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.”