Could the c-word soon be finding its way into news headlines?

If orange is the new black, then the c-word may be becoming the new f-word? It certainly seems that way. With the f-word drifting to more common usage, we need another word for its shock value.

When I write c-word, I do not mean “cable.” But it is on cable television where the c-word is creeping out of the shadows. Tony Soprano and his cronies used it. I hear it on episodes of the popular fantasy drama Game of Thrones, sometimes used to describe a body part, more often as a corrosive epithet against women and men.

Surprisingly, the c-word has taken on a political connotation. In his comedy routines and on his HBO show, Bill Maher has described Sarah Palin as a c—. He defends the use on First Amendment grounds: that Palin is a public figure and that nasty name calling is as old as the Republic.

In a recent episode of HBO’s True Blood, a Palin-type character is referred to as a “Republic–t” by one of the heroic vampires. In the series, vampires are allegorical representations of gay men and women. Many have “come out of the coffin” and into the mainstream, seeking tolerance from humans. The enemies of the “fangers” include religious bigots and conservative politicians. Hence the verbal assault in “Republic–t.”

As we watch the c-word inch away from deviance, it will help to understand the nature of this semantic shift from a historical and literary perspective. Let’s start with a definition from the American Heritage Dictionary: “Vulgar Slang 1.The female sexual organs. 2. Sexual intercourse with a woman [this was new to me]. 3a. Offensive Used as a disparaging term for a woman b. Used as a disparaging term for a person one dislikes or finds extremely disagreeable.

I think there’s something missing here. When used against a woman, the term is offensive enough and more than “disparaging,” more loaded than “bitch.” It’s one of the ultimate language weapons, a word designed to reduce her to the most basic objectification, defining her by the part men can use for their pleasure. I’d prefer not to elevate it by placing it in a rhetorical category, but it’s a form of synecdoche, in which a part represent the whole, the way we call a sailor a “hand.”

Men might be objectified as “dicks” or “pricks,” but those words are derringers vs. the c-bomb. When used against a man, c— takes on a powerful emasculating homophobic connotation, defining him by a body part he doesn’t have. Crude, nasty, and then some. A fighting word.

The etymology of the c-word goes back at least to the French Middle Ages. In English literature, versions or analogues of the word can be found prominently in the works of Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare.

In 1972 medieval scholar Thomas Ross compiled Chaucer’s Bawdy, a lexicon of the poet’s sexual and scatological words. One of the longest citations is for queynt (pronounced quaint), which was the Middle English equivalent of the c-word, but one that could be used with much more subtlety.

In addition to being the “normal if crude” synonym for vagina, explains Ross, in other contexts it could mean: “strange, curious, elaborate, ornamented, neat, artful, sly and graceful.” These multiple meanings allowed Chaucer to describe the way that the clever and handy clerk Nicholas grabs the lusty young Alison (I will modernize the language a bit): “As clerks know how to be quite subtle and quite queynte (sly), he in private caught her by the queynte (her privates).”

An earlier lexicon is Shakespeare’s Bawdy by the great British slang master Eric Partridge. He explains that a French version of the c-word is coun, and that one of Shakespeare’s characters mispronounces “gown” as “coun,” causing embarrassment and laughter. A more memorable usage occurs in Hamlet where the young prince torments the fair Ophelia with punning accusations. He tells her to “get thee to a nunnery,” when that term meant both convent and brothel. At one point, when Ophelia seems shocked by his reference to her “lap,” Hamlet asks her “Do you think I meant country matters?” That double-meaning places emphasis on the first syllable of country. In her book Filthy Shakespeare British scholar Pauline Kiernan has an entire chapter with the title C—.

Let’s move ahead 400 years to a recent overheard conversation among four men drinking beers in the clubhouse of a municipal golf course. They took turns complaining about the women in their lives, including girlfriends and wives. The complaints included repetitive use of the c-word. “You know what C— stands for?” asked the loudest of the bunch. “It stands for Can’t Understand Normal Thinking.” (I had a fantasy that the woman warrior knight from Game of Thrones, Brienne of Tarth, would appear, take names, and kick ass.)

There have been feminist efforts to reclaim the word, not unlike the habit of some African-American’s to reclaim the n-word. The most notable of these is a 2002 book by Inga Muscio with a one-word title, spelled out: C—. The sub-title is “A declaration of independence.”  The dedication speaks to its aspirations: “To everyone with C—love in their hearts, especially my Sacred Mother. I thank you for giving me life.”

Who knows to what extent the word will experience what semanticists would call “amelioration.” It remains one of the most powerful weapons of hate and de-humanization, used by both men and women, against both men and women. Yet if it continues to be used in the culture and political wars, we may find ourselves wanting to use it in places we haven’t used it before, perhaps in news stories, even in headlines. “Never,” you say?

There is a recent precedent for this shift in the experience of the c-word’s younger and more playful little sister, the word pussy. Ian Fleming let that cat out of the bag decades ago with one of the most memorable “Bond girls,” Pussy Galore, played in the film by Honor Blackman. Bond you may remember turned this lesbian into a has-bee-an.

But now there is Pussy Riot, the Russian girl punk band whose members have suffered the consequences of proving to the world that the Emperor Putin has no clothes. Their political courage has put the word Pussy on the map – and on the pages of all the big newspapers – and on the lips of all the respectable news anchors. As 007 once reminded us with that inimitable gleam in his eye: “Never say never.”

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  • Dark Zuckerberg

    Cunts, Niggas, bitches, hoes, really do exist – some of us are just honest enough to use the temrs.

  • sfwm.son

    I find twat much more offensive.

  • Tim Ireland

    I live in a region of the country where elected and appointed officials are stealing with impunity, and newspapers are almost silent about it. I don’t have to explain why to Poynter. You’ve forgotten more about media economics than I will ever know. Consequently, you won’t find it surprising to discover that I don’t much care what profanity newspapers elect or decline to print. Words are always in flux. Profanity arises, drifts into common use and eventually exhausts its power with overuse. Then the culture comes up with new verbal taboos and the cycle begins anew. I’m a bit surprised to see Moynihan’s “Defining Deviancy Down” cited in responses to this piece. Moynihan’s deviancy was primarily behavioral and focused on crime and family dissolution. He was more concerned about out-of-wedlock births and illicit drug use — and the subsequent redefinition of both as social norms — than he was about profanity. Moynihan addressed the use of words, but primarily as rhetorical tools to reason away criminal behavior. I could live with profanity expressed in newspapers that exposed — rather than grudgingly accepted (another way of defining deviancy down) — institutionalized theft in public pension funds, transportation authorities and other under-covered government instrumentalities. Moreover, I would suggest that in the interest of conveying the truth, newspapers and broadcast news outlets are obliged to quote language that has entered into common usage — even if they object to the language itself. Save the moral indignation for the op-ed page. Whose sensibilities are protected, anyway, when media ignore commonly used profane words? Ever see a movie where a commonly understood profanity is dubbed in as “Oh, Frick” or “Don’t be an airhead?” We all know what the characters are really saying — and did say in the original version of the film. I also would point out that twenty years ago — when I worked in a newsroom — nobody was more profane than your average reporter or editor. And it tested even the most cynical soul’s tolerance for hypocrisy to watch those people refer in print to “f-bombs” when most of them couldn’t get through a short conversation without using the word as a noun, verb and adjective. If newsroom decorum has changed, then the aggregate amount of global profanity has almost certainly been reduced significantly, and things have gotten better in the USA, not worse. If it hasn’t changed, then news professionals are once again assuming that readers or audience members (customers) possess more tender sensibilities (and perhaps, less intelligence) than the people producing the content. Is it any wonder readership continues to plummet?

  • Bruce Wayne

    A somewhat common insult that I’ve heard several woman say occasionally, who thought they were being clever and insulting the recipient at the same time. C U Next Tuesday. If you were supposed to meet someone on any non-Tuesday day of the week, you might be the victim of this veiled insult.

  • Dan Nephin

    Let me see what I can do. I don’t know if anyone I knew then (and I worked in the statehouse, not office) is still there. I’d love to have it for posterity ;)

  • Roy Peter Clark

    Dan that is a really interesting story; I hope you can dig up the clip. If you go on YouTube, you can find Jane Fonda using the c-word on the Today show. Also a 13-year-old girl uses it twice on Today, quoting something in a text message that led to violence. Meredith Vieira winds up apologizing both times.

  • Roy Peter Clark

    danbloom, you are reminding me now of an academic essay by Daniel Patrick Moynihan titled “Defining Deviancy Down.” He asks us to consider what is the norm in our society, and what is considered deviant. For example, divorce was once deviant in America, now if feels more like the norm. He argues that if it is too easy to be seen as deviant, that the society is oppressive (radical Islam and women); if it is too hard to be deviant, the center cannot hold and things threaten to break apart.

  • Roy Peter Clark

    I am more and more persuaded that words — like writing strategies — are morally neutral. They gain or lose value depending upon the purpose of the speaker or the writer, the nature of the audience, and the content and context of the message.

  • InklingBooks

    Being able to control your tongue by not using certain words is critical to being able to control your behavior. Loosen up on the first, and society will begin to have all sorts of problems with the second. (As we can see.) Banning certain words in public and polite discourse is a small price to pay for more civil behavior in general.

    Oddly enough, some of those most eager to loosen up the first seem to be most intolerant of misbehaviors with the second.

    –Michael W. Perry, My Nights with Leukemia: Caring for Children with Cancer

  • JTFloore

    you probably could dig it out from microfilm, presuming the lr was/is microfilmed.

  • danbloom

    America is sick nation. If c word is in print and TV now, USA is down the tubes. Is there no respect for women anymore? Sigh

  • Dan Nephin

    In 2000, perhaps 2001, I used it in a story about an event at Penn State called C-fest (a lawmaker was making hay over state funds going to the event, or something like that.) The editor at the paper I worked at at the time, Lansdale Reporter, wanted it in. It’s one clip I wish I saved. :(