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cunt
n. the female genitalia, especially the vulva.

Don’t get your knickers in a twist. If you’re not living in America, it’s very likely that the word “cunt” to you is little more than one English slang word among a whole pantheon of cusses, epithets, and naughty bits. Curiously enough, “cunt” in America has taken on a level of opprobrium that seems to surpass even “fuck,” which is now relatively tame and generalized into a toothless interjection. While “cunt” has been obscene since the 17th century, it appears to have become the mother of all swear words in American English, perhaps due to its unfortunate connection with misogyny: “cunt” is the more potent version of “bitch” as an epithet for a woman you do not like. It’s possible, though I may merely have missed the pulse of public opinion, that there’s a truly awesome social stigma attached to the word because of its unavoidable sexual implications. Chaucer used queynte; Shakespeare punned about “country matters”; clearly, this is a word with a lot going on.

The word comes from the Middle English cunte, of the same meaning, probably from the proto-Germanic *kunton, which is a simple enough etymology. I’m unable to find out exactly what *kunton means, but I’m guessing it’s a general root dealing with the female genitalia, likely without the opprobrium.

The word’s relationship to Latin is tenuous. There’s the Latin cunnus, which refers to the female pudenda and which is a likely candidate for an etymological relationship. Still, this Latin word’s own etymology is hazy, perhaps literally indicating a gash or a slit, drawn from proto-Indo-European roots of a similar nature.

An etymology that has little or no evidence, but which I think is neat anyway, is the proposed relationship between cunt and the Latin cuneus, which means “wedge-shaped” and which coincidentally forms the basis for the word cuneiform, a system of writing wedge-shaped glyphs which was practiced by the Sumerians in 3000 BCE. This etymology, too, makes a lot of sense, all things considered, but it sadly appears to be a folk etymology.

Cunt, etymologically, has infiltrated a lot of our other language under the guise of other words. The nonsense phrase “‘hoochy-coochy,” for instance, is a variant of “cunt,” drawn from a variety of descendant words based upon the common prefix of cu- or koo-, which may trace their roots back to proto-Indo-European as traditionally “feminine” roots. It seems to stretch itself into all sorts of languages, although accuracy of these may or may not be 100%:

In Celtic and modern Welsh, ‘cu’ is rendered as ‘cw’, a similarly feminine prefix influencing the Old English ‘cwithe’ (‘womb’), from the Welsh ‘cwtch’. Interestingly, ‘cwtch’ (also ‘cwtch’, with modern forms ‘cwts’ and ‘cwtsh’) means ‘hollow place’ as a noun (and is thus another vaginal metaphor) and ‘hide’ as a verb. The ‘cw’ prefix can be traced back to the Indo-European ‘gwen’, which also influenced the Greek ‘gune’ and ‘gunaikos’, the Sumerian ‘gagu’, and the feminine/vaginal prefix ‘gyn’.

Sharing the ‘cw’ prefix is ‘cwe’, meaning ‘woman’, influencing the Old English ‘cuman’ and ‘cwene’. Anglicised phonetically, ‘cwene’ became ‘quean’, and is related to the Oromotic term ‘qena’, the Lowland Scottish ‘quin’, the Dutch ‘kween’, the Old Higher German ‘quena’ and ‘quina’, the Gothic ‘quens’ and ‘qino’, the Germanic ‘kwenon’ and ‘kwaeniz’, the Old Norse ‘kvaen’ (also ‘kvan’, ‘kvenna’, and ‘kvinna’), the Middle English ‘queene’ and ‘quene’, and the modern English ‘quean’ and ‘queen’.

Is everything with an initial koo- sound related to woman and to the female genetalia? Of course not; the actual number of etymologically-related words might be less than we suppose. Still, I think “cunt” is a good example of a long and complex etymology that very sudden gained infamy as a “swear word,” and we don’t therefore realize its commonality with a lot of other, perfectly acceptable words.

§2053 · April 30, 2008 · Tags: , , , ·

7 Comments to “Wednesday’s Word: cunt”

  1. Conor says:

    I’ve always found "coochie" or "cooch" to be a far more revolting term than "cunt," at least when referring to anatomical parts.

    Folk etymologies are my favorite thing in the whole world. I think every Wednesday’s Word should be about 90% folk etymology, with the actual academic consensus (if any) written at the bottom of the page, upside-down.

  2. Rob says:

    If you’re not living in America, it’s very likely that the word “cunt” to you is little more than one English slang word among a whole pantheon of cusses, epithets, and naughty bits.

    Not sure about that—it certainly engenders similar revulsion over here, for what that’s worth.

  3. Rob says:

    Physician, heal thy blockquotes!

  4. Conor says:

    "Cooter." That’s what I was thinking of. I hate that word so very, very much.

  5. Ben says:

    Sorry, Rob. Seems like my HTML Purified plugin doesn’t play nice with 2.5[.1]. I fixed your blockquote and inserted what I think you probably meant to quote.

    “Cooter” has the benefit of being not only obscene, but thoroughly white trash as well.

  6. abou says:

    Good post. Being a Classicist though, I prefer cunnus.

    Too bad you didn’t tell me in advance that you were working on this. After all, I do have an entire book concerning Latin sexual terms.

  7. Ben says:

    I’ll have to consult you in the future. I can always count on you for intellectual filth.

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