The Complicated Semiotics Of The Word C&NT

Content Warning: This post is mostly about a swear word, the word ‘cunt.’ I don’t intend to use it in this article after this point, but it’s still going to show up in censored form and I know not anyone wants to see that.

The word c*nt, on the whole is one of the more startlingly overused swear words in Australian English. I say overused because in American English, which gets to dictate what gets said on 70% of all television programs, the word is considered the second-rudest thing that can be said, following just after n*gger when said by a white person to a black person. If used in the wrong programming times, this kind of language use will earn you a fine. If you live in a fairly polite space and mostly engage with television like the news, like, say, a church, you might be absolutely shocked to learn how often the word is used in common parlance.

I was, after all.

I was so unfamiliar with the word, when I first heard it and tattled to a teacher, and I was asked to tell what words I’d heard the other boy use that were bad, I tried to spell it, and I thought it was spelled more like ‘gaunt.’

I’m not saying this word is a constant presence if you’re in Australia. It’s definitely a rude word, you’re not going to hear it from a store attendant at work unless something upsets or surprises them. It’s not part of bants. I might drop an f-bomb in class (accidentally) and nobody wigs out, but if I used c*nt, it would be seen as inappropriate.

Don’t imagine swearing is a set of rules, mind you: Part of what’s going on is about affordances of persona. I am a casual tutor who’s trying to find the way to communicate with students on their own level. I get to make examples using pop songs and kid’s toys and dirty jokes, that’s something that I’m considered allowed to do. By comparison, most people who are ‘meant to be being polite’ aren’t allowed to use it.

It’s still a word you’re going to hear a lot especially if you catch public transport. It’s a word that you hear everywhere just occasionally, because we have effectively neutralised versions of it. You can consider it a rude noun for a random nonspecified person on say, the same usage level as the word ‘clown.’

Who’s this clown?

What’d that clown want?

Some clown’s gunna have to fix that in the morning and it won’t be me.

I don’t like this word.

Part of it is my puritanical upbringing. Swearing had an enormous power when I started doing it, but it still was easy for a while to go into ‘church mode’ where I recognised the potential harm of the words and stopped using them around certain people. The word still had some potency for me, because of its comparative rarity on, yes, American television, so it just… rarely came up. A cryptid swear word, for a bit.

This overuse can sometimes strip the word of its obviously gendered base state. The word is a crudity for a vagina, which statistically, is typically a body part women have, and therefore, the word is connected to implied failings like being indecisive, meanspirited, untrustworthy, or weak. It can be easy to forget that when it’s being used like

Hand me a couple of those little hexagonal c*nts right there

And we tell ourselves that ‘it’s not gendered,’ in the same way we say ‘guys’ or ‘dudes’ isn’t, and that’s a cute lie. I mean, we could go full galaxy brain queer discourse and say ‘hey, masculine vaginas exist,’ but fuck off, you know Big Tone at the Traino isn’t using it to refer to the decoupling of bodies from sexualities and the forms in which c*ntiness is in fact, a form of gender performance from a liminal state. He uses it to mean c*nts.

I don’t use this word. It lives in my head in the same space as b*tch, where I find the gendering of makes it just a little unpleasant to use. When I deploy the word, I feel it loses some of its impact just because I don’t want to have to then unpack it or explain that – it’s much better to use a word that doesn’t give me that feeling. I don’t mind quoting people using it, just like with b*tch, but the word’s biting edge doesn’t feel worth the sigh I give myself afterwards.

Other people can use it and not feel the gendered nastiness to it, but I can’t, so I don’t use it.

Still, the word is very Australian. So much so that there’s a 90s pop song, I Might Be A C*nt But I’m Not A Fucking C*nt, which was one of the first times I considered just why someone might do something that looks stupid. I always associated swearing with stupidity, sin, and anger. I swore because I was angry, but I knew it wasn’t making my point well, it wasn’t reinforcing anything, and feelings weren’t a good part of an argument.

I had no idea how emotionally manipulative the method of argumentation I had learned at the pulpit was, but I had learned that ‘anger’ wasn’t a good way to rope in newcomers. Also, that starter-kit mode of ‘boys, feelings aren’t to be trusted,’ which is another problem.

Anyway, the song has these turns of phrase I find really clever, because of how deftly they construct an unreliable narrator; and how the chorus:

I might be a c*nt
But I’m not a fucking c*nt

That phrase probably doesn’t make a goddamn bit of sense to you. It does to me, though. The nature of how we use the word has two different meanings when altered like that. The first is neutral, the second expresses deep anomisity.

This song got played on the radio, a bit, resulting in an outcry from the head of the Victoria Retired Serviceman’s League, saying the song was “…Dropping [Australia’s standards] through the floor into the proverbial sewer,” and calling for Shock Records to cancel TISM (this is the real cancel culture, you see).

The response to the criticism was as follows:

“I actually like the song, the thing that disappoints me about some of the reaction to the song is people’s reaction was confined to ‘oh how naughty, oh those naughty boys TISM have said a naughty word, fuck, and another naughty word, cunt, and oh that’s so naughty’ and I must admit, I was sort of, and I shouldn’t have, I was disappointed with that reaction … We were attempting to use the common dialect of people in the street, to sum up a term, have a good pisstake. It’s more than just naughtiness. That’s very profound isn’t it?”

Ron Hitler Barassi of TISM

I don’t like c*nt, as a word. I don’t like the way it’s gendered. But it’d be a lie to pretend it’s not a word we use, we can use, and whose use is meaningfully Australian, and how that use can be complex.

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