A Few Words About the “Unspeakable” Word

Jenny Diski had a really interesting piece in the most recent New York Times Magazine, about the word cunt. At least, I’m 99% sure that’s what the “unspeakable” word was that she very cleverly referred to throughout her essay; the Times’ style guide considers the actual word too crude to be printed.

Among the various points raised was the tension between the “grenade of the four-letter word” and the potential to neutralize a charged word by using it in everyday conversation. Cunt isn’t the only word that fits into this equation; fuck, shit, and several of George Carlin’s other seven dirty words have also been in the hot seat. Yet cunt is almost universally held to be one of the most offensive words in the English language, only able to be verbalized as the c-word or the ridiculously cutesy C U Next Tuesday.

I think it’s time to reclaim “cunt.” What should be so insulting about something that means female genitalia (specifically, the vulva)? Is the dislike of the word symptomatic of a larger unease with female sexuality? There’s certainly ample evidence that our culture is more comfortable with terms for male anatomy than female; look at all the euphemisms for male masturbation, and then try to think of even half as many for the female equivalent.

Some words have not survived the events of history all that well—how many people would want to name their son “Adolf” now?—but the reverse is also true. “Queer” was once used to insult gay people, and while that still is the case, the word is also used by as a term of pride and inclusion. And let’s not forget that while Diski may be the most recent writer to explore the word, other writers have taken on the issue as well, most notably Inga Muscio in her book Cunt: A Declaration of Independence.

So what do you think? Is it past time to destigmatize “cunt,” or is the word so irrevocably tainted that it should remain verboten?

About Sarah:
Sarah's first book, Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement, will be out March 2013. For more information, follow her on Twitter @saraherdreich, or check out saraherdreich.com.


  1. Good question! I’d love to end the pejoration; however many insults there are that are gendered male, it’s hard not to feel like the female-tinged ones are meant to be much much worse. But I’m not sure that usage will do much more than desensitize folks who are probably already desensitized and questioning to begin with. Frankly, the word “douche” is at the top of my hit list these days. I’m not even sure half the folks using it know its original referent. Which, of course, begs the question: is an insult insulting if the insulter doesn’t know who he’s insulting? Beats me. I feel like the best answer is to keep on questioning.

  2. Hi. That was an interesting article you linked to. And a fun one to read. Thanks!

    I have no problem with the word cunt. It definitely has its uses and moments. But it’s a far sharper word than those it’s typically bunched up with. There’s more drama in it. It’s also a fun word to say, just because of the way it sounds. But then so is “dick,” which I use all the time. But dick can be someone’s name while cunt can’t, so it’s not quite the same thing.

    But fuck – the weapon of culture war is language. Maybe, beyond trying to “reclaim” a word like slut, already in wide circulation, it would be simpler and more effective to get the word dick into even broader use as a counterpart/counterweight to cunt. Dick seems to cover, more or less, the same dramatic range as cunt. They do mean roughly the same thing. I can imagine objections to such a suggestion. But do they amount to more than dick? :-)

  3. I am all for using the word “cunt.” I also like “twat.” They don’t roll off the tongue as easily as “fuck” does – but that’s primarily because “fuck” can be used as so many wonderful different parts of speech.

    Nico’s got an interesting point about “dick,” “rod,” “johnson,” etc. Let’s start throwing words for male genitalia around like they’re filler words and see what happens.

  4. I guess I have some reservations about a minority group, such as women, reclaiming a word that has been used to oppress them. I understand that in many ways reclaiming allows the power to be taken out of the hands of the oppressor, which has its purposes. On the other hand, however, why not make a statement about the inappropriate nature of the word and demand that it not be used?

    I was involved with the Vagina Monologues for several years, and as many readers may know, there is a portion of the play that involves the audience yelling the word “cunt.” This was always a portion of the production I refused to participate in because I felt it reflected poorly on the feminist community and did more harm than good. I still feel this way, despite being involved with VDAY for many years.

    Its just such an ugly word, and brings up such painful feelings for so many women, why not put more effort into doing away with this type of language?

    • I don’t think you can reclaim “cunt” anymore than blacks can reclaim “nigger.”
      Though women aren’t a minority, they are a group that has suffered institutionalized
      discrimination throughout history. I find it the most disgusting word that
      a woman can be called. It has been historically used by men to put women
      down and vilify them. Why not just use the word vagina. The power of “nigger”
      has not been erased by Blacks claiming it, imo, and neither will “cunt.”
      We could put that energy into more important matters. I think by using cunt we will
      be giving men the choice to use it and then it will be more apt to be used more in a bad way.

  5. I don’t see it so much as a ‘reclaiming’ than as, say, a repurposing. To reclaim something seems like a political goal, but repurposing feels more like a tactic. And the diff between those forces longer term contextual perspective, which can get lost in the daily grind (especially over the last 6 months of stunt legislation.)

    I think it’s fucking scandalous how the word LIFE was so beautifully hijacked by the anti side. Is life a word worth reclaiming?

    (hmm can I use html in this?. I guess I’ll find out :-p)

  6. I’ve got no problem with the word “cunt” being used literally – i.e. to refer to a woman’s vulva. I use it that way all the time in my head.

    My problem is with it being used as an insult. As in “You fucking cunt!” The implication is, a cunt (vulva) is a horrible, disgusting thing and so are you. Kind of like the way people use “asshole” or “dick”. I personally refuse to use any of these words as an insult. What the hell is wrong with these parts of the body? Why do people have such a problem with them?

    I don’t find “cunt” to be an ugly word. It’s short and sharp, sure, but so are tons of words no one finds offensive. The reason people think it’s ugly is that they’ve internalized notions that the human body – specifically, the female body – is wrong and shameful. (Interestingly, “pudenda” comes from the Latin word for “shame” – so I refuse to use it.)

    Originally, of course, “cunt” wasn’t stigmatized at all. Once upon a time, centuries ago, it was the ordinary, normal, everyday word for female genitalia. But then the Latin terms (“vulva” or “clitoris” or “vagina”) took over, and the Anglo-Saxon ones were cast aside. Interesting how that happens. The same is also true for many other words that are today considered taboo. The word “piss” appears in the King James Bible (used literally).

    The problem, of course, with trying to ban the word is that we’re never going to succeed. People in my neck of the world have been trying to ban “retard”, and they’ve gotten a lot of publicity, but people still use it as much as they ever did. It’s better to use “cunt” in a neutral or positive light and try to get people to see that it’s normal.

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