This is a guest post by Michael Adams, Professor of English at Indiana University Bloomington, past president of the Dictionary Society of North America, and author of several books on language. Michael previously wrote here about Donald Trump’s swearing, and will be joining Strong Language as a contributor in the coming months.
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In a recent review of my book, In Praise of Profanity, on Strong Language, Stan Carey notes that I’m guilty of an “occasional lapse, such as the Americocentric suggestion that it’s ‘hard to imagine’ when the word cunt isn’t face-threatening — it quite often isn’t in Australia, Ireland, and parts of the UK, particularly Scotland.” Our language attitudes tether us to a time and place, and I must own my parochialism.
As if parochialism weren’t bad enough, I may have been wrong about the American status of cunt, too. I’ve come across evidence of cunt’s re-appropriation as a term of endearment — not unalloyed BFF endearment but a grudging, competitive willingness to get along well supported by a word all the riskier because it’s used in unfriendly ways against women.
Bad words have been re-appropriated before. Some young African American men started using the n-word as a term of familiar address in the late twentieth century, according to Green’s Dictionary of Slang, “typically in rap lyrics” and “‘reclaiming’ the term from its white/derog. use,” though it includes quotations of related uses as far back as 1846. Young women rappers re-appropriated bitch in a similar way. Bitch, the quarterly magazine of feminist cultural criticism, acknowledges “that not everyone’s down with the term” but argues “we stand firm in our belief that if we choose to reappropriate the word, it loses its power to hurt us.” Perhaps cunt can be re-valued, too, and end up, in some cases, helping more than it hurts.
In some American conversations, cunt is re-appropriated. Six Feet Under aired on HBO for five seasons (2001–2005). The profanity that suffuses its dialogue reflects characters’ extreme dysfunctions and the unremitting frustration — frustration with others, self-frustration, circumstantial frustration, existential frustration — to which dysfunction leads.
The story focuses on the Fishers, a family in the funeral business, the youngest of whom, Claire, is just trying to grow up amidst her family’s pathological mayhem. In “The Last Time” (2.13, 2 June 2002), she reaffirms her wobbly friendship with Parker, but she’s neither easygoing nor trusting, and Parker isn’t trustworthy, so the friendship has never been easy, as the following exchange at a high school graduation party attests:
[Guy vomits loudly.]
Claire: Oh, I’m really gonna miss high school.
Parker: So why does Marty Pappas think getting into Williams has made him into someone you would ever fuck?
Claire: Like the name of the college you go to matters at all. I don’t even know where Williams is, like, Virginia?
Parker: Vermont. It has that summer theater program where movie stars go to have sex and do Chekhov. Oh my god, how’d your interview go?
Claire: It severely sucked.
Parker: Are you suicidal?
Claire: No. East Valley will be fine. Hey, they’ve got a dark room. They’ve got paint. Everyone says you get out of college what you put into it, anyway, so, just like, whatever.
Parker: I’m glad you’re so delirious about it, because it looks like I’m going there, too.
Claire: What do you mean?
Parker: Yale found out about my SATs. That little Indian bitch turned herself in. Now hundreds of people are screwed, so she won’t come back as a rodent.
Parker: It isn’t that funny. Cunt. [Claire passes a joint to Parker.]
Of course, Claire isn’t laughing at Parker’s joke about Parker’s SAT surrogate. She’s laughing at her well-deserved reversal of fortune. Had things turned out differently, the name of the college Parker attended might matter, after all. Parker knows that she deserves Claire’s laughter but saves face by threatening Claire’s. Ultimately, however, it’s not a threat — Claire takes it in stride. They’re just two girls sorting out where they stand with each other. Subsequent passing of the joint affirms the friendship. Cunt, no longer a face-threatening act, is a troubling endearment.
In Stephanie Danler’s recent novel, Sweetbitter (2016), the narrator protagonist Tess tries to bond with other servers at the restaurant where she works. Tess is the newest and the youngest of the servers — she has a lot to learn about love and friendship. Restaurants run on competition among servers. Friendships can be competitive, too. Ariel is one of Tess’s adversary friends. In the following passage, they’re preparing for work while suffering hangovers:
Ariel came up with new beverages for us. Her eyes flashed when he saw my omelet and we dug into it from opposite ends. I sipped my wine through a straw. I saw whole peaceful countries built on perfect omelets and white wine spritzers. Nations at war drinking before noon and then napping.
“Is that Scott’s chaser?” I pointed to a fourth quart container.
“No, it’s Jake’s. Will you drop it off?”
I shook my head.
“Come on, babe, por favor, I’m super behind.”
“It’s on your way,” I whispered.
“Take him the drink and stop being a cunt,” she whispered back.
“Ugh,” I said, “Too early for the c-word.”
I wiped my mouth with a bar mop and ran my tongue around my teeth for stray bits of parsley. As I picked up the drink, the first ticket came through, as grating as a lawn mower starting.
Ariel said: “It’s never too early for the c-word.”
Tess disagrees with Ariel about casual use of cunt. She doesn’t reject it outright — in a context like this, cunt may promote intimacy — but she doesn’t have to like it, either. Here, cunt establishes social distance as well as rapport.
Such bits of evidence don’t prove that cunt has lost its stigma. Six Feet Under traded on the stigmatized meaning, for instance, when Claire’s brother, Nate, famously called his girlfriend, Brenda, not some ordinary cunt, but “some fucking cunt from hell” in the episode immediately preceding “The Last Time” (“I’ll Take You,” 2.12, 19 May 2002). No doubt, weekly viewers registered the semantic contrast.
Kristy Beers Fägersten, in Who’s Swearing Now: The Social Aspects of Conversational Swearing (2012) reports that “the spontaneous speech data” she collected “had no recorded instances of cunt” — though it did of other swear words, suggesting that interviewees consciously avoided it — and her “questionnaire data revealed cunt to be evaluated the most highly offensive swear word across gender and race,” while “interview data revealed explicit negative opinions of the word and deliberate decisions to avoid using it.” Her research subjects were undergraduates at the University of Florida and were generally open to swearing, so their resistance to cunt says something important about American attitudes towards the word.
So, however, does its use in the fictional contexts I’ve described. Fictional speech doesn’t prove claims about what flesh-and-blood people say, but it can prove something about language attitudes. In these two cases, writers, producers, and editors all thought re-appropriation of cunt plausible — apparently, their audiences did, too — though, in America, cunt is very strong language, indeed.
Chronologically, Fägersten’s research splits the difference between Six Feet Under and Sweetbitter. It’s not as though lots of Americans watched the show or read the novel and suddenly thought differently of cunt, and two examples don’t mark a trend. Speakers and writers would have to test cunt’s plausibility as a friendly term repeatedly, and American speakers might resist its use nonetheless. In America, at least, it still may be too early for the c-word.