The C Word: The Most Taboo Term in English

There is still one word I can never bring myself to say in front of my mother.

Even here, I'll have to punt. That's because it is the rudest, crudest, most taboo term in the English language, the superstar of four-letter words. It is a radioactive epithet, guaranteed to get you a trip to HR and maybe even a slap in the face. It was at the heart of the controversy over Lady Chatterley's Lover, and it helped get Tropic of Cancer banned. The plot of Atonement, Ian McEwan's lovely and devastating novel, pivots on the term. (In the movie, the word is never spoken, but the camera zooms in as the protagonist pounds it out on a typewriter.) When a book alleged that John McCain had once called his wife Cindy one, the outrage was bipartisan.

But is the C word losing its bite? It seems that way to me. A few weeks ago, it appeared for the first time on the front page of The Guardian, the 188-year-old British daily. The paper was reporting on the latest misdeed of Jeremy Clarkson, host of the BBC show Top Gear, who called Prime Minister Gordon Brown one, although the comment wasn't broadcast. The Guardian deemed the story newsworthy because of Clarkson's popularity, and because he'd earlier gotten into trouble for calling Brown "a one-eyed Scottish idiot." (Hard to say which charge is worse, though the one-eyed bit did make me laugh.) Guardian readers, it seems, are hard to shock. The paper got only around 17 complaints from readers, and its readers' editor, Siobhain Butterworth, noted in a column that most quibbled with the fact that the paper spelled out the word in full, rather than using the hangman's game most publications (including NEWSWEEK) play when running naughty words.

To be fair, Brits seem far more comfortable dropping the C bomb than we do. The Guardian has already printed it 61 times this year, according to Butterworth, though not on the front page and nearly always in a quote. But even on this side of the pond, the C word doesn't pack the same punch it used to. If a politician uttered a racial epithet, rather than an offensive synonym for vagina, it would be an instant career-ender.

I have to admit, I use the C word on occasion, as do the sassiest of my female friends. Part of the appeal is its ability to shock, of course, in a way that few words still do. As with all curse words, however, frequency makes the heart grow harder. If you hear it enough, you get used it. That's certainly been the fate of the formerly shocking F word. I remember vividly as a child the first time I heard my father say it (I was blasting Alvin and the Chipmunks at 5:30 a.m., so no apology necessary), but I couldn't tell you the last time I heard it, because it has become such a familiar part of the ambient hum all around us.

Yet as the proud owner of the anatomical bit derided by the word in question, I have begun to wonder why we ever got so worked up about it in the first place. Why has it retained the power to outrage when other coarse language has found its way onto the playground? The C word has been in use since at least 1230, according to the Oxford English Dictionary online, when it referred to a street name, Gropecuntelane (bet I can guess what went on there). It has gradually been finding its way into mainstream American culture since the 1970s. Think of Travis Bickle's rant in Taxi Driver, Hannibal Lector's delightful salutation to Agent Starling, or the last words Adriana heard before being shot to death on The Sopranos. And don't forget Citizens United Not Timid, best known by its acronym, a Hillary-bashing group that got media attention during the last campaign.

It's true that nicknames for male genitalia are myriad, and often pretty amusing, but none is as offensive as the C word (certainly not that other C word, a piker by comparison). The derogatory term for vagina just seems so foul, so dirty, so ... down there. But wait: isn't the perfectly neutral word "vagina" enough to send most men screaming from the room? Our aversion to the C word may simply reflect our cultural aversion to the C. "The suggestion is that, from the Middle Ages through to the 19th century, and perhaps beyond, men have feared the unknown quality of a woman's sexuality, most specifically her ability to deceive when it comes to conception," writes linguist Ruth Wajnryb in Expletive Deleted. She adds that since "the c--- is the place where deception and betrayal transpire ... the male ego would feel sufficiently threatened to need to deride and denigrate the female quintessence." Plus, I hear some of them have teeth!

For decades, such feminists as Germaine Greer have advocated reclaiming the C word, in a take-back-the-night kind of way. While I'm all for this, efforts to redeem loaded words can be problematic, as we've learned from the N word. Besides, most women just don't seem to have the stomach for it. Our best effort to date might be Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues. However, as Guardian columnist Zoe Williams pointed out in a 2006 column about the play, Ensler wimped out because "the controversial word is not vagina, but c---." (Williams, my new hero, did not use dashes.) "A correlative would be if the gay-rights movement had started out reclaiming 'queer,' and only claimed credit for reclaiming 'homosexual,'" writes Williams. "The mistake feminists make, when they object to the C word is to think that it will slip discreetly out of the language."

It won't, of course. And even though I question our squeamishness about the C word, I don't believe we'll be using it willy-nilly, at least not anytime soon. Despite my secret affection for the term and the women who say it, I just can't bring myself to type it out here—and not just because NEWSWEEK, a family brand, helps pay for my daughter's expensive private school. It's still just too powerful, too offensive to too many. And besides, my mom might read this.