Sticks and Stones May Break my Bones… but Call Me a Cunt?

It may have been Christmas time three years ago, when, in the daze that was my shopping misery, I finally reached the cash register after a zombifyingly long wait in a Disneyland-like serpentine line. To my shock and then delight, the young ostensibly female Urban Outfitter employee asking me if I found everything “okay” was sporting a medium-sized (not too small and not overly large) white round button pinned to the left of the top of her left breast with the word in bold black capital letters, “CUNT” printed on it. 

After a bit of an eye widening, I settled into a smirk and complimented her on her pin. She said her pal, the manager, made it for her. I thought it ballsy to wear it in a store, hip as the location is–the anti-mall, a hipster haven–with commercial intent, especially one run by Conservative homophobes from what I recollected reading.

I immediately wanted one. Up to that year, my 51st, I had not encountered the word very often and it had an aura about it, something electric and taboo. The word had never been hurled at me as a weapon til then, though it has been since–by someone I could not have ever guessed would use it against me, yet neither could I have ever imagined that he and I could have ever entered into hideous combat the way he had. 

The initial admixture of discordant discomfort, alarm, and delight was titillating and intriguing. Yes, I understood the neutralizing of such terms through ironic deployment as many other terms have been similarly used:  nigger and queer, to name the two powerhouse terms of oppression that have been turned inside out by the intended targets’ co-opting these weapons. No, one cannot harm another with a word she turns on herself happily, so that the term is deflated, neutralized.

My reaction led me on the usual journey of the philologist (a title one graduate school professor knighted his class of comparative literature students with profoundly):  What is the nature of language?

Interestingly enough, I had this discussion about language with my class just yesterday. We had read Susan Allison’s, “Taking a Reading,” which is a playful essay examining the language of measurement, supposedly a very precise endeavor of linguists long ago. However, in it, Allison wryly asks how it is that her yard, the same word for a measurement of three feet, and that of her childhood–two different sized and located spaces–are both yards. Even the language of precision has so much slippage.

I asked my students:  If we woke up tomorrow and the word for cat was now “dog,” would it matter?  Language is merely a referent to something else, so does it make a difference which sounds and letters we assign to the object in mind, and how do we know the object we have in mind is the same referent for everyone using the same term anyhow? And what of the individual raised without a word for “cat” or any language?  Does a cat exist in absence of a word for it, to recall it to mind and give it form? Pretty abstract for a class during the need-for-a-tea-or-espresso hour.

My point was to consider the arbitrariness of language even as it forms and informs our very existence–makes our world. I am not alone in pondering this phenomenon way too much. Philosophy teems with such obsessing considerations.

But how is it that such words like “cunt” contain all that energy, all that power?  Does calling a man a “dick” have the same effect? No, it does not because of the real life power relations between men and women historically and contemporarily in physical, economical and political disparity of exchange. The magic of the term, however, must be steeped in a rich history of which I am not fully aware because calling a female “womb” or “vagina” or “twat” even does not have the same force or violence in my mind. 

Few females wish to be identified as one part of their bodies, I would imagine, and if they did, it probably would not be their vaginas more than their brains. Though, as the wonderful Betty White, comedic tough ass actress long enduring herself, has astutely joked, the vagina is a pretty damned tough body part for its resilience, flexibility and endurance in light of the beatings it suffers.  

For your viewing pleasure, an entertaining comic strip content of attitudes toward and reactions to the word “cunt” on the Nib entitled “Just a Word,” is offered for discussion. Is it just a word? A weapon? Is it enough to own the word, wear it on a pin to neutralize it? Breeze through the cartoon and weigh in. This inquiring mind wants to know.

10 Replies to “Sticks and Stones May Break my Bones… but Call Me a Cunt?”

  1. Gonna say, that I can’t say, the n word or the c word without cringing. It’s really kind of classless and unnecessary other than to add a level of degradation to something may need it, may not. I don’t think anyone says these words without some little voice saying, you’ve crossed a line the reflects more on your for using the word than the one it’s projected upon.

    1. The power of the words are their histories steeped in hate and oppression. Our consciences are piqued when taking on the role of the oppressors while using those words. But breaking the words down, neutralizing them is taking away at least some of the weaponry of the oppressors, perhaps leading change of behaviors with changing the words used for such atrocious behaviors.

  2. This is a fascinating perspective. The c-word has always bothered me, but I think it’s because of the negativity and vulgarity behind the word that makes it so offensive. I like your thoughts on how this relates to language. Very interesting!

  3. Cunt, cunt, cunt… I love the word! At risk of sounding like a cheap porn mag story, how can you even consider replacing “her cunt opened wide and swallowed my own lips/chin,/face with desire” with “her vagina opened wide and swallowed…” Meh, it just doesn’t invite, excite, or begin to evoke the same imagery. I have heard from young males (read as in their mid 20’s) that “prick” gets a bit of the same reaction as “cunt”. Again though, I see us limited and also freed by language, if we will just let ourselves be… I am longing to hear someone whisper in my ear what a bitch I am, and that my cunt will be used to tame me! LOL

    1. “Hey (softly spoken sneer), bitch, just wait til I tame you with your cunt.”
      How’s that? Help any?
      Seriously, I agree that language can transform, transfix and trigger emotions high and low, can be weapon of destruction and sword of creation. It’s malleable and injures or salves only through our own perceptions, experiences and self-sentience (I think I made that last word up ;))

  4. Some words are meant to be shot at a hear-er to pierce emotionally and psychologically the way an arrow is shot to pierce flesh. It’s interesting, though, how any word when repeated aloud long enough loses any and all meaning language has imbued it with. It becomes nothing more than a sound puffed through the mouth into the air. This is true even of ‘cunt’, ‘faggot’, and ‘nigger’, words with the sole purpose of hurting those they are directed at.
    However, there is one word that I can think of which can be used as both a weapon to injure and in everyday parlance without causing harm whatsoever. (No, it is not ‘fuck’.) The word I’m thinking of is ‘Jew’. This word is often uttered derisively, contemptuously, sneeringly, and dismissively with intent to harm yet is just as often spoken as a term of description.
    I’m sure there are other such words. Perhaps your readers – or you – can think of some.

    1. Conditioning through repetition, yes, numbs and neutralizes words. I have explained the loss of power the word “fuck” has when overused or used in any old context. It gets sapped and shrunken.
      Probably any racial or ethnic slur is such word that has ambiguity given context. Jew does have a benign and malignant texture, so an interesting choice, MPM.

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