote: “Last time I heard ‘quim’ in real life was sometime in the early 1980s somewhere in London — a provocation and prelude to a fight between two guys.”

This came from an American, Nick: “Unfortunately, quim is just as popular as cunt as a spoken epithet in the U.S., and hurled with regularity at both male and female. … However, the one time I saw it in popular media was when the Adult Swim cartoon ‘Venture Brothers’ featured the character Dr. Quymn, Medicine Woman.”

Catherine Rose (English) weighed in with some fine distinctions: “If you call a man a ‘cunt’ in British English, you mean he’s a bad person. If you call a woman a ‘cunt’ you are reducing her to her genitals, therefore being sexually derogatory.”

Finally, a reader who calls himself (and whose real name may in fact be) Michael Matthew William Taylor observed:

Cunt, … in British English, is punctuation. I still recall with delight my first trip to the United States with a male friend, who, as any British man can tell you, is, by dint of being your best friend, almost certainly a “stupid cunt” every time he does something inadvisable, a “clever cunt” every time he figures something out, and, of course, a “smarmy cunt” when he correctly asserts how the gorgeous bit of decorative pottery you’re both looking at in a glass cabinet in a posh titbit store is the perfect gift for the missus at home, leaving you incapable of avoiding buying it. Thankfully, we were then ejected from the store by (to us at the time) confusingly agitated sales staff, saving my wallet. Making me a lucky cunt.

 

8 thoughts on “Mewling quim

  1. John Laviolette March 17, 2015 / 11:28 pm

    What about variant spellings? I’ve seen a famous quote from the dying words of Dutch Schultz rendered as “a boy has never wept nor dashed a thousand kwim”. If it’s true that Schultz said or was trying to say ” quim” instead of “Kim” or “kin”, that places American usage of “quim” back to at least 1935, at least in gangster speak. I think it’s been around in America for a long time (I first heard it in the ’70s as “quivering quim”.) It’s just not well known because of the stronger American taboos on the female anatomy.

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  2. Incidental Scribe March 18, 2015 / 9:31 pm

    Joss loves to use British swears in his works because he gets away with it on the North American screen because the sensors don’t tend to catch it. It’s a way for him to keep his rating low but still throw on some strong language. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Holly March 19, 2015 / 3:53 am

    In American English, “cunt” is generally used as a misogynistic insult, mostly used against women, insulting their very nature of being female. British English doesn’t use the female-specific aspect of this in an insult, which loses much of the misogynistic tone. Indeed, it’s more likely to be used against a man, an exaggerated form of “wanker”.

    and

    If you call a man a ‘cunt’ in BrE, you mean he’s a bad person. If you call a woman a ‘cunt’ you are reducing her to her genitals, therefore being sexually derogatory.

    You are both wrong.

    Remember that women’s genitalia are used as an insult for both men and women in ways that men’s are not: you almost never hear a woman called a dick, and cunt is a worse insult than dick for men. The worst things men can be are not just cunts but pussies, not assholes (gender neutral) or dicks, because being reduced to a female body part is derogatory and demeaning in ways that being reduced to a male body part or a gender neutral body part is not. When you call someone a cunt, you are always drawing on the disdain and contempt our society has for femaleness itself, not merely insulting an individual woman’s “very nature of being female” in the cases where it’s applied to a woman.

    Thus, when cunt is used to insult men, it does not lose any of its misogynistic tone–instead, it’s more misogynistic than if it were used for women.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. ubermonkey79 April 2, 2015 / 4:18 pm

    This came from an American, Nick: “Unfortunately, quim is just as popular as cunt as a spoken epithet in the U.S., and hurled with regularity at both male and female. …”

    This must be a different America than the one I live in. Quim is extremely rare here, while cunt is so well known that it’s often abbreviated as “the C-word” and is commonly considered the most offensive word of all.

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  5. grammargeddonangel July 23, 2015 / 5:03 pm

    “Quim” appears in the book I’m editing at the moment (“You stupid quim!” said to the protagonist by a supernatural opponent), and I must say I squealed with delight when I read it. My experience if that it’s quite rare here in the U.S.; I think I first encountered it in the film “Rob Roy.”

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  6. Stan Carey July 30, 2015 / 7:06 am

    I don’t see this word used often (and hear it even less), but I encountered it today in the book I’m reading, Edna O’Brien’s Johnny I Hardly Knew You (1977): “Her quim was as warm as jam that had just been lifted off a stove.”

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  7. Matthew Evans November 26, 2015 / 3:47 am

    You missed Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, pg. 76: “Ordinarily distinct and identifiable smells — dust, sweat, urine, the dayroom reek of cigarette smoke, the fugitive afterscent of quim — became abstract and indistinguishable from oversmelling, and so he had to pause again and again to refresh his nostrils.”

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