Susie Dent’s Introduction to Swearing: The C-Word

Susie Dent on the origins of the C-word. Not for the easily offended.

Susie Dent's introduction to swearing

Susie Dent on the origins of the C-word. Not for the easily offended.

Intrepid travellers in the 13th century had the opportunity to visit, should they so wish, at least 20 places in England whose name featured one of the greatest offenders in the English language. Setting off from Kunteclive in Lancashire (now Cuncliffe), they could, for example, venture on to Cuntewellegang in Lincolnshire, and Gropecuntelane in Oxford, before landing in Shavecuntewelle in Kent (now understandably known as Shinglewell).

These wayfarers may even have had friends with similar names – Godewine Clawecunte and Bele Wydecunthe are both listed on court and parliamentary rolls from the Middle Ages. Yet none of these would have put anyone off, so how did ‘cunt’ end up becoming what is generally regarded as the mother of all insults? 

‘Cunt’ has meant the female genitals – the vulva, vagina, or whole shebang – right from the start. Its true beginnings are a mystery, although many suggestions have been made, including the Latin cuneus, meaning ‘wedge’, and the more direct cunnus, ‘genitals’ or ‘woman’. 

Those cunty placenames were probably inspired by a cleft, small hill, or wooded valley in their geography, although Gropecuntelane seems to have been a locale particularly favoured by prostitutes and their clients.  Surnames of the time were equally matter of fact, even if the modern mind boggles over what exactly the 12th-century citizen Simon SitbytheCunte got up to.

A woodcut of a brothel

Cunt continued in this neutral fashion for several centuries. Medical texts of the Middle Ages made frequent allusion to the anatomy of the cunt, as in this surgical manual from 1400: ‘In wymmen the necke of the bladdre is short, & is made fast to the cunte’.

On the sidelines, however, its reputation began to sour as women increasingly claimed sexual power, and the word became an insult for a ‘slut’ – or indeed for any woman at all.

It was in these senses that Samuel Pepys used ‘cunt’ in a diary entry: ‘ Mr. Batten..acting all the postures of lust and buggery that could be imagined, and..saying that he hath to sell such a pouder as should make all the cunts in town run after him.’ A year later, ‘cunt’ had become another (male) word for sex: ‘I to cunt am not a foe’, ran a poem of 1664.

Despite this growing potential for offensiveness, dictionaries of the time still tended to print the word in full (though it was often defined euphemistically with a Latin translation, such as ‘pudendum-muliebre’, meaning ‘vulva’).

Wellcome Collection

But by the 18th century, asterisks had become the norm, and even Francis Grose, compiler of the fiercely unsqueamish ‘Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue’, described ‘C**T’ as ‘a nasty word for a nasty thing’.

But there could scarcely be a more powerful rejection of ‘cunt’ than in 1928, when D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was at the centre of a historic obscenity trial.  The story, denounced by critics as ‘the foulest book in the English language’, famously contained ‘30 fucks, 14 cunts, 13 balls, 4 cocks, 3 piss, and 6 shits and arses’. Every member of the jury was strongly advised to ‘keep it firmly hidden’ from their wives.

Cunt’s bite has scarcely changed since, save for the fact that as an extreme insult it has positively flipped gender, so that it is now predominantly used for a man.

Some women are also making attempts to reclaim it, not least because it is more neutral than ‘vagina’ – a word sourced from the Latin for ‘sheath’ which implies that the vagina is simply a receptacle for the penis (the same Latin source of ‘vagina’ also gave us ‘vanilla’, incidentally, because it comes in a pod. Not a couple to mix up).

It may be becoming more popular, but few of us would use ‘cunt’ in polite company – nor many of its derivatives, which include being ‘cunted’ (drunk), a ‘cunt-face’ (a supreme idiot), a ‘cuntsmith’ (a gynaecologist), or even a ‘custard’ (both a cunt and a bastard).

Eight centuries on, its power remains remarkably strong. Language is of course ever circular, and the C-word may yet return to its former innocence.

For now, though, it’s unlikely that poor Bele Wydecunthe will see her name in lights any time soon.

Today we bid farewell to Susie’s brilliant series – and the fortnightly challenge of illustrating it – after her travels through 15 of the English language’s filthiest words. Below is an exhaustive list of Susie’s old-fashioned cusses. Until next time.

Old-fashioned cussing

The F-Word

The T-Word

The B-Word

The S-Word

The A-Word

The Other B-Word

The Other C-Word

A Particularly Useful B-Word

The P-Word

A C-Word but Not That One

The Other P-Word

Talking Pants

Not Quite That C-Word, But Close


  • chrishunsicker74 says:

    One of my ancestors surname was Kuntz. She was admittedly of a Germanic persuasion.

  • philip.talbot says:

    Thanks again Susie, I have thoroughly enjoyed this fascinating series. Incidentally, I am bewildered and annoyed by the use of asterisks in newspapers and magazines – including those whose readership would be almost exclusively adults – in many or all of the words you have written about. Your series proves that they are ‘just’ language that derives from history, no matter their current usage. I think the use of asterisks is pointless and patronising. Everyone, including kids, know what they really say!

  • skbromley4182 says:

    Has to be said, I do have a particular circle of friends where ‘cunt’ is practically a term of affection!

    I always enjoy reading Susie’s articles or columns, always very entertaining. Hope we can look forward to more in the not too distant future.

  • les55619602 says:

    Susie Re.Lady Chatterley’s Lover it may have first been written in 1928 but the obscenity trial against Penguin books that you refer to actually took place much later, in 1960 I seem to remember, and of course when Penguin won the book went right to the top of the bestsellers list. Regards Les.

  • julroyurz says:


  • ningram1000 says:

    Can’t find Shinglewell in Kent, there’s a road in the environs of Erith, and a part of Gravesend is called Singlwell…? Great article BTW.

  • mwarren.ayr says:

    While working in a youth project in one of the less genteel neighbourhoods of Glasgow some years ago I learned that the admonition “I’ll kick your cunt in!” was only ever applied to males. (The equivalent threat for females was somewhat gentler: “I’ll toe your fanny!”)

    I don’t know if it’s just a Glasgow thing, but the c-word can also be used almost as a term of endearment: “Ya daft cunt ye!”

    On a personal note, I find the phrase “fucking cunt” a very unsatisfactory insult The f-word is most effectively used to intensify the noun it precedes, but this simply doesn’t work where the noun is itself considered to be the stronger expletive.

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