A Fascinating History of the "C Word"
Continued from previous page
By the 20th century, using “cunt” in a work of literature was no longer a cheeky transgression of social mores, but, as writers like James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence found, fodder for the prosecution at your obscenity trial. In the notorious 1960 trial against Lawrence’s anachronistically sex-positive 1928 novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the prosecutor’s opening remarks pointed out that Lawrence used the C-word a whopping 14 times.
As modernism challenged Victorian customs of repression and censorship, plenty of other once-forbidden words entered the modern lexicon. So why did “cunt” remain so taboo? It’s hard to pinpoint a simple explanation, but in a 2006 segment of the BBC’s etymology-themed TV series Balderdash and Piffle, Germaine Greer proposed that the condemnation of “cunt” was an inevitability in a patriarchal culture with a fear of female desire. “For hundreds of years, men identified female sexual energy as a dangerous force,” she noted. “And unlike other words for female genitals, this one sounds powerful. It demands to be taken seriously.” The vilification of “cunt” doesn’t just cast female genitalia as something that should remain unspoken (as did “nothing,” a popular and proto-Freudian slang term for ladyparts back in Shakespeare’s day), but it erects restrictive boundaries around expressions of female desire—remember that the more “polite” word, vagina, does not encompass the part of the cunt responsible for pleasure.
Pop music is a culturally transformative force, and it makes sense that the earliest appearances of “cunt” in music history coincide with the explosive, taboo-demolishing first wave of punk. Ian Dury yelled the word—along with a few other choice expletives—in his 1977 song “Plaistow Patricia,” and a year later, Sex Pistol Sid Vicious snuck it into his iconoclastic cover of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” which became a U.K. Top 10 single. It’s worth pointing out that both of these artists are British, and that “cunt,” in these songs, is characteristic of its usage in the U.K., Ireland, and Australia as an approximate synonym to “asshole.” (A friend who lives in London describes it as “crass but not taboo”; one Australian Urban Dictionary poster genially observes that the expletive “has almost replaced the word ‘mate.’”) These early uses of “cunt” in song aren’t derogatory addresses to a female subject, but are instead used to grasp for easy provocation, empty of specific or explicitly gendered meaning. (Dury, for example, buries the word within an avalanche of “arseholes,” “bastards,” and “pricks.”)
The first artist to use “cunt” with its more precise, anatomical meaning in mind was also the first woman on record to utter it in a pop song: the incomparable Marianne Faithfull, on her 1979 comeback masterpiece Broken English. The former ’60s folk darling and Rolling Stones associate had spent two years homeless in London, battling drug addiction; fusing punk, new wave, and reggae, Broken English was a frayed-nerve statement from a woman who had been through hell and back. Adapted from a Heathcote Williams poem, its final track, “Why D’Ya Do It?” tells the tale of a woman confronting her unfaithful lover: “Why d’ya do it, she screamed, after all we’ve said/ Every time I see your dick I see her cunt in my bed.”
Faithfull wields the C-word purposefully. The rage and emotional rawness of her delivery perfectly echoes the blunt force of the line, and “Why D’Ya Do It?” remains one of the most powerful songs Faithfull has ever recorded. But not all of her fans got to hear it: The workers at the Australian EMI plant where the record was pressed were so offended by the song’s lyrical content that they staged a walkout, resulting in smooth vinyl inserts being pressed in place of the “Why D’Ya Do It?” track. The proper version of Broken English wasn’t released in Australia until 1988. Even in a country where using “cunt” as a synonym for “mate” is relatively commonplace, the response to “Why D’Ya Do It” shows that using the word in a more sexualized context is apparently still likely to ruffle some feathers.