Great moments in swearing: Naughty spelling in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

Swearing loves spelling. We abbreviate it online: WTF and GTFO. We encode it in military acronyms: SNAFU and FUBAR. We play with letters to avoid taboos: H-E-double-hockey-sticks. We spin apocryphal tales of sweary etymology: Ship High In Transit and For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. Sweary spelling even graces some of our finest literature – like in Shakespeare, who humiliates a prude by making him spell out the word cunt.

A subplot of Shakespeare’s gender-bending comedy Twelfth Night centers on Malvolio, the puritanical steward to a countess, Olivia. His severe ways invite the pranks of Olivia’s tippling kinsman, Sir Toby Belch, his companion Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Maria, Olivia’s waiting-gentlewoman. To revenge the killjoy, the three forge a love letter from Olivia to Malvolio, which the mischief-makers overhear him read aloud. After he first discovers the letter, he excitedly recognizes Olivia’s handwriting: 

By my life, this is my lady’s hand. These be her very c’s, her u’s, and her t’s, and thus makes she her great P’s. It is in contempt of question her hand.

C’s, U’s, and T’s? Yes, Malvolio unwittingly spells cunt, with and standing in for N. If we disregard and, C-U-T spells cut, itself crude Elizabethan slang for “vagina.” As for makes great P’s? Malvolio doesn’t realize he’s just characterized Olivia’s urination.

But what’s more, Shakespeare repeats the joke. Apparently, he wanted to make sure every last groundling got the gag. So, he takes advantage of Andrew, a rather slow-witted fellow, to double down:

Her c’s, her u’s, and her t’s? Why that?

You can almost hear the Globe audience collectively asking themselves along with Andrew, “Yeah, of all the letters, why did Malvolio pick out those ones?…Ohh…”

Another literary giant, James Joyce, followed up on Shakespeare’s sweary orthography. In the Circe episode of his Ulysses, the Prison Gate Girls sing:

If you see kay
Tell him he may
See you in tea
Tell him from me.

If you see kay, as Jesse Sheidlower has noted of this long-popular bit of wordplay, sounds like one is spelling out F-U-C-K. As for see you in tea? That’s penciled in, of course, for next Tuesday.


Shakespeare’s text is quoted from The Norton Shakespeare (1997, W.W. Norton, ed. Stephen Greenblatt). For more on Shakespeare’s strong language, see my previous posts.

8 thoughts on “Great moments in swearing: Naughty spelling in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

  1. Rob Chirico December 1, 2016 / 8:24 pm

    In 2009, Britney Spears (born Britney Jean Spears, 1981- ) single “If U Seek Amy” was censored and retitled as “If U See Amy,” removing the “k” from “Seek.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Y December 3, 2016 / 8:38 pm

    There’s a copyright entry from 1962 for “If You See Kay, The Teenage Miss, words and music by Gia Canso, pseudonym of H. Jefferson-Jones, © Punch & Judy Music, Nassau, Bahamas.”


    • CGHill December 4, 2016 / 4:16 am

      Not related: the 1982 April Wine single “If You See Kay.”


  3. The Peanut Gallery May 6, 2017 / 11:52 am

    ‘Cut’, of course, also appears in TN as a reference to being gelded, or castrated cf. Andrew Aguecheek’s ‘call me cut’. Also ‘cut’ was Viola’s plan in the play to present herself as ‘cut’ or as ‘an eunuch’.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. ardj May 21, 2019 / 1:16 pm

    Mr Kelly holds back from mentioning Hamlet’s, ” Do you think I meant country matters?”


  5. Dennis De Graaf May 22, 2019 / 7:29 am

    In the Dutch language, cunt is spelled KUT which is pronounced exactly as ‘cut’. When I first visited England in my early teens my uncle told me to order ‘cut’ bread in bakeries or camping stores when we wanted sliced bread, and me and my nephew collapsed with laughter every time we said the forbidden word.


    • John Kelly May 22, 2019 / 2:11 pm

      Oh, wow! What is the Dutch equivalent for the English “cut”? Surely close in form?


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