Recently we were all talking about language and sex words, and it turns out, surprise surprise, that I've used the word "fuck" in these columns more than any other Cant columnist. So I thought this week's column would be an exploration of perhaps why that might be.
I seem to recall that I started "using dirty words" when I was in about third grade, because it was cool. And I have always been oh so cool. Anyway, my parents didn't swear much in front of me besides the occasional "damn," and I had my mouth washed out with soap for saying "dog shit" when I was in second grade. So I learned it all on the playground and in books. A lot of the time, I was kind of unclear on what the words actually meant, but I knew they were forbidden and insulting and that I could get into a lot of trouble for using them. They were dangerous. I liked that. I liked that there were words that got people all riled up.
Then I grew up a little bit, say maybe high school, and I realized just how arbitrary and lame it is that some words are ok and others aren't. They're just words. They shouldn't have the power to hurt anyone. They're just sex words, mostly, penis words, vulva words, intercourse words, homosexual words. So after being called a "cunt" one day, I decided that being called a body part I possess really shouldn't be so upsetting, and resolved to start using, writing, and thinking those words that made me uncomfortable. In other words, I started swearing like a sailor.
More recently, this year in fact, I've been writing porn/erotica/smut (another word choice issue), and having a blast. But there's always the uncomfortable decision of what to call the parts I'm talking about. Mostly, since we spend so much time trivializing and being ashamed of sex, all of our sex words are silly. So usually I go with the words I like, words that are abrupt and harsh to the ear, and to me sound sexy without being silly. But that's so subjective that I decided to see what the OED had to say about the words I chose. (Yes, of course I've looked them up a million times, and no I don't expect that any of this is new information for you either, my dear educated reader. And if it is, may I suggest the chapter on swear words in Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue)
First, we have Cunt. I like Cunt because it's one of those nice harsh, Germanic sounding words. No euphemisms, just a cunt, right there in your face. Not trivial, not sweet, not dainty, not shy. Not feminine, and all the weakness that femininity implies.
The OED says Cunt is Middle English, from Old Norse "kunta" and that all of the Germanic languages have their versions of it. (I wonder if the modern languages derivations are considered obscene there as well? Hmm…) The first definition does not say that it's either colloquial or slang, simply defining the word as "the female external genital organs," apparently as valid as vagina or vulva. But then the second definition is "a term of vulgar abuse" when applied to a woman, and its use is taboo. Finally, it references me to "quaint" which doesn't say anything about being related to girly parts or being an insult. Bastards. (Inconsistencies in reference materials really bother me.) There aren't any good quotes, really, but the first extant usage is from 1230, which I find cool. Therefore I can claim to be using Cunt as a continuation of a very old tradition. Go me!
Moving along, we have Cock. I like Cock also because of its satisfyingly hard sounds; it sounds like an erection should. A cock is not soft, nor is it silly. Most other penis words (including penis) sound weak and ridiculous to my ears. A cock is something to be reckoned with, possibly something dangerous, definitely something bold. And it helps that it's a word with other meanings as well.
OED mostly talks about birds and stuff, before it gets down to the twentieth definition, paraphrased by me as "penis - impolite, possible in origin from sense 12." Sense 12 is "A spout or short pipe serving as a channel for passing liquids through..." I would have thought it had more to do with sense 8, myself, which is "colloq. One who fights with pluck and spirit. Hence a familiar term of appreciation among the vulgar." And because they amuse me so, here are the first two quotes listed by the OED: "1618 - Oh man what art thou? When thy cock is up?" and "1714 - View my sore cock, his tender wounded head."
In origin Cock is Old English, Old Norse, and Old French, but has never been the general name for the penis in any of those languages. Apparently it has probably always been associated with the "rooster" meaning, and there is some argument whether its origins are truly Teutonic or Romantic. Either way, it's very old and has always been slang. So more bonus points for me liking another fine, old word.
Finally, of course, we get to Fuck. Fuck is probably one of my all-time favorite words. It's harsh, it's simple, it's crude, and it's satisfying. And it can be a noun, verb, adjective, subject, object, transitive, and intensive. It's so flexible. And in my opinion, at this point in history, most of the time it is used it means absolutely nothing at all, has no inherent meaning or definition.
Fuck's origin is of course also Middle English, and probably Germanic, although the OED says there is no evidence that it's related to the German "fucken" or "ficken." The earliest citation is from 1503 and doesn't seem to be crude, but around the 1920s starts to pick up a lot of speed and flexibility. (Amazing how words go in and out of vogue, and a word that's just a word turns into a taboo word, isn't it? I assume taboo words, with over-use, can revert back to being just words, also. I hope so, anyway.)
OED provides an interestingly thorough definition. The first is "to copulate… (Rarely used with female subject.)" Rarely used with a female subject? Are they high? Where on earth did they get that? They add "To copulate with; to have sexual connection with," which I also find provocative simply because a "sexual connection" is not the same as copulation, and therefore is seems that oral sex or possibly even a hand job could count as fucking by their definitions. That sure isn't how Fuck was used when I was in high school.
Definition two is "Used profanely in imprecations and exclamations as the coarsest equivalent of DAMN," and definition three is a list of pairings with adverbs such as fuck about, fuck off, fuck up, etc, and a note about the verbal, participle forms, and verbal forms, and "used esp. as a mere intensive." "Mere." I like that. No big deal, Mom, it's just a mere intensive; leave me the fuck alone.
So there you go, three all-time favorite obscenities, defined and discussed all properly and happily. Good words, flexible and with a lot of history behind them. I vote for hacking off the last hundred years' worth of taboo sentiments and using them freely. Don't let good old-fashioned words like Cunt, Cock, and Fuck fall out of use! Do your part to preserve our linguistic heritage!
Plus, you get to make some people really uncomfortable AND talk about sex!
Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989 (ed. J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner), Additions 1993-7 (ed. John Simpson and Edmund Weiner; Michael Proffitt), and 3rd ed. (in progress) Mar. 2000- (ed. John Simpson). OED Online. Oxford University Press. OED On-Line
Columns by Wanton Hussy