Nicola Ball

Sexism in the English language, and the power of swearing

Azealia Banks; ‘That’s so cunt. That’s so feminine. That’s so good.’

Insults and profanities are undoubtedly one of the most interesting aspects of a language. They occupy a strange place in the English language; overused in certain groups and demonised by others. These shifting meanings give swearing and popular slang a unique place in the English language. There’s no doubt in my mind that they can both useful and harmful. Many people dislike swearing and find it offensive. A common refrain of these people seems to be that swearwords are unnecessary, and that one could easily replace the offending word with a similar word which does not have the same connotations. For example, the profanity ‘fuck’ could be replaced by ‘frig’ or ‘duck’. I cannot help but feel that these people are missing the point a little. A huge part of what gives swearwords power is the sense of taboo which surrounds them. If people genuinely started using ‘duck’ instead of ‘fuck’, over time it would become equally offensive.

Of course, whilst the context and the intention of the speaker projects new meaning onto a word (fuck/duck), the root of the word is of paramount importance. In English we see that, for obvious reasons, many insults are derived from animals – such as ‘cow’ and ‘bitch’. Instantly we can see that these two examples are the names for the females of the species. The male of the species ‘dog’ can be used as an insult, but does not hold anywhere near the same amount of power as its female counterpart ‘bitch’. And calling someone a ‘bull’ would not be considered offensive. Another example of sexism in language is found in the animal based names of pre-marital celebrations. A male celebration is called a ‘Stag do’, in comparison to the female ‘Hen night’. The imagery of the strong, noble Stags contrasts horribly with the clucking, idiotic Hens.

In addition to the insults based on animals, swearing often refers to sex and sexual organs – such as fuck, dickhead, pussy, and wanker. It’s not really surprising that these words become taboo. I guess I’m kind of pleased to see that there’s a mixture of genders in the insults here…although I don’t appreciate the demonising of anyone’s anatomy. However, I don’t think that I am wrong in stating that, currently, the most widely disliked and offensive swearword which exists in the English language is the word ‘cunt’, referring to the vagina. Germaine Greer said that ‘cunt’ is “one of the few remaining words in the English language with a genuine power to shock.” The word itself is strong, short and sharp, which is perhaps what renders it so shocking and ‘ugly’ – it is a word referring to the female sex which refuses to be stereotypically feminine. In fact, the word ‘cunt’ originated in ancient Egypt; an early form of the word was used as a synonym for ‘woman.’ Nowadays, this neutral synonym is shocking, crude, disgusting.

But there are signs in pop culture that this attitude is changing. Recently Rihanna was seen wearing a necklace reading the word ‘cunt’. In singer Azealia Banks’ pop single, ‘212’, she repeats the word ‘cunt’ with nonchalance, saying in a recent interview, “I feel like ‘cunt’ means so feminine […] That’s so cunt. That’s so feminine. That’s so good.” Though Banks’ words are controversial, maybe it’s time other women followed her lead in harnessing the power of words like ‘cunt’ and ‘bitch’ that have been used to belittle and insult women for so long.

– Nicola Ball

10 thoughts on “Sexism in the English language, and the power of swearing

  1. If you pop over to Mumsnet you’ll find loads of people, both male and female, using the word ‘cunt’ with aplomb. Indeed, one user has the name BupcakesandCunting.

  2. I was watching a TV show with women performing the “vagina monologues” and how a woman had written in to complain that she still felt uneasy over use of the word “cunt”. her piece after that was a continuous stream of the word “cunt” said with such enthusiasm that it made me extremely happy. there should be more of this.

    • I also saw the Vagina Monologues…very empowering to watch but I still don’t care for that word especially when a man uses it.

  3. There’s an awesome book called Cunt: A Declaration of Independence by Inga Muscio that goes through the history of the word and talks all about using it as a statement of power. I loved reading it; your post reminded me of the book and how empowered I felt and how I actually love to use the word cunt now. It doesn’t hold any sting for me anymore.

  4. While I agree with the vast majority of what you wrote, I feel the need to correct this one piece: “A male celebration is called a ‘Stag do’, in comparison to the female ‘Hen night’. The imagery of the strong, noble Stags contrasts horribly with the clucking, idiotic Hens.” Actually, I think you’re referring to a mixed event usually referred to as a ‘Stag and Doe’ … you do know that a Doe is a female deer, right?

    • Oh dear. What a condescending and unpleasant comment. You are “correcting” something that wasn’t wrong in the first place, purely because you didn’t understand it. A “stag do” is a where the groom goes out with his friends and get’s drunk. It has NOTHING to do with your “stag and doe”. That is not what was being referred to at all. So actually you aren’t correcting anything, you are just being rude (yes we all know a doe is a female deer, we don’t need your help there) and showing your complete ignorance in an embarrassingly arrogant way.

  5. I kind of dislike the status these insults put animals at as well. I think it affects us on a subconscious level and makes us forget how beautiful animals are and how they deserve dignity.

  6. I’ll happily take back “bitch…” it’s used to describe girls like me who are strong-willed and unafraid of standing up for themselves. Plus I just like the way the word sounds!

    On the other hand, cunt is such a strong and hateful word that I don’t feel I could ever say it out loud. The way it looks and sounds is so ugly that I wouldn’t say it even without the meaning behind it.

  7. I am a proud feminist, but I’m not offended by the word cunt, unless it is said in an offensive way. I agree, a word only has as much power as we attach to it. So, for me profanities are just a part of my colloquial vocabulary, not excluding the word ‘cunt’.

    In my experience, the power and meaning of words is conveyed through the manner in which they are spoken. This goes for any word. Even the word ‘the’ can be used offensively if it’s said in a certain way. I think, being offended by non-aggressive uses of words just gives others more power to offend you.I obviously respect that other people are more sensitive to certain words, so I will not use profanities in professional or first-time engagements. Otherwise, profanities are fun for me and carry as much power as any other words in the dictionary.

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