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What accounts for the strong disapproval of anyone using the word 'cunt' in the US, when the sentiment doesn't exist to the same extent in the UK?

To be clear, it's still a strong word to use in the UK, but it's much, much more common to hear it there than it is here in the US.

Is it merely due to a discrepancy in popular morals, or are there specific historical occurrences at play in the US that have left their mark? Does the strong feminist movement in the US in the 60/70ies factor in e.g.?

Does anyone know how 'acceptable' the term is in other countries with a large English speaking population (India e.g.)?

I'm new here, and I ask this genuinely, as I've lived in both England and the States and have been fascinated by the visceral reaction the word tends to evoke by large numbers Americans. Per previous discussions on meta there's a consensus for not shying away from offensive words and a faction that doesn't even recommend censoring them when used in the context of discussing the English language.

I chose to only censor it in the title, so nobody can claim to be offended if they click through, and this question will still turn up in search results for the uncensored version.

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Good question. I hear it in British films used very casually, and the Aussies seem to use it the way the Brits use mates — or at least in the same context. I hope someone (perhaps you yourself) can give a good answer to this and explain precisely what it means idiomatically beyond its obvious reference to female genitalia. As a side note, this is not the only word that has dangerously different meanings between British and American English. Consider the word fanny, for example. –  Robusto Dec 19 '10 at 14:49
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Just a note: I think most would agree that censoring the word in the question title is a good idea. –  Kosmonaut Dec 19 '10 at 16:44
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More directly related to the question, I think you might very well find there is no real reason at all for this UK/US difference in severity. Curse words evolve rather arbitrarily, though usually with the common theme of being words for taboo things (most often sex, excrement, blasphemy, and more recently, bigotry). I'm not posting this as an answer though, because it is certainly possible for a certain word to become extremely offensive for a specific reason, and I don't know for sure about this one. –  Kosmonaut Dec 19 '10 at 19:49
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US has always been so controversial to my taste... They fight porn, but they show all kinds of violence without hesitation. They think word cunt is wrong, yet they sell guns on every corner. –  Robert Koritnik Dec 20 '10 at 11:19
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Another word with radically different connotations in British and American English is 'fag'. In England, it is a colloquial term for a cigarette; in the USA, it is a very derogatory term for homosexual. –  Jonathan Leffler Dec 21 '10 at 0:45

9 Answers 9

up vote 17 down vote accepted

Am I right in saying that in the US the primary usage of the word is for a man to call a woman a cunt as an accusation of reprehensible moral standards, as well as it being laced with undertones of misogyny and sexism? In this context, extreme offensiveness is very much the intent.

In the UK it’s not really used that way; rather it’s just another generic insult that, while still regarded as the strongest of our swear words, is losing its impact over time. As well as occasionally being thrown at each other by antagonists in an argument, it’s quite widely used between friends (men, predominantly) – either towards each other in a playful sense, or to refer to other people of whom the speaker disapproves.

So I’d suggest that different reception of the word in the two countries is down to these different predominant uses.

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I think you've zeroed in on the distinction. As an American who has spent some time in the UK, this is very much my understanding of the differences in usage. –  John Satta Dec 21 '10 at 0:57
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In the US, 'cunt' is an extremely slanderous word for vagina. As such, referring to a woman by using the most crude word for her genitals is demeaning. –  oosterwal Feb 9 '11 at 3:48
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@oosterwal: in all dialects of English, that’s indeed the most literal meaning of ‘cunt’. However, there’s much more than that to its offensiveness: notice that eg ‘pussy’ and ‘twat’ are far less offensive, and are used differently, and likewise ‘dick’, ‘cock’, etc. –  PLL Feb 9 '11 at 10:48
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Its worth noting that in the UK context and company is very important with swearing. It can be used without targeting reasonably safely in impolite society. I wouldn't think twice about calling a friend a cunt but directed towards a stranger or a casual acquaintance it may well result in a punch. Older generations are more likely to be offended by its use than younger. –  Robb Apr 8 '11 at 13:56
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In the States, the phrase “cock up” would go over just as well in polite company as “cunt up” would, and for the same reason: it’s considered vulgar because it includes a vulgar word you just don’t say in those situations. Other denizen of Greater Anglophonia are always surprised that Americans find “cock up” unacceptable in polite company. You have to say “screw up” instead. Yes, I know. –  tchrist May 10 '12 at 23:35

That's a very good question. It certainly is offensive here in the US, and I'm not sure why it's considered so much worse than other "Anglo-Saxon" words.

I've used all of the other ones on occasion. But in 52 years, I've used "cunt" anatomically only a handful of times, and I can't recall ever using it as a slang reference for a woman.

After Sen. John McCain called his wife Cindy a cunt in front of a bunch of reporters in 1992, they and their editors were paralyzed. The word is so offensive here, they couldn't figure out how to even talk about it indirectly, so the incident didn't become public until years later. In an American context, calling Cindy a cunt in front of strangers was so disrespectful and humiliating that I thought it was only slightly less shocking than if he'd punched her in the face, and I wondered why she didn't divorce him. I immediately decided not to vote for him in the 2008 Presidential election because, in someone of his position, it showed a frightening lack of self-control that's not compatible with controlling nuclear weapons.

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It is certain that the word "cunt" is considered less offensive in certain social circles (e.g. McCain's and his wife's and maybe in the UK). As long as the subject (e.g. Cindy) does not mind being called as such (shown by her not divorcing him), no words are offensive. However, McCain's use of the word does shows an ignorance towards his audience's social culture (which isn't the best qualities out of a president), but I think to conclude that it shows "a lack of self-control" is an unfounded accusation. –  Lie Ryan Dec 19 '10 at 20:53
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@Lie Ryan: The use of a word is offensive if it offends people. If I call someone a cunt who doesn't mind being called that, I can only ensure that one person won't be offended. If I am in church or ordering food at a restaurant or publishing an advertisement or speaking to reporters (!), that usage is absolutely going to be considered offensive by a large number of people. –  Kosmonaut Dec 19 '10 at 22:21
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@Lie Ryan: If McCain had slugged his wife and knocked out a few teeth in public, and she didn't divorce him, I doubt anybody would think it was because she didn't mind. There are many other possible explanations for Cindy McCain not divorcing McCain for calling her a cunt in public other than her being okay with it. Perhaps she has religious scruples against divorce. Perhaps she's willing to tolerate abuse to be married to a powerful, famous politician. Perhaps he does worse to her in private. Perhaps she's exceptionally kind and forgiving. We just don't know. –  Bob Murphy Dec 19 '10 at 23:56
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@Bob Murphy: Did he used the word with hate and rage? If he does, then it is indeed an offensive punch; but otherwise, if he used the word casually, it's a playful poke. I'm not familiar with the incident you're referring to, so I can't judge the situation. Also, I'm not suggesting that she does not divorcing him is a proof that she does not mind; I'm only suggesting that it probably indicates so. We don't know her actual opinion about it, which is what matters. If she does feel offended, then I agree that it is offensive. You don't need poll, only Cindy's single opinion matters. –  Lie Ryan Dec 20 '10 at 2:54
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You always have to consider cultural context. In some parts of the world, everybody wipes their butts with their left hands, and touching somebody with your left hand is always an insult; nobody would ever consider it playful. I'm of John McCain's general social class but one generation younger, and my parents are a few years older than he is. For people in our group, calling your wife a cunt in front of strangers would never be anything other than a terrible insult. It's one of those things which, even if John and Cindy acted like it was a joke... it wouldn't be a joke, and she'd be insulted. –  Bob Murphy Dec 20 '10 at 5:39

In Australia it is generally not acceptable to use the c-word in female company as it is considered by many women to be derogatory of them. It may often be freely used in certain all-male company, but not necessarily as a derogatory term.

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Yeah exactly right. It's definately in common use in Australia (but mainly amongst male only groups). –  Anonymous Type Feb 23 '11 at 23:16

As an American who has lived in the UK I can confirm the huge difference in perception of this word in the two c(o)untries.

It seems to me that the phenomenon is self-perpetuating: rude words have their power exhausted by overuse, so "cunt" carries a lot of power in the US because nobody uses it. Thus an effect becomes a cause and the cultural differences deepen over the years.

But that's a proximate answer, it doesn't get at the real "why."

Personally, I think it's just about linguistically identical to "cock," and I don't find it horribly offensive. I call people I don't like "cocks" all the time.

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I can't really comment on the impact of c*** in the US, because in my limited time there, it wasn't a word that came up that often, though I was tempted to use it in front of one of the Homeland Security drones at Sanford Airport!

However, I'd like to dispel the idea that it is a word so readily used in the UK. Whereas f*** is now so ubiquitous (See: Uses of the word f*ck, c*nt is still regarding as more coarse and thus much more shocking.

I realise that Guy Ritchie et al have been fond of using it in their tedious and moronic cockney-gangster films (Lock, Stock, and Snatch etc), but it's not as prevalent as they would have you believe.

That said, in one USENET community that I'm a member of, one with a particular style and brand of humour, we have embraced the word and use frequently it in all manner of ways; as a verb, and a whole host of nouns and as adverbs and adjectives. It's just part of the clique humour employed; some of the language looks odd (read: grossly offensive) to outsiders, but it is anything but. Outside this group, I'd be surprised if any of us used c*** at all, beyond the usual interaction with traffic wardens.

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It's been a while since I lived in England. Maybe I'm misremembering the people I hung out with, or hung with a rough crowd, but there are cases where you want to simply express an extreme level of dissatisfaction with someone and 'cunt' seemed perfectly fine for that in the UK, whether it was towards a man or woman. In the US, as Brian suggested elsewhere in this thread, you don't even have the option of using it as a strong modifier. –  Joost Schuur Dec 21 '10 at 2:06
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@Joost, this is true. The use of the word might vary, but I was countering the idea that it was an expletive that on incurred only minor offense in the UK, The use might be different, but it is arguably one of the most offensive words you can use in the UK. –  CJM Dec 21 '10 at 9:45
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CJM is right, on the sliding scale of social acceptability, cunt is definitely towards the fuck end. –  Benjol Dec 21 '10 at 10:48
    
@Benjol - nicely put! –  CJM Dec 21 '10 at 10:52
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That's what she said. –  Joost Schuur Dec 21 '10 at 10:54

I know it doesn't directly answer the question but there's a great page detailing the origins of the word (and other swear words) here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A753527

Note that the word from the question is most definitely not ubiquitous in the UK. It is usually used to shock people and is considered the worst of the swear words here too, though for reasons unknown to me!

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I was really disappointed with the extreme censorship they chose to impose on the actual words ('b******') and then they say 'Avstronger British term for testicles, which rhymes with 'frollocks''. Have some balls, BBC! (heh) –  Joost Schuur Dec 22 '10 at 13:32

Does anyone know how 'acceptable' the term is in other countries with a large English speaking population (India e.g.)?

It has to do with cultural differences. Cunt (el coño) is used in Spanish slang as fuck is used in English.

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If I remember right, the literal French equivalent con is significantly less offensive — it’s used as a moderately offensive term for idiot. –  PLL Feb 9 '11 at 10:50
    
In my experience, its not commonly used or known in India, at least not as common as the f word. –  Amit G May 12 '11 at 10:33

In Australia, cunt can be used quite freely, especially where it has replaced mate. For example,

Oi cunt ows it goin.

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I wouldn't say that it has replaced the word mate, but I do agree with you in that it has become a very widely used word in Australia, these days... There are now many oft-spoken variations of the term, such as funny cunt, sick cunt, dumb cunt, and mad cunt. Interestingly, the Facebook group '"Oi Cunt" is a perfectly acceptable way of saying Hello' has over 40K members now. –  bracho monacho Jun 30 '11 at 6:50

EDIT: It has been pointed out that the dates in the Google NGram Viewer are highy inaccurate, and my further investigation suggests that particularly applies to the one-year usage spikes cited below. However, I still believe the general trend lines are reasonably accurate.


Interestingly, according to Google's ngram viewer, use of the word "cunt" spiked in British English in 1961 and in American English in 1966. Both spikes were followed by an immediate decline back to the previous year's levels, but the usage in America never recovered to its peak while in England it was close to its 1961 level again by 1970 and has been on a slight upward trajectory since.

I believe in the US in the 1960's, use of the word "cunt" was seen as part of the backlash against feminism and triggered a counter-backlash if you will, which only solidified its place as highly derogatory. That seems to be the general case with derogatory words specific to females. For an extreme example, during the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995, prosecutor Marcia Clark (born 1953) took great exception at being indirectly referred to as "hysterical" by defense attorney Johnnie Cochran because it derives from the Greek word for uterus and thus refers specifically to women. This caught Cochran and Judge Ito (and me) completely by surprise as "hysterical" is not generally thought of as an offensive word or specific to females and its usage has remained relatively constant over the past 50 years, but they accepted her reasoning that a derogatory term applying specifically to women, however mild, was inappropriate to use in court.

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Funny how very, very, very much worse calling someone a “cunt” is than calling them a “dick”. You might get away with saying somebody is a “dick”, but calling them a “cunt” in public in America would subject you to severe opprobrium. You could kiss all hopes of reëlection good-bye, baby. –  tchrist May 10 '12 at 23:39
    
@tchrist, calling a woman a cunt would get you in hot water, but calling a man a cunt would not be much worse than calling him a dick. –  Old Pro May 11 '12 at 0:52
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I suspect what the NGrams are telling you is that Lady Chatterley's Lover, although first printed in 1928, wasn't openly published and freely available in Britain until 1960. I bet even though it had actually been published earlier in the US, it wasn't "freely available" until some time later. –  FumbleFingers May 11 '12 at 1:13
    
@Fumble, I don't know quite what you mean about NGrams and LCL. On the one hand you may be right in that it was a wave of reprints that accounted for the spike. On the other hand, Google pops up Henry Miller's works (originally published before 1955) first in the search results for 1955-1966 but the dates given are between the British and American spikes. It may have more to do with "Human Sexual Response" being published in 1966. –  Old Pro May 11 '12 at 1:30
    
I wasn't paying it much attention at the time, being a bit young, but there was a high-profile courtcase in the UK before LCL became widely available. And even then I probably had to wait a couple of years to read a grubby copy behind the school bike shed (I doubt my parents rushed out to buy us a house copy!). But in speech, the word has always been fairly commonplace in male-only company, from my perspective. I've no recollection of Masters and Johnson even using that sort of terminology, so I'd be surprised if they made much difference to spoken usage at large. –  FumbleFingers May 11 '12 at 1:48

protected by RegDwigнt May 12 '11 at 9:17

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