A Blunt History of the Word Cunt
text © Copyright 2012 William Gordon Casselman
Dateline: Lapland, Feb. 14
In a humorous piece about snooty gardeners who grow only the rarest of horticultural exotica, written years ago for an elite gardening magazine, I once invented a pernicious weed and named it “twatwort, scourge of the Regency parterre.” The lady editor of Enchanted Loam magazine rose in outrage, charged down the hallway to my humble freelancer’s desk, spread her arms like a wing-drying stork and sang in its entirety Brünnhilde’s Schlactruf from Act Two of Die Walküre.
As her vowels of elongated fury died away, along with my hopes of a fee, the editor pronounced her refusal to publish my funny piece. I begged her pardon repeatedly, like the cringing, lickspittle toady I am. I crawled before her on all fours, emitting plaintive meeping noises learned from my study of voles and lemmings. But I was barred for life from the lilac precincts of the magazine. She pointed to the door and I was forced to pick up from the desk my cheap plaster bust of Casanova and glumly exit the premises. Thank goodness I hadn’t called it cuntwort.
I retail that anecdote only to demonstrate that some sexual taboo terms brook no utterance in civilized company. Cunt is such a banned word. The word twat is slightly less the cause of female revulsion, but, said aloud, it too may cancel that date for the symphony.
Why It Upsets Us
The etymology of the word cunt is disputed, as is its use in polite society. Not only is it one of the dozen major taboo words currently in English, cunt is for the majority of English-speaking women in the West the most loathsome of all vulgarisms.
When the word’s profane thunder hammers the tin of an English sentence, women hear the hateful and total dismissal of what Goethe called “the eternal feminine.”
Men, on the other hand, recognize something dark and redolent of body truth in cunt’s repellent monosyllabic starkness: namely, the male imperative to penetrate, ejaculate, and then make for the hills as quickly as possible in the hopes of chancing upon yet another opportunity to spread their insistent seed. No violins or perfumed love couches hover near the word. Cunt is a sex word with the romantic cloak of mutuality and lovingness flung off. This is also why men employ the word as one of the most frequent insults directed at women.
As Freud suggested, in order that civilization and the raising of the young may happen, the male’s chief impulse of ‘wham!-bam!-thank-you-m’am’ has had to be repressed. Women have been only too happy to oblige in such squelching. As Siggie further said, “Civilization is repression.”
Reclaiming a powerful word, celebrating girls have some sparkler fun.
Usage in Great Britain
From the internet here is a useful passage:
“The word cunt still mainly remains the one word in the English language that is considered more offensive than fuck ― this can be largely attributed to its history as a misogynist instrument, a history that elevates its offensiveness above that of rival four-letter words.
However, the term cunt is often used, primarily by members of the working class, as a term of endearment. Particularly in the south of England, around the Essex and London Area. Context and tone usually show the distinction between the word being used as a term of endearment or it being used pejoratively.”
Earliest Appearance in English
In his 1954 book Street-Names of the City of London, Eilert Ekwall, a great linguist who studied English place names, produced evidence of a “Gropecuntelane,” that is, Grope Cunt Lane, a shady lane indeed frequented by prostitutes and their customers. The year? Around 1230 anno Domini.
Unfinished Cunt Splice
“A cunt splice,” says one internet article, “is a type of rope splice used to join two lines in the rigging of ships. The two ends are side spliced together with a gap between the two parts, forming a short section where the two lines lay side-by-side when taut.” In recent times the name has been censored and changed to the less offensive term cut splice.
The origin of the word is disputed, principally because it is an ancient root and of pre-literate provenance. The sources I give are what I surmise. Can these sources be proven in any scientific way when they extend back into the past beyond the inscribed record, to a time before humans had learned to write? No. They are hypothetical constructs that I believe are etymologically sound.
But I believe in the monogenesis (Greek, ‘single birth’) of human language. I am convinced, by the admittedly not abundant proofs, that coherent and grammatical speech began and then evolved in Africa’s Rift Valley and that all later languages on earth stem from such a protolanguage. As humans moved out of that African valley to populate the entire earth they took their speech with them and that speech through millennia was altered and transformed and cleaved into cloves of, first, dialects and, second, split into seemingly unrelated languages, so evolved that familial recognition is often impossible. Yet those grunted mutterings that ricocheted off Rift rocks so far in the past constituted the single mother tongue of all human languages.
Ruhlen & Greenberg & Cavalli-Sforza
Linguistic monogenesis is the Merritt Ruhlen and Joseph Greenberg hypothesis, supported by genetic studies. Here I quote from the Wikipedia article on Ruhlen: “Perhaps the strongest evidence supporting Ruhlen can be found in the work of the geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, who has studied the genes in human populations throughout the world and constructed a phylogenetic tree, a structure similar in many respects to traditional trees of language families, showing where in the tree given genetic groups separated. The results are widely (though not universally) accepted as matching up remarkably well with Ruhlen's proposed structure of the languages and language families of the world.”
If this fascinating topic lures you, try the scholarly or the popular books by Merritt Ruhlen. On the Origin of Languages: Studies in Linguistic Taxonomy is Ruhlen’s 1994 scholarly tome. The Origin of Language: Tracing the Evolution of the Mother Tongue is another book by Merritt Ruhlen published in 1994 exploring the same topics for non-linguists.
C-Section on the C-Word
The Germanic and now English word cunt has verbal relatives all the way back in Egyptian hieroglyphics. Ka-t in hieroglyphics meant vulva, vagina, mother, and women. Qefen-t, another ancient Egyptian word for vagina, even has the letter n infixed in the root. Consider the Hittite kun ‘tail of an animal.’ A piece of tail, anyone? In Persian kun is the ass, the bum, the posterior. So this is not only a Proto-Indo-European root word. It looks like a very early borrowing from a Mediterranean rootstock or language now lost. Eric Partridge is the linguist who first suggested this. I think he was correct. The Greek reflex of the Latin cunnus root is gunē ‘woman’ usually transliterated in Latin and English as gyne and supplying a large number of English scientific and learned words like gynecology, misogynist and androgynous. Absolutely cognate with the Greek gunē is the Sanskrit yoni, an artistic representation of the external female genitalia, an object of veneration among Hindus.
The Hebrew kus and keus and Arabic cognates also share the common Mediterranean origin of all these words for something essentially female.
Whence That Terminal /T/ ?
There has been much dithering and flithering among Indo-European philologists trying to explain how the terminal /t/ became attached to a morpheme which early explorers of etymology saw as stemming from Latin cunnus ‘cunt.’ Many of the Romance languages still have this cunnus-root with similar meanings. Perhaps the most frequently used word in modern street Spanish is coño with its Romance-language cognates (all from Latin cunnus) French con, Italian conno and cunno, and Portugese cona. Modern Czech has kunda ‘vagina’ used in male-chauvinist invective and equivalent to English’s dismissive use of cunt. Czech also has an affectionate diminutive form kundicka.
I would posit that Middle Low German forms with a terminal dental (the letter /d/ or the letter/t/) like Kunte are no mystery. Compare the Middle Dutch kunte and modern Dutch kut and note that the letter n drops out again. The forms borrowed into the earliest Germanic and Scandinavian languages, from whatever source, simply kept the /t/ from their Mediterranean ultimate source. In Semitic languages, for example, terminal /t/ is the standard marker for grammatical femininity. Since there is presumably no more essentially feminine word than cunt, it is small wonder that its essential feminine ending was retained in borrowing.
One of my favorite forms of the word is an affectionate Irish diminutive, cunteen.
A Few Notes on Usage
As we have seen above, in the year 1230 cunt was not obscene. It was merely an English word for a female’s private parts. Even in Chaucer’s time, in The Canterbury Tales (1380-1390 CE), the first great poem of Middle English, Chaucer uses the word in a normal descriptive manner. In the Miller’s Tale, at line 90, we read “Pryvely he caught hir by the queynte.” In 138o queynte was pronounced ‘cunt.’
By the era of Shakespeare the word is offensive and obscene and Shakespeare must use it on stage in covert form in puns and acronyms, the most famous of which is this punning passage from Act 3, Scene 2 of Hamlet:
In Elizabethan English,the word lap was both the lap, as we now use the word, but was also a euphemism for cunt. Cunt did not appear in any major dictionary of the English language from 1795 to 1961, when finally it was included in Webster's Third New International Dictionary with the comment “usu. considered obscene.” Its first appearance in the Oxford English Dictionary was in 1972.
There are many internet sites teeming with usage notes on English obscenities, some of them even written by persons who can spell. I shall conclude with a joke that got me in big trouble in my third collection of Canadian Sayings. Infuriated damsels from Vancouver Island to New Brunswick wrote to my former publisher urging her to stop publishing my books and to arrange, if possible, to have me castrated live on the noon news by a woman dressed as Boudicca using a large pair of dull pliers. I had been so bold as to reprint a bawdy joke that demonstrates the way men use the word in the continuing battle of the sexes.
The joke goes like this:
Question: Why did God create the yeast infection?
Answer: So women too would know what it’s like to live with an irritating cunt.
To all who are offended by that joke: go join a cult. Maybe you can bribe god to “git” me? The civilized remainder of our merry company shall continue our adult study of the English language.
Addendum Oct 1, 2010:
“Opposing the Use of ‘Cunt’ is Itself Sexist”?
On his website, The Nail That Sticks Up, writer Samuel J. Hartman quotes a British firebrand. Hartman writes: “London-based feminist Kate Allen claims that being offended by it is sexist itself, given our lackadaisical attitude towards “dick” or “prick”:
Opposing the use of ‘cunt’ is itself sexist, because it grants more respected status to a woman’s genitals than to a man’s. The extra level of offensiveness that many people perceive the word to carry implies a squeamishness about women’s bits - this attitude is in itself sexist or even misogynist! We’re beginning to get over that squeamishness, reverting the word back to its original meaning and reclaiming it as a descriptive term. This is a positive action, removing its negative connotations.”
For Hartman’s full-page comment on “The C Word,” click below.
email from Dr. Ralph Wilson
Sunday, January 10, 2010 6:48 PM
In Chinese “Kun” is a 3-letter word, honoring the Female
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