When the BBC’s 1953 production of ‘Quatermass’ was scaring the hell out of the nascent television nation, it prompted the debut of the announcer’s warning to be issued for the benefit of unprepared viewers: ‘In our opinion, we believe the following programme is not suitable for children or those of a nervous disposition.’ I only mention this as a kind of prelude to a post liable to cause offence to the more squeamish of visitors, for I am about to present the first in an occasional series examining words that are not wise to utter in polite company. Call it the dark side of the highly popular post that appeared over Christmas, ‘The Lost Lexicon of England’, if you like. If you don’t, f**k you. Only joking – just getting you ready. Here goes…
One of the top two taboo words in the English language, cunt serves as a catch-all term for women’s naughty bits and a description of an unlikeable person; numerous words used as insults have sexual connotations – dickhead, knobhead, fanny, twat, cock, prick, arsehole, wanker, tosser, fucker etc. But none have the impact of cunt. It is a word still used sparingly on television, even dramas – ditto cinema. A memorable episode of cult US sitcom ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ has the perennial social disaster that is the Larry David character breaking up a convivial post-dinner party card game by suddenly crying ‘What a cunt!’ – a statement uttered in jest that nevertheless goes down like the proverbial lead balloon, leaving the PC-riddled LA sophisticates speechless, and leading to Larry and his wife being asked to leave. Like mentioning a fondness for a band you’re not certain is a shared passion, cunt is a word that tends to be held back when in company until one can discern whether or not it will be received favourably.
As with many such words, the origins of cunt are hazy. Some say it’s derived from ancient Germanic-based languages, and it surfaces in the Middle English era, particularly in Chaucer, albeit as ‘queynte’; the bawdy context in which Chaucer uses it implies he does indeed meant cunt rather than quaint. The reference to female genitalia is often associated with an apocryphal eleventh century London street, Gropecunt Lane, which was allegedly situated in a red-light district, upholding the old tradition of streets being named after the predominant business of the neighbourhood; however, some believe the word was already in Anglo-Saxon use as a non-offensive slang term for the vagina. Changing moral attitudes by the time of Shakespeare seem to require poets and playwrights engaging in word play to sneak the word into their works, sometimes pronouncing ‘country’ with heavy emphasis on the first syllable. A little later, the word ‘cunny’ appears as a softer variation, though following the example of the notorious libertine poet the Earl of Rochester it becomes more commonplace again in the rakish Georgian era.
After another lengthy spell as a forbidden word, cunt slowly reappears in twentieth century literature, with the likes of James Joyce, DH Lawrence and Henry Miller using it to varying degrees and receiving lengthy bans for their troubles. Even the ‘let it all hang out’ hippy culture of the late 60s/early 70s didn’t make the word more acceptable; the parallel women’s movement of the time was divided over whether or not it was especially offensive to women or whether it should be reclaimed from the verbal toilet. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s foul-mouthed alter-egos Derek and Clive preferred to keep it there, and it only tended to slip into the mainstream during live TV broadcasts, such as the infamous invasion of the David Frost stage by the ‘Yippies’ and their assorted underground followers in 1970.
Forty-five years on from ‘Oz’ editor Felix Dennis becoming the first person to say the word on British television, cunt retains its X-rated mystique, one of the few words in the English language that has never lost its appeal to shock in certain social situations. For that fact alone, it’s pretty special.