The C-Word

Hamlet & Ophelia

Hamlet & Ophelia, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Within the past few decades, a difference has arisen between British and American English concerning ‘the C word.’ I won’t repeat the word here, as it’s arguably the most offensive in English, but most will know what I’m talking about (it rhymes with ‘hunt’ and refers to female anatomy).

The C-word is still extremely shocking in American English. While other profanity has lost its power to offend in all but the most formal contexts, this one word remains taboo even in offhanded conversations.

This supremely offensive status is arguably a recent trend. After all, of the major English profanities, the C-word is the only to be uttered (almost) explicitly in Shakespeare, as per this pun in Hamlet:

HAMLET Lady, shall I lie in your lap?

OPHELIA No, my lord.

HAMLET I mean, my head upon your lap?

OPHELIA Ay, my lord.

HAMLET Do you think I meant country matters?

Get it? Even in the 20th-Century, the word only seems to have adopted its disproportionate infamy more recently. D.H. Lawrence, Samuel Beckett and Tennessee Williams all used the term in their literature, and while none are particularly uncontroversial writers, their use of the C-word didn’t seem to garner them an abnormal share of outrage.

Getting back to the point though. Within the past half-century, the C-word appears to have increased somewhat in the UK. And unlike the US, where the word is typically reserved for the female gender, the British C-word often refers to men. Where did this convention begin?

I recall an interviewee in the Sex Pistols documentary ‘The Filth and the Fury‘ suggesting that the British punk scene gave rise to this particular usage. And yet it’s fairly clear that using the term as a derogatory word for a man predates the era of mohawks and fashionable safety pins. After doing a Google Books Search (which took me on a whirlwind tour of the 20th-Century’s most horrible erotica), the earliest British use of this type I could find was in the 1967 novel Poor Cow.  So this unique insult seems to date back a bit further, its origin still mysterious.

And it’s curious as to how this emasculated use became popular in the UK, but much less so here in the States. Any ideas?


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
This entry was posted in Miscellaneous Accents and Dialects and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

41 Responses to The C-Word

  1. darren says:

    I think in North America the C-word is very taboo as you stated. On the hand we use the P-word (think cat) in the same way the british use the C-word. We use it to describe a man in emasuclating way: ‘John is P**** whipped’ ‘Why is Joe acting like a P****?’ etc

    • Paul Ó Duḃṫaiġ says:

      Well p**sy is used here in Ireland as well in much same context as North America. In case of C*nt though it’s not about a man been emasculated but that he’s a Pr*ck etc. so expression “Stupid C*nt” is much the same as calling a guy a “stupid pr*ck” though tbh ye rarely hear pr*ck as insult here.

  2. Paul Ó Duḃṫaiġ says:

    Funnily enough here in Ireland I tend to use the word to describe men and not women. So for example I’ve been known to for example call male drivers “Stupid C*nt”, I don’t think I ever use it with regards to women. To tie in with the use in British english I would assume Twat which is also mostly used against men is a milder form of same usage.

    I remember as a teenager hearing a teenage girl using expression “Ah C*nt!” just way ye would say “Ah F*ck!” when annoyed etc. In general of course I do think that we swear/curse alot more in Ireland then what ye hear in America.

  3. NFAH says:

    I can assure you, as I live in the UK, that it is still used quite a bit on females as well, and in a very specific context. I find that it is a particular favorite of Big Issue salesmen and obviously inebriated men, who in both cases try to talk to you out in the street when you’re walking. If you ignore them, you are called a c*nt and yes, sometimes a stupid one. I think it’s the only context in which I’ve been called that in my life but it does happen to me with some frequency in England.

  4. boynamedsue says:

    I think that in the UK it is much more acceptable to use regarding a man than a woman. It’s really offensive when used towards a lass, and so almost never is, even when she isn’t present.

  5. boynamedsue says:

    While we’re on the subject, what’s with the weird American way of saying “tw@t” so it rhymes with “swat”?

    • trawicks says:

      I think it’s simply because /a/ is usually backed and/or rounded after /w/: watch, swat, waddle, etc, and the word perhaps entered our vocabulary a bit later than on the other side of the pond (although I can’t say for sure). It is mostly used to reference genitalia here, btw: outside of a small population of Anglophiles, Americans rarely use it as an insult. Come to think of it, we use it pretty infrequently in general.

      • dw says:

        There are very few words where the TRAP vowel follows /w/ before a nonvelar: aquatic (for non-AusE), wham, whammy, swam (past tense of swim). Similarly for the START vowel after /w/: quark is the only word that comes to mind (and for that word the NORTH vowel is supposed to have been the one originally used by James Joyce).

        The use of the TRAP vowel in BrE “twat” therefore suggests a recent coinage. The use of the LOT vowel in AmE may be either a survival from an earlier pronounciation or a generalization of the TRAP->LOT rule.

        • Max says:

          @ dw/violin pain:
          Not to pick louse eggs, but aquatic usually has the stressed vowel of father in American English. You must know that though, seeing as how you live in California. Of course, that actually strengthens the point you were making.

          Also if you look at Joyce’s use of quark in his book Finnegan’s Wake, it seems he may have intended it to rhyme with Mark and bark. So it must have had START for him, right? Though I must admit I didn’t know the man.

        • Max says:

          Scratch out the “may have”

        • boynamedsue says:

          The points you and others make are convincing, in terms of the US form being more archaic. Raising the interesting question of why it changed in British English. I’ve never heard the “lot” pronunciation this side of the pond.

          Maybe it fell out of fashion and was restricted to a dialect which retained the cat vowel after “w” (i think there were a few) and was then borrowed into prison slang with the wrong vowel, from whence it re-spread.

          Alternatively it could have been regularised in the US, to fit with other -wa- words.

    • m.m. says:

      Odd. In my experience, both american and british speakers use BOTH versions of “twat” & “twot”.
      I’m used to the TRAP version, hearing a PALM/LOT version from any speaker sounds funny.

      • boynamedsue says:

        I’ve lived abroad for 7 years, but I’ve never heard the ‘lot’ pron from a UK speaker. Maybe catching on amongst younger speakers due to influence of sceppo film and TV?

        • Ed says:

          John Wells’s pronunciation dictionary lists the form with the LOT vowel in the main form. At first I thought that this had to be a mistake, as I’ve never heard this in my life.

      • adam cohen says:

        Interesting. I’m an American, and I’ve never heard anyone use the TRAP vowel for twat; everyone that I know uses the broad a vowel in PALM.

  6. Ellen K. says:

    And it’s curious as to how this emasculated use became popular in the UK, but much less so here in the States. Any ideas?

    Wouldn’t taking a female word and using it for males be the opposite of emasculating it? Yes, the usage can be seen as weakened (one meaning of emasculate), still the idea of making less masculine that comes with the word emasculate doesn’t fit.

  7. ella says:

    But the connotations aren’t emasculating when it’s used. It’s not the same at *all* as calling someone a ‘pussy’. More like calling them an a**(*)hole.

  8. ella says:

    But the connotations aren’t emasculating when it’s used. It’s not the same at *all* as calling someone a ‘pussy’. More like calling them an a**(*)hole.

  9. Kaylin says:

    Even though it’s used more frequently by British folk than Americans, it’s still taboo enough that they can’t say it at all on British TV (whereas even “fuck” “shit” etc is used in all their glory after a certain time of day, I think 9pm?). I also don’t know any Brits who’d use the word in front of their mother, although I’ve heard plenty of them swear with the F-bomb in front of older people without a hint of backlash. The f- and c-words are both wholly forbidden on most American TV, barring premium channels such as HBO, although “shit” and “bullshit” is now allowed on basic cable when it previously wasn’t. I doubt also that most people, at least where I’m from (southeast US) would say much beyond damn or hell in front of their parents; maybe “shit” if it was a REALLY bad thing that happened.

    Also speaking from my own experience, I know plenty of young American people (being 23 myself) that use the c-word on a fairly regular basis, at least as much as my Brit friends of the same age do. It does mostly refer to women, (I’ve used it myself against a girl I really couldn’t stand) but can be used against a dude too if the situation arises (although I’d say “douchebag”, “dick”, or “asshole” first for a guy).

    • Diawl says:

      Even though it’s used more frequently by British folk than Americans, it’s still taboo enough that they can’t say it at all on British TV

      Although its use is extremely rare, the BBC’s guidelines state that it can be used after permission has been sought and the context is deemed to be justified:

      “Any proposal to use the strongest language (cunt, motherfucker and fuck or its derivatives) must be referred to and approved by the relevant output controller, who should consider the editorial justification.”

      BBC Editorial Guidelines: Harm and Offence – Language

  10. Rodger C says:

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned “wuss,” though I suspect most users of it know it more as an insult than in its literal sense.

    • Ellen K. says:

      Huh? Best I can tell (after looking at dictionaries, not just going on my own intuition) the literal sense and the insult are the same.

      • Daniel Cavanagh says:

        have a look at the suggested etymology at etymonline

      • Rodger C says:

        By “literal sense” I meant the anatomical reference, presumably the primary meaning.

        • Ellen K. says:

          Oops, sorry, didn’t realize that the early reply was from someone else.

          What anatomical meaning? No dictionary I looked in has such a meaning. Yes, it does show a word it likely partially derives from has an anatomical meaning, but that doesn’t give the word “wuss” an anatomical meaning. Just because “pussy” has an anatomical meaning, along with other senses, does not give a word derived from one of non-anatomical senses an anatomical meaning.

        • Ellen K. says:

          P.S. And pussy for a person is apparently older than the anatomical sense.

      • Rodger C says:

        Am I the only person in this discussion who’s actually heard the word “wuss” with literal reference to a woman’s attribute?

        • boynamedsue says:

          I say yes, Karl Popper says maybe. Then he shoots one of the Queen’s swans while cackling like a Teessider in a creche.

  11. m.m. says:

    1. whats with the censorship? I’d of imagined this place to be able to handle cunt and twat [and pussy it seems] and the like. I gusess I was wrong.
    2. Bringing up the point that it is more ‘offensive’ in the states than accross the pond rings true. But it also reminds me of a new usage i’ve encountered, where ‘cunt’ and ‘pussy’ are used as one might use ‘magnificent’ or ‘awesome’. ie. “that dress is so cunt”. I know its not common usage by any means, but its worthy to note.

    • m.m. says:

      oh and in line with Kaylin, usage in any peer groups ive interacted with [ranging from 16-30] use cunt with a reasonable frequency, but not specific to gender (because anyone can be a cunt), which i found odd to read re: women in the states vs men in the uk.

    • trawicks says:

      “whats with the censorship? I’d of imagined this place to be able to handle cunt and twat [and pussy it seems] and the like. I gusess I was wrong.”

      No censorship on my part, actually. All of the above asterixes were the choices of individual commentators. I will confess I’m a bit skittish about using the word myself, which is perhaps the New England puritan in me. But I don’t censor what people say here, unless it’s directed at other people.

      • Rodger C says:

        I dislike the word because, as an American of a certain age, I’ve only ever heard it used, outside its anatomical meaning, as a hate term directed at a woman, or occasionally at a man or boy who doesn’t live up to the speaker’s idea of manly manhoodishness.

        • boynamedsue says:

          Are all insults not hate terms?

        • Ellen K. says:

          (in reply to boynamedsue) No, often they are words used in anger. If they express hate, it’s of the short-lived variety.

          And they can express dislike rather than full-out hate.

          I’d also argue that disdain is different than hate, but I think this distinction isn’t generally made when talking about terms of hate.

        • boynamedsue says:

          I think it’s an interesting cultural difference between the UK and US. The concept of “hate speech” as a generalised category has not really entered into our public consciousness, though you’ll hear it from some very middle class people who work in the media and allied political trades. Partially, I think, because it’s so hard to define.

          We recognise racist terms as racist (as they are by definition directed against a whole group), but tend not to do the same with misogynistic insults, as it’s ambiguous as to whether they express disdain for an individual or a whole group. Homophobic insults are between the two, as the definition of masculinity of the mainstream is partially shared by the gay subculture, meaning that in non-political gay culture you may hear “homophobic” insults used in exactly the same way as straight culture.

        • Rodger C says:

          It seems to me we’re talking around the well-known fact of mock aggression as a sign of affection, which isn’t even restricted to human beings.

  12. Mazzoir says:

    While discussing obscenity in Shakespeare, I particularly like the scene in Henry V which must have been directed iver the heads of the groundlings, where Catherinegets Alice to teach her the english for various parts of the body.
    There is something a bit random, surely in asking for Les Mots Anglais pour le pied et la robe.
    alice forces herself to say, “de foot, et de count”.
    It surely takes a very little alteration to the diction to turn these into the first few words most of us took notice of in French classes.

    Cant remember if that bit is in the Olivier version…

  13. Leo Girard says:

    Interesting that no one has mentioned the commonplace use of the “C-word” in French. “Con” ( masculine gendered word for the female portal) is very common at every level of speech. I have never heard it in polite company where “Sr aged ladies” be present but otherwise it’s pretty open parlance for calling (men mostly) a stupid, stunned, irreparable, irredeemable prick.

  14. Thanks for sharing it…