Well, I suppose I have to write about The Very Bad Word today.
Have you ever seen Buñuel's film "Belle de Jour"? It's one of those films that always seems to make the top-100 lists (go ahead, Google "top 100 films" "belle de jour" and you'll see), and that, as a consequence, a lot of people hate. I saw it in the theatre when it was re-released in 1995 and I loved it instantly. In a nutshell, the heroine, Séverine, a bored bourgeois housewife, ends up working the day shift in a whorehouse. There's a lot
more to it than that, of course, but it gives Catherine Deneuve the chance to look ravishing and ravished, which is always nice.
My favourite sequence in the entire movie is when Séverine, having just had an interview with the proprietress, Madame Anaïs, rushes from the brothel. She can't do it, of course: her middle-class values make it impossible. The address of the whorehouse is 11 (I can't, alas, remember the street name, the Internet is unaccountably no help, and I don't have a copy of the movie); after she leaves, she's suddenly surrounded
by pairs of uprights suggesting the number 11: two girls playing jump-rope, the handles on a pair of doors--everything around her is that number, as if the universe is ordering her to go back to Number 11 and surrender herself.
A couple of days ago, we had to drive to Fredericton so I could get my passport (long boring story), and on the way back we drove past a place the name of which I don't remember but it made me think of Coney Island. That afternoon, I was reading BoingBoing and there was a piece about a book on Coney Island
. Yesterday on Now Smell This there was an article about a new Bond No. 9 fragrance called, yes, Coney Island
. And this morning in my in-box was a pattern for a knit bunny rabbit
, universe! I get it! I'll write about The Very Bad Word!
"Coney", according to the Wikipedia page for Coney Island
, is "an obsolete and dialectical English word for rabbit." Dialectical, sure, and archaic, too, but perhaps not yet one hundred per cent obsolete: it appears in at least one of the "Lord of the Rings" movies, so millions of people have heard it in the last few years.
"Coney" does in fact mean "rabbit": Coney Island got its name from the zillions of rabbits that infested it when the Dutch got there in the 17th century. The word "coney" exists, by most accounts, because a rabbit is small and furry: it derives from Latin "cunnus", which means, and is fairly obviously the source for, "cunt".* (The less-heard "cunny" appears to be a sort of way-station between "coney" and "cunt".)
Hugh Rawson, in his indispensible book "Wicked Words", calls "cunt" "the most heavily tabooed of all English words," and it really is, isn't it? You can hardly say it in mixed company, and if you feel compelled to utter it, you might have to apologize. George Carlin's list of the seven words you can't say on television
has gradually been whittled down to four ("shit", "piss", and "tits" are all disreputable but not actionable), and I think if people had to place a bet on which word would be the last to appear on American television, "cunt" would be the winner (although "motherfucker" would probably be a close second).**
The etymology for "cunnus" is not certain. Some think it's related to a huge family of words containing the Latin "gen-", such as "genital" and "generate", with the sense of "create" or "give birth to". Others think it's more likely related to Greek "gyne", "woman", a word which gave us not only "gynecology" but also "queen" and "quean"
"Quaint" comes from French, which got it from Latin "cognoscere", "to learn" (it used to mean "clever" or "cunning"): but "queynte" is an old English spelling of not only "quaint" but also of "cunt". I remember vividly a class in Chaucer which I took in university: one student was puzzling over the punning linesAs clerkes ben ful subtil and ful queynte
And prively her caughte hir by the queynte
and said "What does 'queynte' mean in that context?" The professor said, simply and flatly, "Cunt." The class was silent for a few seconds, and then the lesson resumed. Could you do that nowadays? Would someone sue for sexual harassment?
Another word which is descended from "cunnus" is, fascinatingly, "cuneiform", which means, literally, "wedge-shaped". I trust the reason for this is obvious. Lots more here
, if you like.
* Rabbits aren't the only animals for which ladyparts have been named or nicknamed, and English isn't the only language that does it, either. French uses "chatte", the female form of "chat", "cat", and German uses "muschi" to mean "pussy" in both senses of the word, exactly as English does. English also has, rather bizarrely, "beaver", which isn't small and furry but large and bristly, and also, less frequently, "squirrel", as memorably used in the 1995 movie "Copycat", in which white-trash serial killer Harry Connick Jr. demanded of criminologist Sigourney Weaver a pair of her "squirrel covers".
**I would like to note that in 1992, a TV movie based on the Canadian series "Degrassi High" contained the line "You were fucking Tessa Campanelli?" On prime-time television. In a show aimed at teenagers. In 1992. We all seem to have survived the experience. Suck on that, American censors!