TIME feminism

How a Bunch of C-Words Got Into the Oxford English Dictionary

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This week's new additions to the historical catalog, including several that crudely refer to female genitalia and actually date back more than 800 years, highlight the power of old words

Note: If you don’t like to read the c-word, you should probably stop reading.

On the rare occasion that people think of lexicographers, they don’t usually imagine those scholars sitting around attempting to define the foulest words in the language. Yet that is part of the job, as one can see in the latest batch of additions to the venerable Oxford English Dictionary, which contains cunted, cunting, cuntish and cunty.

Part of the reason those words were made part of the historical catalog on Thursday is that they are more than foul things one is taught to never say in front of Grandma. They are firecrackers packed with gender and history—even if they just seem like vulgar derivatives of a vulgar word. Here is a bit of the backstory.

cunty (n.): adj. despicable; highly unpleasant; extremely annoying.

The word cunt, which more literally refers to female genitals, dates back to the 1200s. In the Middle Ages, English speakers were less squeamish about obscene language because they had much less privacy and therefore less shame about things like sex and body parts. So the c-word probably wouldn’t have raised too many Black Death-plagued eyebrows. It was even used in surnames at the time, like Clawecuncte.

Today, things are obviously different. In her boldly titled book, Inga Muscio opens by saying that the c-word is “arguably the most powerful negative word in the American English language …. [and] refers almost exclusively to women.” She’s wrong about the latter; the word, especially when used in the United Kingdom, often refers to men or is a gender-neutral slur. But most people would probably agree that calling someone “cunty” is one of the ruder things you could do at the American dinner table.

Love it or hate it, that gives the word and its derivatives a lot of power, which is part of the reason that some feminists have tried to reclaim it as a symbol of “the innate power of the sex organ it names,” as author Betty Dodson wrote. She finds it preferable to its generally inoffensive cousin, vagina, because that word is derived from the Latin term for sheath or scabbard, suggesting that a lady is nothing more than a holder for the all-important sword.

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