This is a guest post by Gary Thoms and E. Jamieson. Gary Thoms is from Glasgow, and is an Assistant Professor at New York University. E Jamieson is a Scot from outside the central belt, and is a postdoc at the University of Glasgow. Both work on Scots syntax.
Viewers of Saturday Kitchen, a Saturday morning magazine show broadcast on the BBC in the UK, were treated to a sudden and unexpected airing of the c-word this Saturday past. “Dan from Edinburgh” called in to ask the celebrity chef hosts a question about Christmas dinner.
“You ken what it’s like this time of year, every cunt’s banging on about parsnips and all that, so what’s a barry side for Christmas?”
A video of the interaction bounced around twitter throughout the weekend as the wider world marvelled at how the Scots could be so vulgar as to drop the c-bomb on live television.
However, Dan wasn’t really dropping a bomb as much as using another version of cunt which has a very different meaning. This use of cunt, which is particularly prevalent in the speech of working class males in urban central belt of Scotland, has been bleached of any derogatory or gendered meaning. Speakers can use it to refer specifically to men or women, for instance in an example like “go speak to the cunt at the door.” When this is uttered by a speaker of this dialect, there is no implication that the speaker holds the referent in contempt; rather, it is just as neutral as saying “go speak to the person at the door,” conveying only that the referent is human. The nonderogatory nature of this use of cunt is further confirmed by instances where the referent is described positively, such as in Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, where a character is described as “one ay the nicest cunts ye could hope to meet.”
This use of cunt to simply mean ‘person’ is typically unstressed. Speakers can use stress to disambiguate between the neutral person-meaning and the derogatory meaning: “go speak to the cùnt at the door” would clearly convey that the speaker holds the person at the door in contempt. That is, Scots are capable of using cunt as an aggressive swear word, although it seems not to be gendered and familiarity from the word’s abundance in these varieties has blunted its edge substantially.
To come back to Dan’s outburst on live TV, it is clear that he is using the person-meaning of cunt, since not only is it unstressed, but the context clearly signals that there is no derogatory intent.
This isn’t the first time a Scot has been found to accidentally drop this particular c-bomb while speaking on television. Eight years ago, a Glaswegian football supporter unleashed it on a segment for BBC Northwest Tonight show in 2010, two years on from the infamous riots that ensued after Rangers were defeated in the Europa League final at the hands of Zenit St Petersburg:
“this time it’s going to be a good game of football and hopefully everycunt’s going to get along with each other”
This news snippet was broadcast on repeat for a few hours, and it was only taken out of the loop once a Glaswegian expat in the area caught it and called up to let them know about their little faux pas. In this example, the speaker is clearly in diplomat mode: the guy’s just saying that things are going to be much better than last time, and the last thing he’s trying to do is insult either the home fans or his own group of visiting fans. It just so happens that this use of cunt is entirely natural and interchangeable with everyone, so much so that it slips under his radar.
Note that both Dan from Edinburgh and our Glaswegian football supporter used cunt combined with a quantifier, every. The unmarked status of this use of cunt also shows through in the syntax here, as it seems to have developed more than one grammatical function. The development of multiple grammatical functions for a word or expression is known as grammaticalization; it typically occurs when that expression is used frequently in unmarked contexts, and it will often result in that word being able to occur in a restricted set of grammatical contexts which are normally only available to certain “grammatical” or “functional” expressions.
While the use of cunt in “go speak to the cunt at the door” is a fairly standard noun-like use, in the examples broadcast above, cunt seems to function like a pronoun, specifically like the –body in somebody, anybody, nobody and everybody (or its inanimate counterpart –thing as in something etc).
These are often called “indefinite pronouns” in the linguistics literature, and they can be distinguished from regular noun phrases by the way in which they are ordered when they occur with adjectives, as well as their occurrence with else.
Normally, adjectives appear between the noun and any preceding elements such as quantifiers and determiners, as in phrases like “every tall man” or “any nice people.” Adjectives modifying indefinite pronouns, on the other hand, occur to the right of the pronoun, deriving orders such as “somebody nice” or “anything interesting”. This is typically degraded or unacceptable when a full common noun is used: “some person nice” is not possible in English, even though person has a very similar meaning to –body and –one.
Common nouns like person also cannot be combined with else, unlike indefinite pronouns: while “somebody else” or “nothing else” are perfectly acceptable, “some person else” is not.
To come back to the matter at hand, cunt-based indefinite pronouns seem to be possible, since examples such as the following are well-formed and attested on twitter:
- I hope they book somecunt interesting this year.
- Is anycunt decent going to be there?
- Somecunt else post a photo of it.
- Anycunt else hear about that fight?
Thus it seems that –cunt is developing into a pronoun in these varieties. This is exactly the same process as –body went through: having once been used as a common noun meaning ‘person’, it has now lost that meaning and grammaticalized into indefinite pronoun contexts only. Only time will tell if cunt will reach that stage in these varieties of Scots: anycunt wanna bet?