December, 1988. London (or perhaps Tooting). A 20-year-old dancer, lean, attractive – my girlfriend at the time – abruptly says, in a throaty growl, “Do you know what your cunting daughter did?”
Surprised, I laugh. “What did you say?!”
But she won’t say it twice. She said it once for shock effect. Once was enough, no more. She explains with a mischievous smile, pinking a little at the cheeks, that it’s a quote from The Exorcist.
Which means I’ve seen it before, because I’ve seen the movie, so this isn’t my first exposure to the word cunting. It’s just the first one I remember.
And actually it’s not exactly that way in the movie; it’s this:
You may be tempted to go to YouTube to see more of the scene for context. I really don’t think you want to do that. I have to tell you that you will almost certainly wish you hadn’t. I will not be held responsible if you do. But I will say that the swearword of choice does gain a greater literality from it.
Question, though: How does one cunt?
Swearwords aren’t meant literally, of course. But they do usually follow certain morphosyntactic rules. Fuck can be a noun or a verb; as a verb, we can conjugate in all the usual ways: I fuck him, she fucks her, they are all fucking, and if you will fuck, then we will all have fucked. A verb can take an –ing ending two ways: to be a present participle – Did you see the two dogs fucking? – or to form a noun – Did you see the fucking of the dogs? The noun form can become a standard accepted word in its won right: You bring me tidings and blessings, but where are my earnings?
All of these imply a verb: to fuck, to tide, to bless, to earn. So tell me: Where is this verb to cunt?
We are quite creative in English with word conversions, of course, as the classic sentence Fuck off, you fucking fuck helps illustrate. But we don’t see Cunt off or You really cunted that one up. (Do we? I haven’t.) This cross-cuntry seems quite limited.
Perhaps this is a third kind of –ing, not typically productive now but still present in quite a few words? The Oxford English Dictionary defines that one thus: “A suffix forming derivative masculine ns., with the sense of ‘one belonging to’ or ‘of the kind of’, hence ‘one possessed of the quality of’, and also as a patronymic = ‘one descended from, a son of’, and as a diminutive.” Surviving examples include farthing, shilling, Atheling (a word you will know from the opening of Beowulf – you do know the opening of Beowulf, don’t you? You cunting don’t??!!), king (from Old English cyning), and English place names based on the tribe or family of a certain person, as for instance the southwest Inner London suburb of Tooting.
But we aren’t talking about a cunting here (which would be what? a cunty person, or someone who came from a cunt – which would be anyone not born by C-section as
Macbeth Macduff was?). It could be an attributive noun in your cunting daughter, but we know that’s not it because Blatty’s book and Friedkin’s film aren’t the only cunting sources.
Actually, the earliest print source so far found is not one of Blatty’s and Friedkin’s countrymen (they’re both Yanks), but it is someone famous: TE Lawrence. Not DH, note! This is Lawrence of Arabia. In The Mint, which is a collection of notes made by Lawrence in RAF Depot in 1922 and Cadet College in 1925, there are the following three sentences (from pages 62, 109, and 137) that show that the word was current among his set then and there, as they are all quoted speech:
Anyway, it doesn’t take six cunting towns to make our burg.
Where the fucking hell am I to get the girl lodgings in this cunting place?
Bloody binding to fuck round this cunting fence all night.
That book, mind you, is in Google Books as having been published in 1957, and even with that date it’s still the earliest real citation there. (Earlier ones are misrecognitions of words such as counting, cunning, and even amounting: “Through life he evinced a regard for his surgeon, a cunting to enthusiasm, and declared his ast illness was divested of most of its sulfering, from having his professional attendance. Donssrsrrras.”) The word picked up some little steam around 1960, and after a dip picked up more around 1980; it is now on a third upswing, such as it is. I suspect that The Exorcist has been a particular vector for it.
But why, why, cunting why? Is it that we are to postulate on the nonce a verb cunt – perhaps Would you like to cunt tonight, dear fellow? or more figuratively You cunted that up or Are you going to cunt me on this again? Or is it the smash-and-grab transgressive morphosyntax of taboo language again?
I’m going with the latter. Taboo language is meant to be transgressive, and one way it can compound that is by breaking the usual laws and expectations of morphosyntax. It doesn’t always do it – in fact, most often swearwords abide by the usual rules – but it is an available effect: pound a vulgarity in where it doesn’t belong, just like pounding some fathercunter’s face into a sistercocking wall. Pow! It makes you turn your head right around. Sort of like that girl in The Exorcist.
But why, then, wouldn’t we also have Shut your assing mouth and This shitting project is driving me ape-jism and so forth?
Well, we could, of course, if people would get a little more cockspurting creative with their swears. There’s really no good douche-felch reason not to go a little ape-jism from time to time. Most of us are proper fucking boring when it comes to choice of naughty words. But we’ve latched onto this one because in SFYE (Standard Fuck You English) the go-to vexative adjective is fucking. It’s the bad word. But wait: there’s one word that’s badder. We know what it is, and Kate Warwick has discoursed on it on this very assholing blog. How do you punch up fucking and, just maybe, give it a little bit of the vividness that has been bleached out of it? By jamming in cunt in place of fuck.
The 8th edition of Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English supports this assessment of its effect (in an entry written by Paul Beale):
cunting. Adj., expressive of disgust, reprobation, violence: late C.19–20. As L.A. points out, 1977, ‘To hell with the cunting thing!’ connotes exasperation, anger, aversion, condemnation. It is gen. felt to be stronger and more expressive than the long since threadbare fucking, with which it is apparently synon.
Of course, we don’t want to wear out this word as we have fucking. We need to keep it in the cabinet for special cuntingencies, so it retains its shock value. It also helps, of course, if it’s spoken by someone who does not normally use such language at all.
Not that that was the worst thing my girlfriend said to me that December. Although she did wait until early January to dump me, in a park in Wandsworth.