or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, April 13, 2007

Bad Friday Redux

I got rid of that Twitter thing. You probably didn't even notice. It was a passing fancy. I might reinstate it later if I can think of some actual use for it.


Last Friday I wrote about The Very Bad Word and during the writing of it I noticed it was getting too long, so I cut it short, and then later I realized that there was still lots more to be said on the subject, so if you'll allow me, I'm devoting another posting to it. But just one more.

I realized a couple of days after posting that Hugh Rawson, correct though he was in his assessment of the word "cunt" as the most taboo of all words in the language, was speaking from a specifically North American viewpoint. In British English, as you can see from this research document, "cunt" is likewise seen as the worst of all the swear words, beating out "fuck" by a whole twelve percentage points. But it's also the case that British English uses the word casually in way that isn't possible in North American English. Try Googling the phrase "cheeky cunt" and you'll get nearly ten thousand hits: seemingly no stronger than "bastard" (which in N.A. English can be used without any real hostility), the term is, fascinatingly, used almost exclusively to refer to men. (I gather from the various contexts that "cheeky cunt" can also be used in a somewhat hostile or aggressive manner: it seems to depend on the delivery. It's clear that the adjective generally takes away some or all of the sting: the word by itself or with another adjective, such as "right", seems to be a full-bore insult.)

There are, naturally, regional variations, a few of which are mentioned here.


Just because English is rather squeamish about the word doesn't mean that all languages are. French in particular has made "con", its version of the word, as casual as can be: it means, more or less, "idiot", although it still has its literal meaning as well (much as "asshole" has in English), depending on context. It's so casually used, in fact, that there was a French movie in 1998 called "Le dîner des cons", in which a group of friends have weekly dinner parties to which, in a game of one-upmanship, they invite the stupidest people they can find.


It's worth noting that the word is amazingly old, in the close neighbourhood of a millennium. The OED lists the first written occurrence of the modern spelling "cunt" in 1260 (though it also occurred in variants almost two hundred years earlier) as the street name Gropecuntelane, which will give you a good idea of how un-taboo the word was in those earthier times. English surnames used to come from occupations, family lines, or physical characteristics: Miller, for instance, or Johnson, or Black[haired]. Surnames disappear from a society for a number of reasons: a particular family has only daughters who take their husbands names should they marry, or an only son never has children to pass on the family name.

These three facts, I think, explain the existence, and subsequent vanishing, of a particular surname noted in James McDonald's A Dictionary of Obscenity, Taboo, & Euphemism: Wydecunthe.


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