Kira Cochrane on the C-word

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Kira Cochrane, the recently-appointed women’s editor of the Guardian who wrote the piece on sexual harrassment from which I got my “Holla Back” link from a few weeks back, has written another article (with strong language and without asterisks) in the New Statesman on a similar theme: the wide spread of the C-word in popular culture:

John Lydon appeared on I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here!, addressing the British public as “f**king c**ts”. The show’s 11 million viewers might have been expected to take umbrage, but few did. ITV received fewer than a hundred complaints. It seems that the C-word, once guaranteed to shock, has lost much of its power. When you stop to consider, it is, of course, almost breathtaking in its misogyny: its sound, meaning and etymology all adding up to the nastiest of curses. When used as an insult, it implies that there is nothing more belittling or disgusting than to be compared to female genitalia. There are plenty of pejorative words that refer to male genitalia, but none that possesses the innate cruelty of the C-word. Somehow, though, over the years, I’ve gradually become much less sensitive to it - as, it would seem, have many other people. A number of my female friends still find it deeply offensive (if not truly shocking), some objecting to it intellectually, others intuitively, and a few of them get red-mist angry if it’s said in their presence.

The British media has a curiously inconsistent attitude to swearing generally. The Guardian and New Statesman will print swear words in full, while the tabloids and right-leaning papers will asterisk them out, while swearing is allowed after the “watershed” (9pm, after which other explicit content is also allowed) on the TV but if you use F or C words on some talk shows, including those on the BBC’s London station, you will get cut off immediately and the host will sometimes appear to forget everything else you said (as happened to one woman who called into the Eddie Nestor Sunday morning show to talk about how she was dying of cancer after having smoked cannabis for years, who was cut off for saying that the drug gave her a “f**k this” attitude to her work).

I only found out what the C-word meant when I was about 14, after the maths teacher blew her top when I used it as an insult to another boy in the class. Now, outside school I heard it used a handful of times, including by one woman to another across a public park. At boarding school, however, it was everyday language and people called me it numerous times and after a while I used it on others as well. Later on the teacher explained that the word was “very insulting to women”, something my mother agreed with when I told her of the incident.

The problem with this stance is that so many people use the word, like other swear words, having no idea what it actually means because they have only ever heard the word used as an insult (and never, for example, in phrases involving the recipient’s mother). As Cochrane alludes to, it’s an extremely ugly word anyway, and the probable reason why it carries a worse stigma than words meaning backside, it’s probably just becuase it sounds worse. There are, of course, other words meaning vagina and they don’t carry the same insult value as the C-word does. And I don’t agree that words referring to other private parts of the body are much less insulting: over here if you describe something as total bollocks, it means it is utter garbage, either in terms of falsehood or of worthlessness.

I partly agree with her about “reclaiming” the word, because it’s beyond reclamation: the word is vulgar, ugly and insulting whatever it is used to mean. I think there are some swear words for which this treatment could work (shit, for example), but the F and C words simply have no place in civil conversation because they are inherently uncivil, referring contemptuously to intimate things. I’m not convinced that it can be bracketed along with the other examples of misogynistic language Cochrane cites - words meaning prostitute or otherwise immoral woman, sometimes used simply as synonyms for girl or woman - precisely because it’s used so much by people whose first exposure to it was as an insult and probably think of it more as a generalised insult than as anything else.

Admittedly, I speak only from personal experience, and spent my early teenage years in a boys’ boarding school where I was out of the loop as far as girls, at least those outside my family and a few of their friends, were concerned, so I had no way of judging how these same people would treat girls if they lived or worked alongside us as fellow pupils (though my hunch is that they’d not have treated them that well). Misogynistic language was common, but the way the C-word was used gave no impression to me that the two were in any way connected. And I was brought up in a family in which women were people I was fond of or looked up to - my mum, an older cousin, plenty of aunts - and I was not exposed to much vulgar misogynistic talk until I went away to school, and it came as a huge shock. To this day I detest hearing it more, I suspect, than a lot of men; I’m just not sure that a vulgar word used mostly by people who forget its original meaning has all that much to do with it.

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