There’s a street in Oxford called Magpie Lane. I’d walked down it many times before learning that it used to be Gropecunt Lane, a name that reflected the fact that sex workers had congregated there centuries earlier. This place-name compound is the earliest recorded use of the word “cunt” in English, going back to at least 1230 A.D. As I got deeper into my studies of medieval literature at Oxford, I would stumble and restumble across this pleasant thud of a word.
Various media outlets have covered the scandal of Samantha Bee calling Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt” for posting a picture of herself cradling her child while her father’s immigration policies separate migrant children from their families. While a few journalists and other comedians have defended Bee’s use of the word, she apologized for “crossing a line” with what many have called a “slur.”
To clarify, “cunt” is not a slur but a vulgar insult. Although it is associated with misogyny, it is nothing like the n-word, nor any other rightly stigmatized racist epithet, because it was never a commonly used tool for oppression. The history of “cunt” shows us the word itself holds no real power, unlike the people who object so passionately to its usage.
It has only been an obscene word since the seventeenth century anyway. Before that, we see “cunt” flowering all over medieval literature. In spellings like conte, kointe, queinte, quoynte, and quaint, medieval authors—notably Chaucer—punned on the word. As a noun it meant vulva, in a neutral sort of way. But as an adjective or adverb the word meant something slightly like our contemporary word “quaint”; its meaning ranged according to context, from “clever(ly)” and “wise(ly)” to “unusual” or “beautiful.”
You might call a valuable ring “quaint,” for example. There is a delicacy to the “q” spelling that makes the Chaucerian “cunt” seem pretty and fragile. That contrast, between genteel loveliness and the earthy human body, is where Chaucer’s puns get their magic.
I learned all this in England, where “cunt” is a strong but not deeply offensive word. It would not be out of the ordinary to hear someone refer to their dear friend as “you old cunt.” You’d definitely rather be a cunt than a wanker. My dad and I share a love of Derek and Clive, whose famously charming sketch features—I counted—36 instances of “cunt.”
In the United States though, “cunt” lands in conversations with a plosive consonant and a long, long silence. While pitching this article in a meeting, I heard grown men giggling.
In the United Kingdom, “cunt” isn’t so associated with misogyny; whereas in the United States, the word is a nasty gendered insult, for no secret etymological reason (see: John McCain allegedly calling his wife Cindy a cunt). Or rather, the reason is that words have meanings arbitrarily assigned to them, according to a vast social contract co-signed by all its speakers at any given moment in history. Perhaps dirty words associated with genitalia have accrued more taboo in the United States because it is a more religious culture. It’s just how usage has developed over here.
But while an American man who calls a woman a “cunt” in anger or mockery is drawing upon a tradition of misogyny, a woman calling another woman a cunt is simply summoning the strongest language she can think of. This is why Donald Trump’s objection to Bee’s language not only smacks of hypocrisy but also makes no sense.
Why would Trump presume to tell a woman what she is and isn’t allowed to say about her own group—blonde rich white ladies? Which leads us to the most obvious aspect of l’Affaire Bee, one that the pearl-clutchers seem to be overlooking: What is the point of having the most offensive word in English if you can’t use it?
To suggest that “cunt” be removed from every English-speaking person’s lexicon would be tyrannical. Discourage men from using it, sure. But for Bee, who is a woman, using a traditionally misogynist insult to rail against the most prominent traitor of women’s interests in the United States seems so apt as to be downright elegant. It recalls Chaucer’s use of the word, which charms through juxtaposition: Ivanka is a crude villain in dainty designer clothing who panders to a father who boasts of grabbing women “by the pussy.”
It is Trump who has lowered the tone of public discourse in America, not Bee. He tweets ungrammatical nonsense. His command of English is so weak and so corrupted by insult (loser, joke, sick, animal, ugly, rapists) that there are no words vulgar enough to describe it.
Bee has been strong-armed into apologizing for a rhetorical flourish of which Chaucer would have been proud. Her network should feel lousy about it. Trump, his allies, and his kin are guilty of degrading the language of government and politics to a hitherto unplumbed low. The Obamas may have encouraged the left to go high where the others go low; but where comedians are concerned, those guidelines don’t apply. Comedians use the kind of language for their targets that those targets most readily elicit.
The Trump era is one of indelicacy, profanity, and real—not imagined—misogyny, and its flacks deserve a language that matches up. A joke is nothing compared to policy. After all, it’s not the word “pussy” that is so enraging about Trump’s Hollywood Access tape; it’s the action that he’s gloating about, the actual violence done to women and the pride with which he relays it. The word itself is innocent.