Reclaiming the Word C*nt
By Erin Roush
Having a sister means I have been called farthead, stinky, meanie, and everything in between. Around friends I have been called the whore, slut, and bitch. But, I have never been called a cunt - at least not to my face. Cunt has not ever been in my immediate vocabulary. The first time I heard the word I had to ask my friend, Maggie Miller, what it meant. Maggie was only three months older than me in age, but she was also about three years older than me in terms of knowing what bad words meant. I was familiar with cunt as a dirty word - taboo in my swear word-friendly household. When I use it, it is never with ease, unlike the way whore rolls off my tongue.
Having been raised to believe in girl power, my mom taught me to never be ashamed of my reproductive anatomy. How has this word in reference to female reproductive organs become the most offensive word in the English language?
Let’s chat: What is a cunt? Who is called a cunt? How do we, as powerful women, take back our cunts?
I’ve spoken to people in my life regarding the word, gauging the differences in feelings surrounding the entirity of it. My mother was not pleased to find out my choice of topic, which does not surprise me. Some, mostly women, responded positively and were excited by the topic, requesting to read the final paper. Others, who happened to fuel my motivation, stared blankly at me in disbelief, shocked that I said cunt out loud in a public space so nonchalantly. Most of my guy friends were appalled, further proving that the connotation behind this word is deeply rooted in disgust.
Cunt is a noun for the reproductive organs of females and has been referenced in variations throughout history. In old Norse, kunta, Dutch, kont, and Latin, cunnus (Hagan, Moriarty). Anatomically speaking, the cunt would be made up of the labia majora, labia minora, clitoris, vaginal opening, etc. – not that many people would be able to find all the parts mentioned above. But unlike the nickname for the olecranon fossa, elbow, cunt does not have the same casual usage. It is a disparaging term, most often directed toward a woman in power. Sure, your male boss is a dick, but that is just him doing his job.
Cunt has not always had such a negative meaning behind it. Mina Moriarty of The Establishment shares her knowledge on the word cunt in her article: “A Brief History of the C-word”. She details that in the epic, Mahabharata, there is a Goddess who represents the “beauty and power of the female body” (Moriarty). The female body is powerful, life-bearing, and worthy of respect - and is used to be recognized as so. The Hindu Goddess, Kunti, is considered “the yoni of the universe” (Moriarty). Yoni is defined by its relation to the female body, meaning “the volva, especially as a symbol of divine procreative energy” (Oxford Languages). Fast-forwarding a thousand years, forms of the word cunt were observed throughout Oxford, England, particularly on the street named Gropecunte Lane, most notable as a street for prostitution (Moriarty).
The most volatile usage of cunt is as it appears in Dawn of the Christian Doctrine, by Robert Knapp. This was during a period in which Christianity demonized female sexuality (Moriarty.) Knapp writes “Christian clergymen preached the idea of a woman’s genitals as a potent source of evil, referring to the ‘cunnus diaboli,’ meaning ‘devilish cunt’” (Moriarty). Knapp documents that statues of the Goddess Kunti were destroyed as they were deemed “grotesque and blasphemous” (Moriarty). Suddenly, the word formerly used for female empowerment was now being used in reference to men exploiting and disrespecting women - a trend that would continue into the present.
Similar to cunt, pussy is another word frequently used in reference to female anatomy. Pussy, however, has an entirely different connotation while still exhibiting the same negative applications. Most people are familiar with what being “a pussy” implies; a weak person who is scared or inferior. To be called a cunt or a pussy is to be insulted, just in a different way. The word pussy has had an easier comeback than cunt, notably during the election of 2016. Hats that were shaped to resemble a cat's head, also known as “pussy hats”, were worn to protest the presidency of Donald Trump, who was famously misogynistic.
I attended the first Women’s March in January of 2017 when I was just fourteen years old. I was surrounded by a sea of homemade, bright pink “pussy hats”, which oddly inspired me. Before then I had never said pussy, as I thought it was a word that implied something was gross or disgusting. For most of my life it made me feel ashamed, similar to how the word cunt would make me feel.
In light of its contemporary connotation, pussy is still often used in a derogatory manner across all mediums, but especially in rap music. Male rappers referring to a woman for their pussy, making millions of dollars while doing so. With the more recent rise of female rappers, women are starting to reclaim pussy, putting the word in a more positive light while making it their own. Women have been used for men’s pleasure for centuries, so to hear women reference their own anatomy is extremely empowering. But, this is not the first time women have tried to reclaim cunt.
Mina Moriarty describes the author of the 1929 novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D.H. Lawrence, saying “Lawrence believed in the redemptive power of mutual orgasm, and so it comes as no surprise that cunt was used freely in this text to express sexual pleasure” (Moriarty). I admire the efforts of Lawrence, but I can see why those efforts fell short. Society was “not ready” for the sexual liberation of women. But thanks to Lawrence, we can pick up where she left off - reclaiming our cunts.
The most modern reclamation of cunt in mainstream media has come from the LGBTQIA+ community, most notably on the popular reality competition show, RuPaul's Drag Race. There are three primary definitions of cunt in Drag Race Wiki’s RuPaul’s Drag Race dictionary. The first two, in comparison with the third, give context to how the word has drastically changed over time by highlighting feminine power.
The first definition states the noun is a “vulgar slang for a woman’s vagina” and is “considered to be obscene and offensive” (“Cunt”, def 1). Definition number two contains misogynistic language, defined as “a mean, disagreeable, or difficult woman,” often used to label an authoritative woman (“Cunt”, def 2). The third definition directly opposes the first two as “a term used to describe someone who is fierce” or “beautiful” (“Cunt”, def 3). The latter definition has a night and day difference from the first two - taking the term from offensive to complementary and empowering. Most frequently, the acronym C.U.N.T is used in high praise, standing for “Charisma. Uniqueness. Nerve. Talent.” (“C.U.N.T”, def 1).
Personally speaking, I think this article is very C.U.N.T. It takes a certain amount of nerve to write about a word with enough backing to be considered the most offensive word in the English language - and it takes talent to do it well. I am proud to be a woman. I am lucky in feeling so comfortable in my skin and to feel the beauty and power that comes with my cunt. Women are forces of life, and I am glad the word cunt originated to mean so. It is a shame that cunt is used to denote women, but I believe it can find its way back to the empowerment it originally represented.
Though I am not sure I am ready to use cunt as freely as some, I am hopeful that its connotation will not be as oppressive to other women in their futures. As someone with a cunt, who is cunt, I am ready to start reclaiming mine.