A Fascinating History of the "C Word"
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Late in 2011, a song from a virtually unknown 20-year-old rapper from Harlem knocked the Internet on its ass. Azealia Banks’s “212” was a wildly original debut single that found the rapper dribbling a steady stream of elastic wordplay and oh-no-she-didn’t raunch over a skronky beat from producer Lazy Jay. And then there was the song’s hook, a repeated provocation to a male rival for the affections of another woman: “I guess that cunt gettin’ eaten.”
“212” was voted Pitchfork’s no. 9 track of 2011, propelling Banks to the top spot on NME’s 2011 “Cool List”and earning her a coveted endorsement from Kanye West—all before she even landed a record deal. But some listeners just couldn’t get past that C-word. In a December 2011 cover story for self-titled magazine, the interviewer asked Banks a question that no one would have asked, say, Lil Wayne, who was three years younger than Banks when his debut album dropped: “Is it weird to play these songs for your mother?” When she responded in the negative, he pushed on: “It’s jarring hearing a young girl say ‘cunt’ so often.” Banks brushed him off with pointed flippancy. “Sex is fucking sex,” she said. “We wouldn’t be sitting here if it wasn’t for sex.”
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In a time when few formerly naughty words still pack a potent punch, “cunt” holds a unique position—everyone from Germaine Greer (who has said that the C-word is “one of the few remaining words in the English language with a genuine power to shock”) to anonymous Urban Dictionary scribes can agree on that. As Liz Lemon explains in a classic episode of 30 Rock, the word demonstrates a frustrating lingual gender imbalance. “There’s nothing you can call a guy to come back. There is no male equivalent to this word.” (She then tries out “fungdark” on a male colleague. He doesn’t flinch.)
Indeed, the word’s inherent power has made it the subject of a long-running feminist reclamation effort. Eve Ensler put it at the center of one of her famed Vagina Monologues (“Reclaiming Cunt”), and Inga Muscio’s 1998 manifesto Cunt: A Declaration of Independence covered sex, politics, abortion, and more in arguing for an embrace of the word and a rejection of its misogynistic connotations. In an introduction to Cunt’s revised 2002 edition, veteran sex writer and educator Betty Dodson explained why she preferred “cunt” to the more deferential-sounding “vagina” (which, Muscio points out, comes from a word that means “sheath for a sword”): The latter word refers exclusively to the birth canal, while the former includes the clitoris as well.
The grinning nonchalance with which Banks scatters “cunt” throughout her debut single isn’t an anomaly. Actually, it feels representative of a rapidly changing cultural perception of the word—who is “allowed” to utter it, when it’s appropriate, or even what, exactly, it means. Though we definitely shouldn’t ignore the word’s history of misogyny and violence, a new crop of boundary-obliterating female musicians like Banks, Nicki Minaj, and Rihanna have recently deployed the word in a way that prompts a provocative question: Is this the beginning of a brave new cunt-positive era in pop music?
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Believe it or not, calling a woman a cunt wasn’t always an insult. In ancient Egypt, an early form of the word was used as a neutrally connoted synonym for “woman.” (Egyptologists were pretty surprised to find it in the writings of Ptah-Hotep, but as writer Barbara G. Walker notes, “Its indelicacy was not in the eye of the ancient beholder, only in that of the modern scholar.”) Centuries later, Anglo-Saxons used it as a utilitarian term for female genitalia. The Oxford English Dictionary traces its earliest English usage back to 1230, when the street that made up London’s red-light district was called—not even kidding—Gropecunt Lane. And before long, the term started cropping up in English literature. Chaucer uses the Middle English variant “queynte” liberally throughout his randy Canterbury Tales, and though Shakespeare never used the word outright, he loved to use highly suggestive puns, as evidenced in Twelfth Night (“There be her very C’s, her U’s, and her T’s: and thus she makes great P’s”), as well as in Hamlet and Ophelia’s infamously entendre-crazed “country matters” exchange. These early literary uses were saucy and irreverent, but not exactly forbidden.