I once considered starting a band titled Currently Unemployed, Neither Talented. But it turned out the name didn't disguise my lack of musical ability, and the name got a pretty benign response from my classmates. Interestingly this was when I was 15, back when the word "cunt" seemed passe. But the cultural climate has changed and "cunt" has again become taboo, or certainly more taboo than it was.
To explore this semiotic evolution, and to gauge how Australians in 2019 feel about the word "cunt," I walked around Melbourne asking for opinions.
Catey, 20, student
VICE: Hey Catey, how do you feel about the word "cunt"?
Catey: It doesn’t really bother me when other people say it, but I don’t say it. I don’t have anything against it, but I was definitely told not to use it when I was younger. It was one of those ones where I was told: “nah you shouldn’t use it because it’s mean to girls”.
Does it bother you if you hear someone else say it?
It doesn’t bother me. If someone comes up and says to me “hey how’s it going cunt” I’ll be like, oh, nice. It’s endearing. The equivalent would be girls saying “what’s up bitches” and it would be fine but if someone said “you’re a bitch,” then I’d obviously take offence.
Do you feel offended when someone else uses it?
Yeah I mean of course if someone is having a go at me, even when someone calls me an idiot I’m like, “oh haha… wait excuse me?” But like any word, it carries meaning only in the context.
Nathan, 32, bartender
Hey Nathan from Wales, how do you feel about the word ‘cunt’?
Why is that?
Any way you look at it, I think it’s inoffensive. It’s the kind of term that has no real meaning except when you’re calling somebody a mate, like in Australia it’s a mate term. In the UK though they use it as a derogatory term and I don’t understand why. The connotations of the word are to do with female genitalia right? So why the hell should that be an offensive word?
Totally. So do you think it’s used more as an ‘arking up’ term over in the UK then?
Well, I don’t know what that means…
Arking up? Oh! Do you think the word cunt riles people up?
Oh yeah!! So in Australia, people say it all the time, where I’m from you don’t say it. I worked in a factory of over 1,000 men in South Wales, full of rugby culture, so the banter there was extreme to say the least. But if I said to one of the guys at work, if I called him a "cunt," that would be one step too far. It's just way too much to use the word "cunt" over there.
Right so there’s a fighting culture around the word over there
Yeah! You just don’t call someone a cunt.
Do you think that’s gendered?
No… I think everyone takes offence massively. Men will use the word in the UK but women won’t even say it. You wouldn’t say it in front of a woman in the UK, it’s a really severe word. But I don’t see why.
Do you use it more here in Australia than you did back home?
I was the guy that used to say it back there, but never in a derogatory sense, I’d say it the way Aussies do. I used to say it and laugh at people's reactions and think "why are you so offended?" It’s just a word. When people say “oh I don’t mind people swearing but just don’t use the C-word” I’m like, What? Why? A word is a word right. It’s the connotation behind a word which is offensive, it’s the meaning of what you say.
Niamh, 21, student
So the word of the day is cunt. How do you feel about that word?
Oh cool! I say it too much I think, like I said it probably five times this morning getting ready, and then at lunch. It’s bad.
Do you actually think it’s bad?
I’m just worried that people might misinterpret it as me using it, not as a filler word but, I just kind of say it and I don’t actually mean it in any good or bad way.
Do you know the roots of the word?
Yeah I know it comes from a pretty misogynistic place, but then I’m like, shouldn’t I get to use it then?
Right, so you’re taking a more feminist stance on it
Yeah. It also depends on how you say it, and who is saying it to who, like if someone was having a go at me I’d take offence. But like any word, it carries meaning in context as opposed to the word being offensive as it is.
Gabe, 27, bartender
So Gabe, how do you feel about this word
I think it’s the same as growing up and saying fuck, like you would just use it because you’d heard it but then it gets to this point where you realise how versatile the word is.
Have you ever gotten in trouble using the word?
Yeah, in America I got in some trouble. The thing is, it’s still not widely used in other countries. It’s only recently we’ve started seeing it used in film and hearing songs that are using the word and that’s really huge, but it’s still definitely less accepted as a word you can say at any point. Especially in the US, they use it in a completely different way over there. They really mean it as an insult.
Would you ever intentionally use it as a cuss against someone?
Yep, I have yeah. Never a woman, I don’t think that’s ever a situation I’ve been in. But I’ve found that if I articulate the word in a certain way to anyone, that it means a completely different thing to the person I’m talking to or about. Like when you really accentuate the un bit, like “nah he’s a cuunnnt” it means such a different thing. It’s all about how and when you use it.
What makes this four-letter word the worst?
The big thing for me is how it’s articulated. It can be that thing of, someone you don’t like and you say “urgh, this cunt.” or it can be someone you really like and you’ll smile and say “awww this cuuunt!” you know!
Kate, 29, administrator
How do you feel about "cunt," kate?
Well I never say it just because I’ve never really thought of it in a nice way I guess?
I don’t really feel like it has any nice connotations anyway. It just doesn’t come into my vocabulary at all.
Do you feel jarred when someone says it?
I guess it depends on the context. I’ll feel jarred if it’s said in a really hateful way, but I’ll feel less jarred if it’s said in a really joking way like how some of my friends say it. You know, they’ll throw it out in a really chill way. That said, it can be used with a lot of spite and anger.
How do you feel when you see the word used in the media?
I don’t think it’s appropriate, but then again it’s a bit of a buzz word, and people want to try and relate to younger readers, so they’ll drop it in there. I’m a bit of a prude—I swear, but I don’t use that word. I think I’ve just been brought up to find it a little bit insulting maybe? But I don’t know why.
Are there ever times you embrace it?
I’m a big fan of Sex And the City and they use that word in a few episodes about the female body, and in that light, I can kind of appreciate it. But I think because it has been a negative word, it would take a while for it to penetrate my vocabulary because it hasn’t been historically used in a positive way. I just feel very shocked when people use it.
Lucy is on Twitter