An Encyclopedia of Swearing: The Social History of Oaths, Profanity, Foul Language, and Ethnic Slurs in the English-Speaking World. Editor: Geoffrey Hughes. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2006.

Cunt has always been a specific term, unlike cock, and has been the most seriously taboo word in English for centuries, remaining so for the vast majority of users. (However, the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang [1994] categorizes the term as “usually considered vulgar,” its general broad formula for words as diverse in their impact as fart and ass.) As is typical of powerfully taboo terms, it has generated a number of variant forms, such as queynte, cunny, and quim, as well as numerous synonyms. This entry focuses first on the word itself and then on the variants.

Astonishingly to modern readers, cunt was used with far greater openness in earlier times in popular, idiomatic, and even technical currency. It is a startling discovery that its first recorded appearance is in Gropecuntlane, an Oxford street name, about 1230. Whether this arresting name was a warning or an encouragement is hard to say, but the term was clearly acceptable publicly. (The name, previously found in other cities, was subsequently changed to Magpie Lane.) Even more remarkable are the recorded personal names of women such Gunoka Cuntles (1219), Bele Wydecunthe (1328), and even men’s names such as Godwin Clawecuncte (1066), John Fillecunt (1216), and Robert Clevecunt (1302). Medieval medical texts such as the English translations of Lanfrank’s Cirurgerie [Surgery] (ca. 1400) and The Cyrurgie of Guy de Chauliac (ca. 1425) use core words now regarded as obscene or grossly impolite as terminology. “In wymmen,” we read in Lanfrank, “te necke of the bladdre is schort & is maad fast to the cunte” (1894, 172). There was even a proverbial saying, drunk as a cunt, apparently the first contemptuous use. The Survey of English Dialects carried out in the 1950s and 1960s showed the word to be still in common rural use for the vulva of a cow.

The first recorded instance occurs well after the Anglo-Saxon period, which ended about 1100. Although there are many ancient cognate Germanic forms, such as Old Norse kunta, Old Frisian, Middle Low German, and Middle Dutch kunte, the word is not general in Old English: Eric Partridge claims that it is recorded once as kunte (Dictionary of Historical Slang, 1937). This paucity certainly suggests a taboo. Furthermore, Robert Burchfield, in an “Outline History of Euphemisms in Old English,” does not mention cunt in the context of Old English at all, observing that “the normal term for the female genitalia was gecyndlic” (1986, 22). Bosworth and Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (1898) has the entry gecyndlim, literally “birth-limb” for “vulva.” During the latter part of the Anglo-Saxon period the extensive invasions by the Scandinavian peoples speaking Old Norse might have provided the source. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that “the ulterior relations are uncertain,” since scholars are divided over the likely but problematic link with Latin cunnus, possibly related to cuneus, “a wedge,” yielding the Romance relatives con (French), recorded from about 1200, and conno (Italian). As Eric Partridge noted: “The presence of the t in the Germanic has long puzzled the etymologists” (1977).

In the course of Middle English (1150-1500) the term became increasingly taboo. It is a plausible speculation that the French title count was replaced by earl in English because of its embarrassing phonetic proximity to cunt. (Both words would then have had short “u” vowels, as in Modern English “boot” and “put.”) In addition to the use in place-names, personal names, and medical texts, there is this remarkable instance from a medieval morality play called The Castle of Perseverance (ca. 1425) in which the character Luxuria (Lust) says: “Mankynde, my leue lemman, I[n] my cunte dou shalt crepe” (“Mankind, my dear lover, you shall take refuge in my cunt,” 1193). This was a well-known play performed all over England. Yet the form is not found in the works of Chaucer, William Langland, Sir Thomas Malory, or Shakespeare.

From the obscene and taboo senses emerge those of vituperative insult. In this domain it figures in the convention offlyting, or ritual insult matches, carried on, curiously, by the Scottish nobility of the early Renaissance. In perhaps the most remarkable of these verbal duels, The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy (1503), Dunbar refers to his opponent contemptuously as a “cunt-bitten crawdon” (l. 50). This translates into “a pox-smitten coward,” a crawdon being a cock that will not fight, thus introducing various contemptuous phallic wordplays.

The term’s currency naturally declined during the Puritan Commonwealth (1649-1660) but had an extraordinary resurgence during the Restoration in the satirical and bawdy verses of the outrageous violator of taboos, the Earl of Rochester (1647-1680), who in “A Ramble in Saint James’s Park” wrote scabrously of “your lewd Cunt…. Drench’t with the seed of half the Town,” followed by “your devouring Cunt.” His “Satire on Charles II” starts with the outrageous chauvinistic claim that “th’ Isle of Britaine” has long been famous “for breeding the best cunts in Christendome” (ll. 1-2). Rochester was not alone: his contemporaries John Oldham, Lord Buckhurst, and George Etherege liberally laced their own verse with extraordinary obscenity. Etherege begins his verse-poem to Buckhurst:

So soft and amorously you write

Of cunt and prick, the prick’s delight.

The notorious excesses of Rochester and his set no doubt provoked the ensuing period of restraint. Although the full form was printed in Nathaniel Bailey (Dictionarium Britannicum, 1730), it was usually euphemized in forms such asc**t (in Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1785), or plain―in Laurence Sterne’s Sentimental Journey (1768), or simply passed over, as it was by Dr. Johnson in his Dictionary (1755). A letter by John Keats mentions a party during which “there was an enquiry about the derivation of the word C—t” (January 5, 1818).

The term became increasingly taboo, not appearing in any major dictionary for over two centuries, until the publication of the Third Edition of Webster (1961) in the United States and the Penguin English Dictionary (1965) in the United Kingdom. The most significant omission was from the great Oxford English Dictionary (1884-1928). However, it should be borne in mind that at that time the word fell under the legal category of “obscene libel.” Even though most standard dictionaries now include the term, a surprising number still do not. These include the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology (1988) and Clarence Major’s Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang (1994). However, the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1994) offers appropriately wide and detailed coverage.

The use of cunt as a term of personal abuse is relatively recent. One of the first, interestingly in an American context, is dated 1860 in Marx E. Neely’s, Lincoln Encyclopedia, which carries this ribald rhyme:

And when they got to Charleston, they had to, as is wont,

Look round to find a chairman, and so they took a Cu—.

(The rhyme suggests an older pronunciation, closer to “cont,” apparent in Rochester, who also rhymed cunt with wontand the abbreviation on’t.) While the OED Supplement (1972) categorizes the sense as “applied to a person, especially a woman, as a term of vulgar abuse,” Random House (1994) is more gender-specific: “a despicable, contemptible or foolish man.” It has two excellent quotations from the 1960s: “You first-class prick … You second-class cunt” (1966) and “Donald, you are a real card-carrying cunt” (1968). In the vituperative semantics of the genital area, cunt has, of course, far more power than cock. Personal insults like the surrealistic cunt-faced, cunt-pensioner for “one who lives off the prostitution of a wife, mistress or even daughter,” cunt-struck for “obsessed with women,” and silly cunt all became current during the nineteenth century. But the most wounding insult remains the plain form “You cunt!”

Most of these usages were previously more current in British English, since the taboo lasted longer in the American variety. However in the past half-century or so many vulgar or obscene formations have started to surface in American English. These include cunt cap for the two-pointed military cap that folds like the labia, cunt-hound for a lecher, cunt-rag for a sanitary napkin, and cunt-wagon, a pimp’s car for carrying prostitutes to customers. Most of these are vulgar or jocular male-to-male locutions. More insulting are the self-explanatory cunt-sucker and cunt-lapper. In other global varieties, cunt has not made any special inroads of the kind just mentioned, largely because the traditional taboos governing the word were preserved in the new speech communities in South Africa and Australia.

Variant forms

As is common with taboo words, cunt has generated a number of variant forms, some of them euphemistic phonetic disguises. These include queynte, quim, cunny, and coney. Queynte is found in the bawdy tale of Chaucer’s Miller and in the Wife of Bath’s risqué memoirs, her Prologue. Nicholas, the philandering lodger of the Miller’s tale, dispenses with the decencies of foreplay in seizing the moment with Alison with shocking directness:

And privily he caughte her by the queynte

And said ‘unless I have my will

For dear love of thee, leman [lover], I spill [I shall die]’

And helde her harde by the haunchbones….

(ll. 3276-79)

This context was sufficiently embarrassing to middle-class sensibilities for Chaucer to apologize in advance. The term appears, however, in the medieval romance Sir Tristam (ca. 1320) in this very coarse context: “Hir queynte abouen hir kne / Naked te kni3tes knewe.” (“The knights had carnal knowledge of her cunt”). The much-married Wife of Bath, a liberated woman in every respect, refers to her own genitalia with an exuberant range of register: the directly tabooqueynte, the coyly euphemistic thinge, the stylish French bele chose, and the pseudo-scholarly quoniam (in Latin meaning “since”). The form queynte survived as quaint, ingeniously used by Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) in his poem “To His Coy Mistress” in the phrase “quaint honour” and in the North of England until the late nineteenth century.

Quim is recorded from the early seventeenth century to the mid-nineteenth, notably in this bawdy Broadside Ballad of ca. 1707: “Tho’ her hands they are red and her bubbies are coarse, Her quim, for all that, may be never the worse.” In hisClassical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785), Francis Grose defined it as “the private parts of a woman: perhaps from the Spanish qemar, ‘to burn.'” In 1847, James O. Halliwell noted in his Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words: “the same as the old word queint, which as I am informed by a correspondent at Newcastle, is still used in the North of England by the colliers and common people.” The word was unlisted in the original OED. Partridge suggested in his edition of Grose the possibility of “a reference to the Anglo-Saxon verb cweman, ‘to please,'” adding that “the word was often used in the Army in 1914-18.” Although virtually obsolete in British usage now, it is listed in dictionaries of slang on both sides of the Atlantic to mean both the female genitals and women as sexual objects in general. Twatcarried the same meaning, generally in slang and substandard contexts, from 1650 onward.

Some euphemistic forms are surprisingly old. It is astonishing to read in Philip Stubbes’s Anatomie of Abuses (1583) that “The word pussie is now used of a woman” (97). Although the meaning is uncertain, it is unlikely that Stubbes, a noted Puritan, would have commented on the usage if it were innocent. A clearer source of innuendo dated 1664 is this mock-heroic toast from Virgil Travestie: “Æneas, here’s a health to thee, / To pusse and to good company.” (However, the OED questioned this interpretation.) After a long period of limited underground usage, the word has surfaced again, more in American usage than in British. It is especially common in African-American currency meaning variously the vagina, women perceived as a sexual object, and as a term in sexual politics, as in pussy-whipped, meaning “henpecked.” In this context Germaine Greer coined the ironic term pussy-power for female manipulation by “wheedling and caressing, instead of challenging” (The Female Eunuch 1970, 126). The global currency is wider than expected: Pidgin English in Melanesia has pus-pus, a reduplicative form meaning “to have sexual intercourse,” while Afrikaanspoes (pronounced as “puss”) is a highly taboo term for the vagina. In an amusingly reticent caution, Professor Nicolas Mansvelt commented in 1884 in his “Proeve van een Kaapsch- Hollandsch Idioticon” (“Examples of the Cape-Dutch Dialect”) that the new arrival from Holland “takes a risk if he addresses a Cape cat.”

Another euphemistic disguise-form is cunny, found in Thomas D’Urfey’s saucy lyric (1720): “All my Delight is a Cunny in the Night” (Pills VI 197). The emergence of this form drove out the old word for a rabbit, namely cony or coney, which had a similar pronunciation and had been in use since the thirteenth century. Although the OED did not include cunny, it did comment on coney: “It is possible that the desire to avoid certain vulgar association of the word in the cunny form may have contributed to a different pronunciation” (as in Coney Island). However, the authority included such punning usages as “They cry like poulterers’ wives, ‘No money, no coney'” (1622, Philip Massinger, The Virgin Martyr II i). A pamphlet in 1652 refers suggestively to “Cupid’s Coneyberie or the Park of Pleasure,” while in its other form the word yielded cunny-warren for “a brothel” and cunny-hunter for “a whoremonger,” before losing its obscene sense. Shakespeare generally avoided the more direct terms, but exploited suggestive disguise-forms like cut, constable(previously and still often pronounced “cunstable”), and country (in Hamlet III ii 116-22), further discussed in the entries for William Shakespeare and Eric Partridge. References to the low countries are invariably bawdy. The taboo against the use of cunt remains strong, but not absolute. However, the older euphemisms queynte, quim, cunny, and coney have generally become obsolete.