Offensiveness Week – Exhibit E: Cuntext is Everything

If you’re offended by the (admittedly not very funny) pun in the title of this blog, then…well, read on. This blog is for you, and I will address the title later.

Swearing is today’s topic of discussion; more specifically the C-word. The reason that this came up as a point of interest is that  I recently ended up in a debate with two friends on two separate occasions about the matter. One thought that I should not use it quite as flippantly as I did in the title of this blog, and the other thought that it should not be used at all. I both like and respect both of these people, so I’m going to try and address their concerns in this blog. It’s likely to contain a few more instances of the word, but whilst censoring myself by saying “the C-word”, I shall simultaneously try to prove that it is possible to do so non-offensively. Paradoxes!

First things first, let’s keep society out of this. It should be obvious that the majority of the power that the C-word has comes from the fact that almost nobody says it on telly or in media. It’s just not done. I think from this comes the idea of taboo breeding taboo breeding taboo, meaning that eventually the actual reason it’s never used is covered up with the idea that “you’re just not supposed to”. Let’s take a step back from that, look at how it began, and see the relevance of that nowadays.

In debating the issue with both my friends, we eventually got to the root of their dislike, which is that they considered the word to be a derogatory term for the female genitalia. One of them expanded on that point by noting that the derogation is also present in the fact that there is no equal male term; at least, there isn’t one that is nearly as offensive. I would probably argue that the last bit is probably because of what I said above: it was made such a large thing that no male equivalent would be able to compete with it in terms of offensiveness. However, the point still stands that the word was originally used in a misogynistic fashion. The research I’ve been able to do on it shows that this is indeed the case;  the word was (and perhaps still is, if less so) used as a derogatory term for women in general. According to Wikipedia (with a proper reference attached to it too), Catharine MacKinnon described it as an attempt to dehumanise women by reducing them to their mere body parts (Also on that Wikipedia link is a look at some attempts to “reclaim” the word by feminists, which is interesting, but you can read that yourself). As a feminist myself, I am absolutely agreement with her. That is a totally valid way of looking at it, and I would abhor such usage.

However, I don’t think that means it should never be used, and here’s why.

Swearwords have a great advantage to them, which is their versatility. If you go to the Wikipedia article for “fuck“, you’ll read a pretty marvellous opening paragraph which says that it can be used  as a “verb, adverb, adjective, imperative, interjection, and noun”, and then proceeds to give examples. It’s amusing, in a childish way, but more importantly it demonstrates the fact that swearwords are generally used to intensify an already existing sentence. With the possible exception of nouns, we can see that the word “fuck” can often be replaced in a sentence without changing the meaning, but it loses a level of intensity it once had. We can’t do that with any old word, like, say, “frisbee”. The same is true of the C-word; it has multiple meanings and infinite inferences, and it all depends on one thing. All together now…

CONTEXT!

Yaaaay! If you read Wednesday’s Exhibit C (and if not, why not?) then you’ll remember I said I wanted to return to this topic, and so I have.

Context is everything. Everything everything everything. There is no way for to emphasise to you just how vital context is to all the communication you have ever and will ever take part in. It doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to amuse, inform, query, entertain, bore, interest, or offend: context dictates everything – everything! – you do.

Mini-rant over. Let’s apply it to our C-word, with the help of my good mate Katie. Katie is a) a Scot, and b) a very frequent swearer, and last night I asked her if she could think of any times when she might use it in a way that isn’t intended offensively. She came up with these four:

I sometimes say “these cunts” to mean “these people”. If I cunt my knee off a table leg, it means I hit it. Cunted can also mean broken, or in context, drunk.

And there we go. Four different meanings, and one is even a term of endearment. So is Katie (who is also a self-professed feminist) using it sexistly? That question is rhetorical, but I’ll answer it anyway; pretty obviously not.

Just to make my point a little clearer, I am not saying that it can’t be used offensively. Of course it can, and many of its uses in life probably are. But, in order to be offensive, it has to be used at an individual or a group of people, and therefore needs context. And when the context is inoffensive, like in Katie’s examples, the word becomes just that; a simple word. Harmless as “frisbee”.

Quick caveat: I do not think the same of the T-word that we talked about on Wednesday, because that is a word that is very specifically linked to its one definition. Whereas the C-word has many, the T-word has just one mean meaning.

So we have one final question to address before we can pack up for this week and go home, and that is the matter of this blog’s title. What is the context there? Well, if you look, you’ll see that there isn’t one, really. I’ve used it partly for a pun, partly to summarise the topics in question, and – yeah – partly for shock value. Do any of those make it offensive? My friend thought so; she believed that “using it with context is completely fine, but using it as a throwaway word doesn’t seem justified”  and the non-offensive contexts we discussed above doesn’t make it “inherently right”.

But is any word really inherently anything? I do not think so; I think that words only have meanings projected onto them by people. Often those meanings are shared: if I say “frisbee” to you, we are both likely to have a similar idea of what I mean by it. However, sometimes, if a word requires a context to truly function, like the C-word, and it is not supplied with one, as in my title, people are left to form their own ideas with regards to how to feel about its use. Unfortunately for the C-word, its own social standing means that many people will have felt offended about my use of it without thinking about why they feel that way.

Hopefully what I’ve done in this blog is changed your mind about that, and shown you that whilst there’s no reason for it to necessarily be there, there’s also no cause to be offended by it.

And if I haven’t convinced you of that, then you can frisbee right off.

(thank you so much for the positive feedback you’ve given me over this five-day experiment. tomorrow I am going to write a very short post-mortem on the whole experience for me, and then we’ll get back to sporadic bursts of other thoughts.)

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2 thoughts on “Offensiveness Week – Exhibit E: Cuntext is Everything

  1. Excellent work again, Patrick – I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this week’s series and have looked forward to sitting down each day to have a read.

    This one sums of many of my feelings about the use of swear words. My husband tended to use the C-word quite frequently and I challenged him on it recently. He has modified his usage and on the occasions that he does utter it now, it has more contextual meaning and I’m less offended by it. I use it too in extremis when angry but also as a term of endearment – “you daft c***” said with a long-suffering smile.

    Point of order on the T-word only having one meaning. Those of us of an older persuasion will remember an entirely mundane use of this word to describe a transistor radio. Also, as a former van driver, my trusty Ford Transit (and many other Transits) were and still are affectionately known by this name.

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