A Cross-Cuntry Tour

There are a few very specific words in the English language that ilicit a very emotional response when they are observed, read, or especially heard.  We thinkl of them as “bad” words or “dirty” words or, simply, words that are not very nice.  George Carlin had a fairly famous comedy routine calld “The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” which listed, in rapid succession, the seven words in the English language that Carlin was claiming at the time were too dirty to say on TV.  The words are: shit, piss, cock, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits.  In today’s world, however, we do hear some of these on TV rather regularly. Remember, though, Carlin wrote and presented this list in 1972 and at the time uttering anyof these words on TV was a significant no-no. Naturally there were actually far more words than these seven that were banned from TV and radio broadcasts back in the day.  Carlin’s list is a good guideline, however, and his routine was funny, as was almost everything the man ever said. But I’m not writing this to rehash the Carlin routine or even to discuss these words in depth. Today I want to talk about just one of these seven infamous words specifically.

Let’s talk about ‘cunt.’

Cunt is unique among the “dirty” words in our language in that there is almost no social situation in which it is an acceptable word to say. It is considered vile and offensive (especially to women) in pretty much every conceivable use it could have. No woman is going to say out loud something like, “my cunt hurts,” while the same lady may say something like “I had a D&C last week and my pussy is still killing me.” Okay, neither phrase is exactly classy, but we’d expect to hear one before the other. It’s impolite to use the word for it’s literal meaning (in case you didn’t know, it is vulgar slang for the female reproductive organ), it is impolie to use as a name to call someone (you want to get punched in the face really fast? Call someone or his/her mother a cunt), and it is impolite to even suggest the word exists in most cases. The Vagina Monologues was a huge stage hit while no one is likely to buy tickets to see The Cunt Monologues ever.

We just don’t seem ready toembrace cunt in America.

The British, on the other hand, seem to get a pass when it comes to cunt. It must be something about the accent that lets the word come out with a specific sound of assault that when someone says, “you fucking cunt,” in a British accent, it almost sounds like a term of endearment rather than one of the most offensive things one person can say to another.  Imagine it with a bit of Dudley Moore Arthur-esque drunkeness and you’ll see what I mean.

I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, where the Indian (Apache or Navajo, perhaps, I’m not quite sure which) word squaw was thrown around quite liberally during my childhood. The Phoenix valley has a mountain known as “Squaw Peak” and there is a highway called the “Squaw Peak Parkway.” As a child I was taught that squaw was an Indian word for, simplay, “woman.” It turns out that this may not be the case and in recent years the word has taken on a rather derogatory meaning, with many claiming that it is actually a rather offensive term for the female sex organ. Squaw effectively means cunt, is the general feeling. Apparently it turns out this also may not be true, however, as the Wikipedia entry (and who can we trust to be accurate if not an enclycopedia that can be edited by anybody?) for the word states:

Some but not all Native American condemnation of “squaw” results from claims that it comes from a word for the vagina.

An early comment in which “squaw” appears to have a sexual meaning is from the Canadian writer Pauline Johnson (1892), whose father was a Mohawk chief. She wrote about the title character in An Algonquin Maiden by G. Mercer Adam and A. Ethelwyn Wetherald:

Poor little Wanda! not only is she non-descript and ill-starred, but as usual the authors take away her love, her life, and last and most terrible of all, reputation; for they permit a crowd of men-friends of the hero to call her a “squaw” and neither hero nor authors deny that she is a squaw. It is almost too sad when so much prejudice exists against the Indians, that any one should write up an Indian heroine with such glaring accusations against her virtue, and no contradictory statements from either writer, hero or circumstance.

Explicit statements that “squaw” came from a word meaning “female genitals” gained currency in the 1970s. Perhaps the first example was in Sanders and Peek (1973):

That curious concept of ‘squaw’, the enslaved, demeaned, voiceless childbearer, existed and exists only in the mind of the non-Native American and is probably a French corruption of the Iroquois word otsiskwa [also spelled ojiskwa] meaning ‘female sexual parts’, a word almost clinical both denotatively and connotatively. The corruption suggests nothing about the Native American’s attitude toward women; it does indicate the wasichu‘s [white man’s[3]] view of Native American women in particular if not all women in general.

The controversy increased when Oprah Winfrey invited the Native American activist Suzan Harjo onto her show in 1992. Harjo said on the show that “squaw is an Algonquin Indian word meaning vagina.” As a result of these claims, some Native people have taken to spelling the word sq***, or calling it the “s-word” (Bright n.d.). This purported etymology has been widely adopted as the rationale for removing the word from maps, road signs, history books, and other public uses (Adams 2000).

However, according to Ives Goddard, the curator and senior linguist in the anthropology department of the Smithsonian Institution, this statement is not true (Bright n. d.; Goddard 1997). The word was borrowed as early as 1621 from the Massachusett word squa (Cutler 1994; Goddard 1996, 1997), one of many variants of the Proto-Algonquian*eθkwe·wa[4] (Goddard 1997); in those languages it meant simply “young woman.” Although Algonquian linguists and historians (e.g. Goddard 1997, Bruchac 1999) have rejected Harjo’s proposed etymology, it has been repeated by several journalists (e.g. Oprah Winfrey).

Goddard also writes:

I have no doubt that some speakers of Mohawk sincerely believe that it is from their word ojískwa ‘vagina’ (though I know that other Mohawks laugh at the whole idea), but the resemblance (if there is one) is entirely accidental. “Vagina” was not a meaning that was ever known to the original users of the word, and although it appears in a college anthology published in 1973 (Random House, 2000), it was not widely known before Suzan Harjo’s appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1992.”

Goddard does not rule out the possibility that the false etymology could have been believed by some non-Mohawks and thus does not rebut statements by Native people who trace the etymology to local memories of insulting language (e.g., Hagengruber 2006).

Some anecdotal evidence has also been found by Mohawk linguists that suggests that “otsikwa” may actually be a modern slang term for “cornmeal mush” (referred to by Palmer 2001).”

Interesting. I’m going to continue to think of the freeway in my old home town as the Cunt Peak Parkway, if it’s all the same to you. Better yet, I’m going to refer to it as the Cunt Peek Parkway. That’s sexier.

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