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The infamous C-word

By Anatoly Liberman


Like all word columnists, I keep receiving the same questions again and again.  Approximately once a month someone asks me about the origin of the F-word, the C-word, and gay.  Well, the C-word has been investigated in great detail, and a few conjectures are not so bad.  By way of introduction, I should note that, judging by the examples in the OED, the English C-word was not offensive or at least not always offensive in Middle English.  No combination of sounds appeals to our prurient instincts because of their intrinsic qualities.  To shock or make us blush, they need a certain attitude on our part.  Hoochie-coochie may be funny or indecent, but by itself it is neither “good” nor “bad.”  In such matters, everything is a matter of agreement.  “I am a woman of an unspotted reputation,” protests Clelia, featured in Spectator No. 276, “and know nothing I have ever done which should encourage such insolence; but here was one, the other day,—and he was dressed like a gentleman, too—who took the liberty to name the words lusty fellow in my presence” (quoted by Fitzedward Hall in his book Recent Exemplifications of False Philology. New York, 1872).  The protagonist in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando fainted at seeing a woman’s ankle.  Keep reading and don’t faint.

Words for the genitals and sexual activities have always been tabooed, but not necessarily out of prudery.  Throughout history people have believed that pronouncing the name of a thing aloud can have practical consequences; hence universal belief in curses and charms.  Therefore, for example, the Germanic word for “bear” (= “a brown one”) is the product of taboo.  If you disguise the animal’s real name, the brute, which, of course, knows what it is called (the name was taken for an integral, natural part of everybody and everything that exists), may not come.  All kinds of prohibitions connected with sex are of the same nature: being too open with words may have deleterious effects on health, sexual power, and childbearing.  People would intentionally garble words (transpose sounds in them, coin a rhyming synonym, and so forth; compare gosh, golly, and other euphemisms for god).  Perhaps also thanks to taboo, the same word may designate the buttocks and the vagina (there is less fear to offend the backside than the genitals), though other reasons are not unthinkable: both the anus and the vagina are hollows; compare the much-discussed history of fanny.  In addition, contiguous organs and body parts are sometimes called the same.  For instance, Latin vulva meant both “vagina” and “womb.”  To complicate matters even more, words in question are often borrowed from other languages.  For instance, the origin of poontang is debatable, but it is almost certainly a “loan” from abroad. All this makes an etymologist’s task hard, sometimes even hopeless.

Finally, there are innumerable descriptive and playful names for the genitals.  Is our C**t one of them?  I have looked at Classical Greek, Elizabethan, Modern German, and American students’ names for “vagina, vulva” and compared them with a list collected from the Samoyeds, a Ural-Altaic people inhabiting the tundra lands of the north, and another list from Italian dialects, that is, words used by people having minimal contact with book culture.  The repertory is rich but similar the world over.  The vagina can be “a hole” (with positive or depreciating epithets), any type of orifice, “a slit,” “a crack,” “a sack,”, “a hill” (alluding to the mons Veneris), “a house,” “a vessel” (numerous varieties, including “cup”), “a stove” (a veritable Freudian feast), “a berry,” “a hair house” (hence hairy Mary, bush, and beaver hunting), and “a penis” (with or without reference to the clitoris).  However, having the same metaphor or even the same word for both “penis” and “vagina” is not typical.  I have excluded from my survey such descriptive terms as rosebud and love box and silly formations like fuzzy-muzzy.  Whether all of them have been invented by men is a moot question. It has been observed that the words for “vagina” hardly ever refer to what comes out of it, but only to what enters it; the thought process is directed toward coitus, not procreation.

The most common words for “vagina” in the Germanic languages sound approximately like put, fut, and kut ~ kunt (u frequently alternates with o in them).  An unsolved question is whether they are in any way connected, that is, whether we are dealing with some sort of rhyming slang, taboo, or even variants of fuzzy-muzzy.  As a rule, they are looked upon as three independent words, each of which needs an etymology.  A related question is whether n in kunt belongs to the original root.  Numerous words in Germanic have so-called nasalized variants, that is, n is secondary in them.  Dutch kont (which, incidentally, means both “buttocks” and, in dialects, “vagina”) has a synonym kut.  Engl. cut, now obsolete or dialectal (mainly northern), was defined in the OED as an opprobrious term for women (its synonym is cutty).  This cut ended up as one of the senses of the noun cut “something cut (off),” but it is almost certainly a different word.  The path from cut ~ kut to kunt ~ kont is easier to imagine than from kunt ~ kont to cut ~ kut.  If n is secondary, comparison with Latin cunnus “vulva” (known to English speakers from cunnilingus) becomes impossible.  Also, double n in cunnus needs an explanation.  It has been suggested, on the strength of Greek and Lithuanian cognates, that cunnus goes back to kus-nus. Regardless of the origin of -nn-, Latin k- should have corresponded to English h-. However, this may not be an insurmountable obstacle in dealing with kunt, because if the protoform began with sk-, the k ~ k correspondence is possible, on condition that both Latin and Germanic or one of them lost s- along the way.  Initial s- is unstable in Indo-European, and there is even a special term for it, namely s mobile (movable s).  With so many undocumented steps, an ancient tie between the Germanic and the Latin noun begins to look rather improbable.

The Old English for kin was cynn, with y from u by umlaut (some related words are kind “variety,” kind “generous, warmhearted,” kindred, and German Kind “child”).  Kunt can be related to cynn, only if its -t is a suffix, and Lithuanian gimtis “sex” gives some support to this reconstruction, but there are hardly any examples of a word for “sex” or “birth” yielding the name for “vagina.”  Besides this, it seems preferable not to separate the kut ~ kot group from kunt, thus taking -t for part of the root.  Most likely, the initial form of the word we are exploring was kut- or kot-.  Dutch kut ~ Engl. cut, as noted, mean the same or practically the same as the C-word.  Therefore, I gravitate toward the conclusion that Germanic kunt is indeed a nasalized variant of kut (because of taboo or for expressive purposes).  Given this etymology, kin, along with Latin cunnus, fades out of the picture.  The origin of cut ~ kut may not be too obscure.  It is probably related to Engl. cot (cottage is the same word with a French suffix added).  Dutch kot means “sheep pen; dog kennel; pigsty,” and the English dovecote (which should not be fluttered) belongs with them.  Obviously, we have here the name of an animal house, an enclosure or some elevation above the ground.  If so, our word may once have meant “hole” or “little house,” both being among the most common designations for “vagina” in various languages.  The distant origin of the root need not bother us here.  Dutch kuit “fish roe, spawn,” presumably from “soft mass,” should also stay outside our picture.  The history of Germanic fut ~ fot and put ~ pot is a special story.

My initial idea was to call this post Vagina’s Monologues, but good journalism prohibits using other people’s successful titles like Great Expectations or A Room with a View.  So I confined myself to reproducing a picture of Eve Ensler, a modest tribute to the author of this award winning play.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    Actually kont > kot can be accounted for if you are willing to swallow the assumption that the t was once þ, for konþ- would regularly become koþ-, OE *cuthe, by operation of the Ingvaeonic nasal spirant law.

  2. mick

    Can you tell me why I’m told (by people from the UK) that calling someone a c**t is said to be not a misogynist slur? They tell me it’s not about women at all, and I have no reason to cringe.

    How can the word have two such different meanings?

  3. Cam

    A well-handled and informative article, but the writer of The Vagina Monologues is Eve Ensler and not Ansler as stated.

  4. Andrew

    Actually, German ‘Kotzen’ is (at least in modern German) a verb for ‘barf’ or ‘vomit’. I am not aware of any sexual connotations.

  5. Nicola

    Many thanks Cam. We have addressed the typographical error.

  6. Alice

    Andrew: Thanks for the catch and you’re not the first to point it out. We checked with Anatoly and you’re correct! We’ve removed the sentence so as not to confuse any more readers.

  7. double glazing manchester

    @mick

    The word has two very different meanings and it depends a great deal in the context the word is.

    You can refer to someone “being a c#” means that they are just about as bad a word as you can fathom.

    It can also be used as a sexual reference, ie “I would love to lick your c#” although I really dont know anyone that would like to hear that kind of language.

    Its a very cringeworthy word and is really only used by those that are either extremely annoyed or someone that has no taste whatsoever.

  8. wnf

    “Fuzzy-muzzy” reminded me of “fuzzy-wuzzy”, as in the old nursery rhyme: “Fuzzy-wuzzy was a bear / Fuzzy-wuzzy had no hair / Fuzzy-wuzzy wasn’t fuzzy, was he?” Do you see anything to do with the “c-word”?

  9. mick

    Cheers, double glazing manchester, for your reply.

    I’m aware the word is said (in the UK) to have two different meanings. What I don’t understand is how a person, using it in the first instance …. “being a c#” can explain it as having nothing to do with women. It seems to be yet another way to belittle someone or something by comparing them to something very female.

    How is that line of thinking justified, do you know?

  10. mick

    I was encouraged to post my idea about the use of c**t in modern vernacular in the UK.

    My vague theory relates the usage change to WWII, and people’s propensity for naming inanimate objects.  I’ve read that many jeeps, tanks, airplanes, trucks, etc were named for wives, sweethearts, film stars, and so on. That was an age when it wasn’t unusual for women to be called ugly names when they were perceived to be uncooperative. 

    Have you ever seen someone banging on a motor with a tool and cursing? I think an enormous population of men came home from the war with the habit of calling something thought to be dysfunctional, uncooperative,  inconvenient, or worthless, “oh you c#”.  I also think that the climate  was perhaps more accepting rough language in common speech from the returning troops. I further imagine that if anyone protested, a wide-eyed disingenuous “it has nothing to do with women” was somehow accepted. It was still rough language and not for polite company, but was more prevalent.

    Then (still my imaginings, here) when the modern punk movement happened, the celebration of transgressive and offensive speech became part of pop culture and use of the word as a curse became more widely used.

    I still, in all my thinking about this, can not fathom how this very female word can be explained as “not about women”. I understand very well how words and usage change over time, but believing that excuse is asking a lot.

    The above is, I repeat, a vague theory. The theory has formed because I keep looking for answers and no one seems to know. It’s not that long ago;, and I hope someone with the education and resources to figure it out might point me in the right direction. I would be very grateful.

    Thanks for listening and trying to find information.

  11. [...] The Infamous C-Word [...]

  12. Raketemensch

    I’ve been told that it came from a word for “purse,” but have been unable to corroborate this.

  13. AM

    double glazing,

    You write: “It can also be used as a sexual reference, ie ‘I would love to lick your c#’ although I really dont know anyone that would like to hear that kind of language”

    I actually prefer the word c**t to its clinical sister term vagina, and enjoy hearing my lover use it expressively. When it comes to moments of physical intimacy, I likewise prefer the male C-word to penis. The distinction I make is this: a penis is what a man urinates with, and the other–i.e., that which I would call by a C-word–what he effs with. There is a difference; to my mind, one of turgidness. These words have their place, their own way of calling the imagination and alighting the senses. I am glad of it. :)

  14. [...] with the meaning “fellow, mate, person” (compare the ways of the much more offensive c**t, especially in Canada and Australia). At that time, no one doubted what the word meant. When the [...]

  15. [...] ill luck made them “unpronounceable.” This seems to have happened in the history of the English C-word, and at one time even the F-word was less offensive than it is today. That English learners are [...]

  16. Nigel

    The Latin Etymological Dict. published by Brill (Leiden Uni) puts cunnus back to Indo-European kut-nos = bag, then scrotum or vagina (Welsh cwd = scrotum etc). kut- looks like a t-extended form of the root (s)ku = cover. As for cunt, Bomhard in Reconstructing Nostratic (Brill) suggests a root kung-/kong- = buttocks, rump, anus in Proto-Nostratic (nearly 10,000 years before Proto Indo-European), found in Dravidian (Tamil kunti = buttocks), PIE Kun-kos = buttocks (Czech huzo=rump etc) and kun-t(o) ( eng cunt etc), Proto-Altaic kung-t(o) in Lamut/Even qonna =vulva, Proto-Turkic kong = backside, buttocks etc

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