“Bad” Words

** Warning! Contains words!!**

So remember that time over on Insatiable Booksluts when some asshat named Mitch commented on a post, called them cunts and then closed with “all the best” which led to a week long celebration of all things cunty and reclamation of the word cunt?

That happened.

I may be too excited about this. It's possible.
I may be too excited about this. It’s possible.

And remember how I got an Insatiable Bookslut Comment award for my response to his coming back on the site and calling them “dikes” (his spelling is apparently on par with his social skills)?

Cuz that happened too.

And although over at the blog cuntweek is over (sad!!) the discussion DOES NOT NEED TO STOP!!

So lets talk about words, shall we?

Words are cool. I mean, OBVIOUSLY.

I remember learning about the concept of “bad words” for the first time and being really confused. There were these words that essentially meant the same thing as other words, but these words were okay to say, and those words were “bad” and I was never supposed to say them- EVER. God would be sad if I said those words. Not just my parents– GOD.

confusedAnd I was really confused.

Like, REALLY confused.

How could something as awesome as words be BAD??????

I followed the rule (I mean, for a while…I don’t anymore) but I didn’t understand it. And maybe all that was a good thing, because it led to my fascination with words. Especially swear words.

Like why in Britain “fanny” is a dirty word for vagina and in the U.S “fanny” is an old-fashioned word for buttocks that your grandmother uses.

And how in Shakespeare plays calling someone a “cuckhold” is really really rude but when you learn it in English class you’re all like “…. ummm… okay?”

Cuz here is a little secret: words only have the power that we give them.

No really. It’s true. Words mean certain things because at some point somebody decided that’s what the word would mean and then it got used enough that other people started using it with the understanding that it means what the person decided it means and then it means that thing that it means. No two words mean exactly the same thing, and at the same time one word can mean lots of different things. Each word is loaded with particular nuances depending on the context.

Like how “nice” and “kind” mean two different things.

How, depending on the context “I’m sorry” can mean “I feel remorse for causing you physical injury” or “I empathize with the emotions you are feeling and want to help ease your discomfort.”

How “vagina” and “lesbian” are descriptive terms, while “cunt” and “dyke” are insults.

Except not always because sticks and stones and shit, and that’s how we get into reclamation.

So while Mitch decided to throw the term “cunt” at the writers of the blog Insatiable Booksluts as an insult, they decided to catch it and toss it around like a friendly beach ball. And by doing that they took the power away from Mitch and claimed it for themselves. Awesome.

And started a conversation about the word and where it comes from and what it means and why it is that it’s the dirtiest of all swear words. And while that probably doesn’t cure the underlying bitter hatred of misogynistic bullshit entitlement that are behind the use of that word, it hopefully makes a few people think more about it.

And thinking is good. I’m a fan of thinking.

For instance, I think there’s nothing more ignorant than the “so you can call each other [insert derogatory term here] but I can’t? How racist/sexist/unfair is that?” argument.

Because, yeah– I can say cunt, and refer to myself as a cunt, and some of my good female friends could playfully call me a cunt, but my guy friends? Nope. Even the gay ones? NO WAY! Because I have a cunt, and they don’t. So they don’t get to re-appropriate that word. Seriously it’s that simple. They are not a member of the club, so they don’t get the secret password. And how I can say dyke and my queer friends can call me a dyke, but my straight friends? Nope. Because of history and current events and baggage. Even my good straight friends, even the ones that I know are totally down with my sapphic self. Nope, they don’t get to either. Except my brother to whom I’ve given special permission. And even then only with me. Cuz other dykes have not given him permission.

And the thing is that we all do this. It’s the same as how I can call my brother a nerd, but if you call him a nerd I will punch you in the face. Because he’s my brother. How I can make fun of sopranos because I am one but if you do it I will punch you in the face. Because you’re not one. And maybe it’s not “fair,” but you know what else isn’t “fair?” Differences in privilege based on the circumstances of your birth and a whole host of other factors. That’s what isn’t FAIR.

Okay, okay, maybe that was a little harsh, because we all have our own journey and even I did not use to be as comfortable with these boundaries and rules as I am now. In fact,  the real beginning of my journey of understanding the nuance and the power of words and identity came from a conversation I had with a bunch of 13 year olds.

I used to teach middle school. Nearly all my students were either black or Hispanic, which I only mention because it’s directly applicable to this story. One day in class we got into a discussion about words and terms, like ‘black’ versus ‘African-American’ and ‘Hispanic’ versus ‘Latin@.’ I have no idea how. This particular class was comprised of students that I had taught for three years and so we knew each other really well. So since the discussion was leading there and I felt comfortable enough with this particular group of kids, I asked them flat out what they preferred a white person (me) call them– African-American or Black?

Some preferred one, some preferred the other and they all had insightful reasoning for their choices. “I’m not black, I’m brown, so its just a stupid term,” was one reasoning. “I’ve never been to Africa, so why should I be African-American?” was another. I listened and observed as they debated among themselves. As the discussion wore on, there began to be a consensus, at least directed toward me and an answer to my question. It was that if I used either term with them that would be okay because they knew me and they knew that I meant it in a respectful way. “It’s all about tone of voice,” one kid said and they all agreed. There was a difference between saying, “he’s black” and “he’s black” and that difference made all the difference. One student went so far as to say, “you could even call me a ******, and I wouldn’t mind, because we’re cool.” I told him that I would never ever feel okay about using that word and he smiled and said, “Yeah. I know. That’s why if you did, it would be okay.”

And as much as it is about context and tone of voice, it’s also about baggage. Some of those kids had really bad experiences being called one term or another and so that word carried baggage with it. While they acknowledged that I, or anyone else had no way of knowing the exact baggage that word had for them, they also acknowledged that they reacted badly to it.

This I understand.

I don’t actually have a whole lot of baggage with dyke, because by the time anyone was hurling it at me in anger I had totally already owned my dykiness so I’m all like “yeah? so?” But “slut”– that word makes my blood boil. And even though it’s probably a couple rungs down on the insult totem pole from dyke and cunt, I get RUHL ANGRY when that one gets used. Cuz me and “slut” we got some major history. Some really important people in my life have used that word like a knife to cut me deep. So I react RUHL BADLY when it gets tossed around.

So what’s my point? I dunno really. Except that words are cool and now that I’m no longer in school and suddenly have some of this mythical “free time” on my hands I’m going to start a series where I look at sensitive words and try to unravel them a bit. To understand. Because understanding is good.

So y’all tell me! What words hit your pressure points? Curious Lezbrarian is curious.


6 thoughts on ““Bad” Words

  1. I’m reminded of a Scrubs episode (the very first one, actually), where J.D. and Turk have this conversation:

    J.D.: You know how I’m totally down with the rap music?
    Turk: Dude, be whiter.
    J.D.: Here’s the thing: TuPac, DMX, Dr. Dre, in most of their songs, these artists use an extremely volatile racial slur…the “N” word.
    Turk: I got it.
    J.D. Right. My question is this: If we’re both singing along, and knowing that otherwise I would never use the word, am I allowed to say…
    Turk: No.
    J.D. See, that’s good for me to know.

    On another note, I’m still trying to convince my mom that I’m not insulting myself when I call myself a nerd (“literature nerd,” etc.) or geek (“Labyrinth geek,” etc).

    1. I get that too! I’m constantly saying “well because I’m a huge nerd” and people go, “awww no you’re not!” And I’m like.. no no that’s a good thing. I own my nerdiness!

      And yeah, I think one of the biggest barriers to talking intelligently about sensitive issues is knowing what words to use, and if you never have someone that you can honestly ask “is this okay?” then it can be really hard to learn those rules and then the fear of not knowing the rules keeps us from having any discussion at all.
      Yay Scrubs!

      1. …the fear of not knowing the rules keeps us from having any discussion at all. Yes. That’s exactly how I feel sometimes. I mean, I know what words are definitely not ok for me to use, but then there’s everything in the gray area, like “African American” vs. “black.” I’m never really sure which one, if either, is more appropriate. “Colored,” doesn’t feel right to me — I feel like any time I’ve heard it used, it seemed condescending. Besides the obvious point that everyone’s skin has a color.

        It can all feel very complicated.

        And yay Scrubs, indeed! 😀

  2. I’m feel a bit conflicted and circumspect about writing what I will say next, because I’m not a caveman, I’ve never used the word in anger at a woman (weirdly) and wouldn’t dare to, but…

    I really like the word “cunt.”

    I don’t like its derogatory associations and I really wish that it just meant the equivalent of “horrid stupid shit-eating jackass,” but we all know that’s not the case.

    It’s just that the noise of it, the way the T sort of clicks against my teeth when I say it, is viscerally satisfying – like a chunk of rage spat out.

    Anyway, I’m adult enough that I will try and avoid using that word… Luckily I have a little stable of also-rans:



    I think gobshite might get some more use from now on.

    Cheers for the article,


    1. I have to agree with you– cunt does feel good in the mouth (hehe). But yeah, the hard “k” sound, the gutteral “uh” the “t” at the end. It’s expressive and biting. Which is all, perhaps, partially why it conveys so much emotion when used.
      I also like twat. The wide “a” the “t” sounds on either side. It’s a good word.
      Also Wanker. I need to use that word more. Thanks for reminding me of it.
      Probably my favorite “bad” word is fuck, simply because it can be any part of speech. Noun, verb, adverb adjective, conjunction– fuck works for all of them. And that’s just handy.
      But yeah, enjoy the sound of cunt in private and continue refraining from using it toward women. Or men, really. Or anyone. Maybe someday we’ll have a better grip on this whole language thing.

      1. Ah, there’s also that Atlantic language barrier; in an English accent everything is more clipped and words like twat end in a glottal stop, rather than a T sometimes. Just makes all these lovely ugly words sound nastier.

        Another word to look out for is “berk,” which should, given its origin, be pronounced “bark,” but isn’t. Worth looking up the origin of this little sneaky one.

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