Chapter 5


This chapter explores the meanings associated with the swearword cunt. As well as following the pattern of previous chapters by developing explications for each of the major constructional meanings associated with cunt, some attention will also be paid to the interaction between language and gender as reflected in the use of a term for female genitalia as an insult.


Cunt is undoubtedly the most offensive swearword which can issue from Australian lips; Gressor (1993) calls it "the most offensive word left in the language". This fact is, I think, reflected in the relatively limited range of constructions in which it is used. Broadly speaking, there are only two possible meanings. One is strictly referential, as in the following sentence:

(1) Male, ??: Eric, meanwhile, had his tongue buried in Bonnie's cunt. (Australian Forum #4.8, 1993, p. 26)

The other meaning for cunt is as an insulting label for a person, as below:

(2) Male, 21: There was just a crazy cunt with a gun! (6/93)

There is no readily available terminology for this usage which is not somewhat imprecise; for convenience's sake, I shall refer to it as cunt (insult). A third use of cunt, involving the structure cunt of a . . ., is also discussed briefly in Section 5.2.3.


5.2.1 Cunt (referential)

In determining the referential meaning of cunt, we can once again start with its non-obscene synonym, vagina. Within the NSM framework, Wierzbicka (1980:89) has proposed the following definition for vagina:

(3) vagina- part of the body which can be thought of as a hole in the lower part of the trunk between the legs, through which something can come inside the body which can cause there to be something becoming the body of another human being

While this appears basically accurate in capturing the meaning of vagina, it suffers from an overly complex syntax and a more restricted set of primitives than is currently used in NSM semantics (as well as making extensive use of a primitive which has since been dismissed, become). It seems odd also not to make some reference to the idea of "woman" in the definition of vagina. It is of course not absolutely necessary for a vagina to be defined as strictly female (in, for instance, the case of hermaphrodites or transsexuals) but such cases are obvious deviations; the prototypical vagina is female. Finally, the definition above, while dealing with the vagina's potential for conception, makes no allowance for the role of the vagina in giving birth (cf. the euphemism for vagina, "birth canal"). I would accordingly recast the definition as follows:

(4) vagina

(a) a part of the body

(b) thought of as a hole between the legs of a woman

(c) through which something can come inside the body

(d) which can cause another human being to grow inside them

(e) and through which this human being can pass

A full explanation of this definition would largely recapitulate many of the points made by Wierzbicka (1980), to which the reader is referred. We can briefly note, however, that the definition contains both physical (a-b) and functional (c-e) components. It seems reasonable to assume that only the former are present in children's initial conceptions of vagina. In this respect, the definition presented is superior to that of Allan (1990), which makes the sexual element primary.

Having established a basic (although by no means perfect) meaning for vagina, we can now address the meaning of cunt. Compared to the complex distinction which we saw in Chapter 3 between fucking and making love, the relationship between cunt and vagina appears more straightforward. Allan & Burridge (1991:245) sum up this difference in the following way:

We, like most people, use vagina to denote "those parts of the female genitalia used in sexual intercourse" or, to put it into the vernacular, "cunt". This is its normal meaning in all dialects of English.

While the claim that cunt simply means "vagina put into the vernacular" is somewhat imprecise, and the notion that the vagina is exclusively associated with sexual intercourse seems somewhat limited, the semantic point being made regarding general equivalence seems initially accurate. For many speakers, the taboo on using the word cunt is so strong that they automatically evaluate the term as being entirely negative, regardless of context. The examples below, however, make clear that cunt can be used in a positive (not to say pleasurable) context:

(5) Female, 32: I felt a tingling excited sensation over my body, and my legs opened wider at her touch, lightly teasing my aching wet cunt. (Australian Women's Forum #14, January 1993, p. 68)

(6) Female, 32: While she stroked and licked his balls I ground my cunt into his face getting the best head job ever. (Australian Women's Forum #14, January 1993, p. 69)

Evidence such as this does not contradict the negative associations of cunt as a swearword, but does suggest that this negative factor should not be overstated. An initial explication for cunt (referential) might then read as follows:

(7) cunt (referential)

(a) a part of the body

(b) thought of as a hole between the legs of a woman

(c) through which something can come inside the body

(d) which can cause another human being to grow inside them

(e) and through which this human being can pass

(f) people would say this is a very bad thing to say

While this seems a reasonable first explication, it has been suggested to me that the association between cunt and sexual activity is more central than in vagina, which also has "birth" connotations. The following sentence, for instance, seems somewhat bizarre:

(8) ??I ground my birth-canal into his face getting the best head job ever.

Note also that it seems odd to use cunt in reference to a baby's genitalia, due to the clear sexual implications:

(9) ??I wiped the baby's cunt clean.

These examples make assertions of synonymy between vagina and cunt, such as those of Allan & Burridge (quoted above; see also Allan 1990:161), somewhat unlikely. This intuition can be readily incorporated into the definition, by eliminating the two birth-related components as follows:

(10) cunt (referential)

(a) a part of the body

(b) thought of as a hole between the legs of a woman

(c) through which something can come inside the body

(d) people would say this is a very bad thing to say

One common intuition regarding the use of cunt (referential) is that it is far more likely to be used by males than females. This has been borne out in quantitative studies: Sanders & Robinson (1979), in a study of 84 male and 113 female college students, found that males would use cunt (referential) more often than females in all contexts, and that usage of the term was more common in all-male groups than when females were present. While such facts are not directly built into the definition of cunt (referential) proposed above, they are quite compatible with it. Female reluctance to use the term can be ascribed to a desire not to make a reference to an intimate part of the anatomy in a context which is automatically derogatory. This explanation is reinforced by Cameron (1992), which found the same phenomenon in reverse; when asked to list names for the penis, males tended to produce terms with positive associations, while females were far more willing to produce derogatory terms. Such an explanation, which maintains the observable social distinction without creating differing "male" and "female" explications, seems preferable to the positing of separate meanings.

5.2.2 Cunt (insult)

Before briefly examining some existing comments on the use of cunt (insult), I would like to present a number of authentic examples of its use. These will prove useful in assessing the accuracy of the comments made below.

(11) Male, 18: Lay the cunt out! [Reaction to TV show character being fired by his boss!) (3/93)

(12) Male, 20: Geez, you're a cunt sometimes; you're really starting to piss me off! (3/93)

(13) Female, 20: You're a rude cunt! (3/93)

(14) Male, 20: You dirty cunt! [to male who had had sex with casual acquaintance] (3/93)

(15) Female, 22: He'll say "What about one last fling?" and I'll say "Not with you, you ugly cunt!" (3/93)

(16) Go and have another drop of plonk, you dirty black cunt! (Quoted on Media Watch, ABC-TV, 3/5/93; no gender specified but female voice used)

(17) Male, 18: He's an ugly cunt, isn't he? (5/93)

In her classic feminist work The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer (1981:39) makes the following comment:

Part of the modesty about the female genitalia stems from actual distaste. The worst name anyone can be called is cunt.

Greer is implying here that the extended use of cunt as an insult stems directly from a dislike for its physical referent. As a socio-historical explanation, this is open to examination, but it seems clear from the examples above that the association between distaste for female genitalia and the desire to insult is no longer directly reflected in the semantics of cunt (insult). In particular, while examples (14) and (15) above both have a sexual context, the use of cunt (insult) appears to have no sexual overtones on its own. Greer's general observation on the potential strength of cunt (insult) seems accurate, however.

Montagu (1967:316) describes cunt (insult) as "a pejorative description of a fool, a stupid person" which is a reasonable rough explication, although not precise enough (there seems to be no implication of stupidity in examples (12) and (17) above, although there may be in example (16)). He also notes, however, that the term can be used affectionately or jovially; this can also be seen in example (14) above, which could be interpreted as either an insult or a veiled admiring comment.

Somewhat unusually, a reasonably extensive discussion of the semantics of cunt (insult) does exist, in Allan & Burridge (1991) and, more extensively, Allan (1990) (the two works overlap in many respects). Allan & Burridge (1991:136) point out that while cunt (referential) can only be predicated of females, the same is not true of cunt (insult), which can be applied to either gender (although its link with cunt (referential) frequently makes it appear more linked with females). This is also apparent from examples (15) and (17) above. Note how cunt (insult) differs from bitch in this respect; calling a male a bitch implies that he is effeminate, but there is no such implication with cunt (insult).

Allan & Burridge's general claim is that cunt means "nasty, malicious, despicable", which again seems overly specific (it would hardly seem to apply to example (17), for instance), but does capture the strong negative nature of cunt (insult).

Of particular interest to Allan & Burridge is the way in which cunt (insult) and shit imply each other in their meanings. From sentences such as

(18) He's a cunt. In fact he's a shit of a guy.

they deduce that "there is no difference in dysphemetic strength between nonliteral shit and nonliteral cunt" (Allan & Burridge 1991:144). It seems hard to follow this argument; if cunt (insult) implies shit, surely the stronger term can imply the weaker simply because it is stronger, and hence carries at least as much force. Again, this shows the need for a more precise decomposition of the concepts in question than glosses of comparable complexity to the concept being explained. With such a gloss, the degree of insult involved can be more directly compared. Additional problems with Allan's discussion include the fact that his discussion is based on individual introspection (Allan 1990: 162), and the use of overly complex terms such as "catemenia" and "menarche" in definitions.

Taking the above points and examples into consideration, I would propose the following explication for cunt (insult):

(19) cunt (insult) (e.g. X is a cunt)

(a) sometimes a person thinks something like this:

(b) I'm thinking about someone

(c) I think: something about this person is very bad

(d) I don't want to have to think this

(e) This person feels something very bad because of this

(f) I feel something like this about X

(g) I say this about X: {X is a cunt}

(h) People would say this is a very bad thing to say

(i) I say this because I want to say how I feel

Components (a) to (f) present a prototypical set of thoughts associated with cunt (insult). This prototypical situation incorporates the idea that cunt (insult) is directed towards a person who is judged negatively (components (b) and (c)).

The reason for this judgement is not specified, since possible reasons are many and varied; in examples (11)-(14) above, it is an action, in examples (15) and (17), it is ugliness, and in example (16) it is race. Components (d) and (e) capture the negative emotion, akin to distaste, brought on by the person being insulted. The simple rejection "I don't want to have to think this" also helps to capture the somehow primitive and basic nature of cunt (insult).

Components (f) to (h) simply reflect the application of these prototypical thoughts to a particular situation. Component (h) contains the judgement "very bad" which marks the extreme taboo on the use of cunt (insult). While jovial uses may be possible, the fact that example (14), our exemplar of this type, is ambiguous without contextual information suggests that the jovial interpretation is again pragmatic rather than semantic. The final component captures the illocutionary purpose of cunt (insult); as with many swearwords, the speaker seeks to convey their sense of displeasure. Note that, while the speaker will often wish to convey their feelings directly to the person involved, this is not a necessary component of the meaning (cf. example (11) above).

The explication provided above also allows us to explain in semantic terms a distributional pattern in the use of cunt (insult) in the examples given at the beginning of this section. In examples (11) and (12), cunt (insult) is used without a qualifying adjective, whereas in examples (13) through (17) a qualifier ("ugly", "black") is used. In the case of examples (a) and (b), the use of cunt (insult) is invoked by somebody's action, and hence it is obvious what component (c) is referring to when it claims that "something about this person is very bad". In the remaining examples, however, the reason for calling someone a cunt is not obvious, and hence the use of an adjective makes it clear just what about the person is being judged as "very bad". Of course, even when what is "very bad" about the person is obvious from context, it is still possible for the use of cunt (insult) to be further qualified, as example (15) shows.

5.2.3 Cunt of a . . .

Allan & Burridge (1991:141) comment that "None of the genital epithets is normally ascribed to abstract inanimates like ideas or events". That is, sentences such as

(20) *What a cunt of a day!

would not occur. My initial semantic intuition was to agree with Allan & Burridge on this point; indeed, it seemed unlikely that cunt would even be applied to concrete inanimates. Allan (1990:169), however, argues that such a usage is possible. My confidence in this prticular intuition was further undermined when I received a letter containing the exact expression used in (20) and I noted the following examples:

(21) Male, 20: Fucking bloody cunt of a thing! [referring to a microfilm reader] (3/93)

(22) Male, 9: Stupid cunt of a thing! [when building a model tank] (9/93)

Thus the general structure cunt of a . . . does seem to be valid for some speakers. Given that these are the only examples I have encountered, only a tentative explication is possible. Nonetheless, an important clue to the meaning involved is given by the morphosyntactic form of the utterance. The presence of the structure "X of a Y" suggests that the "kind of" relation is involved in some way. A rough explication might read as follows:

(23) cunt of a . . .

(a) I'm thinking about something

(b) Something about this thing is very bad

(c) I don't want this kind of thing to be like this

(d) I feel something bad because of this

(e) I say: {cunt}

(f) People would say this is a very bad thing to say

(g) I say this because I want to say how I feel


It seems particularly clear in the case of cunt that, at the semantic level, there is no possibility of a unified semantic explanation for its different meanings. The only element which cunt (referential) and cunt (insult) have in common is that referring to a judgement that the word-form itself is bad. Other than that, there is, in the explications proposed above, no explicit semantic link.

This is not to deny that various sociological or textual links could be proposed, based around the negative attitudes expressed towards women, and which are seen by some (e.g. Spender (1980)) as typical of the English language as a whole (see Rieschild 1980 for a discussion of such phenomena within the NSM framework). These links, however, would not be semantic in nature, and hence are outside the scope of a semantic explanation.

Nonetheless, the question of why it is thatcunthas been chosen as a derogatory term generally and an insult directed at people in particular is an interesting one. A number of possibilities exist in this area. One avenue of explanation is the "feminist" approach discussed above. Another (suggested to me by Cliff Goddard) is that the vagina, being a concealed part of the anatomy (relative to breasts or penises) might come to be associated with marginal and derogatory meanings. Regarding the use of cunt as a personal insult, the association of cunt (referential) with sexual activities, which are inherently intimate and personal, might explain why cunt is largely restricted to human referents.

Obviously, such questions would require detailed research. The explications proposed above, while largely independent of such considerations, could nonetheless contribute to a study of such associations. By articulating more precisely the kind of negative concepts associated with cunt, they provide a semantic base on which more general "social"theories might be founded.

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