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Monthly Gleanings, February 2012, part 2

By Anatoly Liberman


The Infamous C-Word. This is the letter I received soon after the publication of the post devoted to our (formerly) most unpronounceable word: “…I am writing to ask you if you have run across it [this word] as a nautical term. I am a former sailing ship mariner (a.k.a. “tall ships”) and sailmaker and currently maritime historian/editor for the National Maritime Historical Society. I have always understood that the word c**t in our slang usage comes from the nautical term for the groove between the twisted strands that make up rope. That groove is called a cuntline or just cunt for short. I used to teach undergraduates maritime history and literature aboard wooden traditionally rigged sailing ships on semester-at-sea programs, and they were always shocked to learn that cunt was a legitimate nautical term to use. It gets worse because when you teach slope splicing, you have to show them how to insert a wooden fid between the cunt to open up the strands. You can just imagine their faces. In any case, I did not see this come up in your column and thought that, if there is a chance you hadn’t heard this variation, you might like knowing about it.”

I am aware of another nautical term, and, if it has anything to do with the one under discussion, its etymology stops being a riddle. Cunt may have begun its life in English as cant. Under cant, The Century Dictionary lists “a ship’s timber or frame near the bow or stern whose plane makes an acute angle with the vertical longitudinal plane of the vessel” (hence also a corresponding verb). The OED gives a slightly different definition: “A piece of wood laid on the deck of the vessel to support the bulkheads, etc.” Apparently, this cant also has a variant rhyming with runt rather than rant. Alongside cuntline, there is cantline, though here again the senses do not match. Cantline “the space between the sides or ends of barrels where they are stowed side by side.” Cantline, also spelled contline, has a synonym cutline. Is it possible that we are dealing with two descendants of the same etymon? Cant “ship’s timber” goes back to cant “edge, border,” a borrowing from Middle Low (= northern) German or Dutch. In case cunt “splice cut” also descends from German kant (Kant), the term retained its original German pronunciation in sailors’ language either because this way it kept its distance from all other borders or because the association evoked by thrusting the fid into the splice cut was too obvious to miss. I am sorry if I found myself in a position described in Mark Twain’s short story “How I Edited an Agricultural Paper.” Be that as it may, cunt “splice cut” is not the source of its much older homophone meaning “vagina”; it must have been the other way around.

For my database I have screened the entire run of The Mariner’s Mirror. To the best of my knowledge, the word c**t has not turned up in any of its numerous articles and notes on the origin of special terms. As to the students’ embarrassment, I can draw on my own experience. For many years I taught English to foreigners. Adults were not sure whether to laugh or feign indifference when they came across poop “the stern of a ship,” while schoolchildren blushed vigorously at learning the words male screw and female screw, especially those who also knew the meaning of the verb screw.

Another correspondent (this time from Canada) wonders why the C-word is so often used with the pretense that it “doesn’t have anything to do with women.” This situation is especially typical of Canada and Australia. In both countries, c**t turned into a synonym for guy and even thing; it has become unisex. Perhaps this is the result of overuse; c**t has become a unisex noun. Other than that, there are three attitudes toward the word. Some people never let it pass their lips. God bless them. I am not a prude, but in my experience, those who revel in foul language do so because they command a minuscule vocabulary. To make up for the poverty of their “word hoard,” they ask where the f***ing car key is and how they will now open the f***ing vehicle. Virility oozes from them at every syllable. Such people usually have little to say and rarely find themselves at the center of attention. Swearing, they hope, will make them conspicuous (this is a mistake; they have too many competitors). Later the impulse becomes a habit, like adding you know to every statement or inserting like into a sentence three times. Other people use the C-word to offend or (this happens to many words with negative connotations — compare you rascal) as a term of rude endearment — a common case in some parts of England. Finally, feminists have “reclaimed” the C-word, for, indeed, why should one be allowed to say dick or prick and not c**t? Impeccable logic. Also, since so many men’s first name is Dick (and there is a family name Dicks), in my opinion, the time has come to empower our newborn girls and begin calling them correspondingly. Imagine the twins or husband and wife called not Jack and Jill, with their almost inaudible obscene overtones, but Dick and Cunt Dicks. Cool!

Gay “rubbish.” The word gay was (and, unfortunately, is) a common term of abuse among young males. This is the origin of the slang sense our correspondent is asking about. Compare: gay stuff “cheap, second-rate stuff.” I have often heard such phrases from boys aged thirteen and older.

Subjunctive? In one of my posts I quoted sentences in which would was used instead of will in subordinate clauses. Our correspondent suggested that the subjunctive is meant in such cases. I am not convinced and still ascribe this usage to the collapse of the old rule of the sequence of tenses. We read: “The Obama administration has said it would eliminate two of four Army combat brigades in Europe….” Surely, the idea of this statement is not: “The Obama administration has said it might ~ would like to eliminate….” The writer (as I think) knew that in subordinate clauses would is sometimes needed but did not realize that would is expected to follow the preterit, while has said is a form of the present perfect. He or she (“they”) may never have studied grammar at school (see below). By now the sequence has…would has become formulaic in press rooms. Cf. “Russia has long feared the system would compromise its nuclear deterrent.” This usage seems to have partly effaced the difference between will and would elsewhere. From The New York Times: “Obama would not lay down new red lines on Iran, even if he discussed them with Netanyahu, administration officials said…. And he is not ready to accept a central part of Israel’s strategic calculation: that an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be warranted now to stop it from gaining the capability…” The second would is acceptable, but why would not lay down?

Old and New Bad Jokes.
(1) “Our brave troops often cannot decipher whom the enemy combatants are….” “Whom Is Whom.”
(2) If they think my client is going to quietly go away, that’s not going to happen.” An elegant sentence, but, no doubt, to go or to not go away quietly, to be or to not be is often hard to decide.
(3) “I said, you know, if you go this route, you’re going to severely damage our relationship….” Another elegant sentence from an official high up in the hierarchy.
(4) “But he said that [he] only catches about 75 percent of counterfeit bills, so the staff learned to also hold bills up to a light.” (See a picture of delicious split-pea soup below.)

Yellow Split Pea Soup. Photo by Qfamily.

Good News and Bad News. “There is a growing conviction in the public mind that every system of liberal education should include a philological study of the English language”; printed in The Nation for 1879 (p. 384). In the meantime, grammar has been found to lack the indispensable element of educational fun and abolished as part of school curricula.

A student writing to a newspaper says about prestige: “The word itself conjures up all sorts of images — success, wealth, fame, authority. But the most interesting connotation it holds is that of conjuring itself. The entomology of the word, according to Merriam-Webster…” I hope “the word itself,” along with its entomology, will never bug the writer.

From another letter to a student newspaper: “I recently went out of the country on a group trip, and I met a guy that I really like. We had a really great time, but he lives on the East Coast, and I don’t really know how he feels about having a long-distance relationship [the writer studies at the University of Minnesota]. I really want it to work out between us because he has a lot of qualities I look for in a guy…. We talk a lot on Facebook, and I recently brought up that I really like him and felt that we had a really great connection on the trip…” It is a complete unity of content and form that impresses one here. The writer asks the newspaper what she should do next. Really!

“There is a growing conviction in the public mind….” Is there?

PS. I received a question about the origin of the word winter and will devote a special post to it. I also expect to address the comments on dude in the nearest future.

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 [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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  1. […] suggest that the question should be tabled” and in simple sentences like “God bless America.” In several of my recent postsI expressed my dismay at seeing would in sentences like “Gov. XX recently made a […]

  2. […] the word is not listed in my edition of the OED, it did make an appearance on the OUP Blog back in […]

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