Four-Letter Words Start Conversations

I get called “babe” a lot.

Sometimes by my significant other, just as often by my friends. Occasionally my dad calls me that, and I even remember my late grandfather using the name with affection when I’d give him a hug goodbye. Many times I use it when speaking to other people, but I’ve noticed I only use it to refer to loved ones who are close to my own age. I can’t imagine calling my dad or grandpa “babe” in return. And yet it’s the same word, used to address both sexes, across generations, and it can have a romantic subtext or merely an affectionate one. This abstract realization of how many different roles the word babe plays in my life got me thinking about a lot of different four-letter words.

If babe is any indication, it would seem that the intent behind a word is often more indicative of its meaning than the definition of the word itself. People who are against PC culture often argue that they can say whatever they want without consequence, and those who are offended are just “too sensitive.” Nevermind the fact that the concept of Free Speech doesn’t mean “free from consequences” of that speech. Ultimately, it’s not the words in and of themselves that are the problem, it’s how those words are used.

Language is so dynamic, and it’s ever evolving etymology fascinates me. Consider the word baby. On the surface that word describes an infant or young child. It can also be used to describe someone as acting juvenile. You might call someone “a big baby” sarcastically, or laughingly because the intent is to tell the other person to get over their issue. (“Suck it up, you big baby!”) That’s why referring to Trump as a giant man-baby always feels appropriate. However, calling someone “baby” can also be a term of endearment, much like “babe.” The difference here, to me anyway, is that I’ll call a variety of different people babe but only significant others have ever earned the moniker baby. And even in that realm it’s a rare occurrence.

Why is that? Baby seems to imply a very precious level of intimacy to me. That’s likely why when a man catcalls me as I’m walking down the street, (“Hey baby, where you going?”), the use of the word baby makes the act even more unpleasant than usual. The stranger’s attempt at familiarity and intimacy ups the creep factor.

On its face, the word bitch seems more harmful than baby, yet I can think of more positive situations where I would refer to a friend as a bitch in a good way, whereas calling them baby sounds insulting or uncomfortable. I’m not even sure if calling a friend “Bitch” in a good-natured way would be considered a profanity. Perhaps the difference is saying it to them versus saying it about them? Saying a woman is being a bitch has an entirely different connotation than using bitch as a term of endearment. But more on that later...

George Carlin had some thoughts on the use of profanities in an interview he gave shortly before he passed away in 2008. When asked about the idea that good comedians shouldn’t have to rely on swearing to be funny, he said: “Why should I deprive myself of a small but important part of language that my fellow humans have developed? Why not use all of what we’ve developed to communicate with?” It’s such an interesting question, and I don’t think there is a definite answer to it.

Obviously, there are some words that just shouldn’t be used. Racist, hateful language with a clear history of having been created specifically to marginalize a group of people needs to be erased from our collective vocabulary. You know the words I am speaking of, and I don’t think Carlin was referring to those words when he said we should feel free to use all that we’ve developed to communicate. Words like that are not “communication”—they are hate, pure and simple.

But what about the rest of the English language? Basic profanities such as damn or fuck have their place; they can be used to extraordinary effect in memorable ways, such as Rhett Butler’s iconic “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn!” or Joan Crawford in Mommy Dearest saying matter-of-factly, “Don't fuck with me, fellas. This ain't my first time at the rodeo.”

Carlin said, “I think there are a lot of sentences where the adjective fucking … sometimes just makes the joke work better. And not because they’re laughing at the word fuck but because including that word may make the language of a sentence more powerful, and it just gets in there better. It just gets in that channel you’ve got open with a harder punch, you know? That’s why people use it in life — because it makes something they’re trying to say stronger; it gives a particular effect.”

Indeed, comedian and host of the TBS show Full Frontal with Samantha Bee was aiming for a particular effect when she called First Daughter Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt” on a recent episode of her show. For context, Bee was discussing migrant children who were forcibly separated from their families at the U.S. Southern border as part of the Trump Administration’s “Zero Tolerance Policy” toward immigration. She then pointed out how in the midst of that crisis, the President’s own daughter saw fit to Tweet a picture of herself cuddling her own child…it was the very picture of white privilege and entitlement. Tone deaf doesn’t even begin to cover it.

At first glance, Bee’s reaction might seem harsh and completely inappropriate. There are scores of other adjectives she could have chosen to express her displeasure with Ivanka, yet she went with a slur considered highly offensive when used to refer to a woman.

And that was entirely the point.

Bee was expressing her outrage, both as an American citizen and as a mother, at the human rights crisis happening in her own country, and highlighting Ivanka Trump’s hypocrisy and callousness. As a comedian, she was going for the highest shock value both for laughs and for dramatic effect. The best comedy, in my opinion, highlights the absurdities of real life and causes subtle introspection in the audience. The best comedians get the audience to laugh and think.

It’s sickening to me that the public discourse in the days after that Full Frontal episode aired was completely focused on Bee’s use of that one word, and not the issue that elicited use of the word. People are more offended by use of the word cunt than they are at the idea of innocent children being ripped from their parents and held in detention centers in a foreign country.

And what is that word anyway?

Obviously, I keep using it in this post because I’m not afraid of it, nor do I think you should be. I was raised to think that word was the dirtiest of the dirty, and I remember my mom physically grimacing when she told me never to use it. She never specifically said that it was a euphemism for a woman’s vagina, just that it was a disgusting word to call a woman. Convinced that this word held all the power in the world to discredit every woman, I remember telling someone who used it in front of me that the very sound of it made me cringe because the word was so gross.

I was mistaken.

Cunt is simply a word, made from four letters in a human-created alphabet. I’m not sure when my thinking on this evolved, but I now wholeheartedly believe that words only have the power that we imbue upon them. Again, I’m not talking about specifically racist words—the power in them is the reason they were created. They exist as part of a systemic agenda to degrade an entire class of people, so those don’t count.

I’m not here to debate the history of the word cunt, the origins of which are murky. In modern parlance, the word refers to women’s genitalia and as such is a slur. Really? That’s the line of thinking here? Vagina = gross and dirty? Of course, it does. [Waves to the lurking Patriarchy.] The Patriarchy wants us to believe that our existence is only acceptable if presented in a very specific way.

From a very young age, women are taught that our bodies are vile. We are told that it should take hours to make us presentable, that only coating ourselves in layers of man-made product will do the trick, that we need to always  suck in our guts, and for god’s sake always smile! If that wasn’t enough, we are told that we are only truly “clean” if our undercarriages are washed and waxed to a plastic sheen. Nature is not good enough...we need that “fresh, clean scent” that only harsh chemicals can provide.

Here’s the thing: I have a vagina, and I don’t think it’s gross and dirty. Women’s bodies are not gross and dirty, and we need to make every effort to change that mode of thinking in society. By continuing to accept that words such as cunt are disgusting and wrong, we only promote the idea that women (or parts of us) are by extension offensive.

Other gendered profanities don’t elicit the same revulsion that cunt does. That’s why I don’t consider this word as having been created specifically to oppress women in the same way that certain other (heretofore nameless) four-letter words were created to oppress classes of people. It has certainly been co-opted for that purpose, but it didn’t start out that way.

Consider bitch, or the various euphemisms for male genitalia such as dick or prick. I’ve never thought twice about using them when an occasion arises—if a driver cuts me off in traffic, or someone else does something particularly low, it might be “a dick move.” And sometimes people act like “pricks.” A synonym might be “ass.” If you are being a jerk, you can just as easily be a prick or an ass.

Interesting fact—type cunt into Urban Dictionary, and the first definition is “the original English word for vagina.” It’s not until you get to the fifth definition on the list that you see it described as an insult for either a man or a woman. Other definitions point out the geographical significance of the term as a gender-neutral insult.

As such, I’m working to take that word back. I want to turn it into a basic four-letter swear word the same as fuck or damn. I want people to use it for emphasis when appropriate—to really highlight a sentence with a verbal exclamation point. Some people may prefer to not use any uncouth language, but no one is truly shocked at the use of shit. No one should be shocked by the use of cunt either.

So yeah, Ivanka tweeting a cutesy picture of her cuddling with her son amid reports that the United States government was forcibly removing migrant children from their own parents at the border (and now does not have a mechanism in place for reunification) might just be something only a feckless cunt would do.

Now I realize there is another side to this. It’s easy enough for me—a middle-class white girl blithely typing away in a coffee shop—to say I’m reclaiming the word cunt with no consequences. I completely realize that there are some who don’t want that word reclaimed. I know some women would rather have it wiped off the face of the earth because it was uttered to them during the worst moments of their life—screamed at them while they were assaulted, raped, or emotionally abused. I’m not blind to the baggage inherent with that word, or with so many others considered problematic.

To that point, the word bitch was and still is used in the course of degrading women. I’ve lost count of the times some random dude has told me to smile, and when I don’t comply, he has called me a “bitch” instead. Scores of women can relate to being called “filthy bitches” by the men who go on to assault them, yet we don’t hear the outcry over that word being used on Primetime television. Where are the petitions to have the actors who utter it fired from their jobs?

Speaking of fired actors, Roseanne Barr recently had a similarly problematic use of language in the public sphere, and hers actually did get her fired. Barr rather bizarrely Tweeted, “Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj.” (“VJ” referring to former Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett, an African American woman). Some wondered why Barr was almost immediately fired from her ABC sitcom after that remark while Bee retained her show, especially when the remarks came within days of each other.

The difference comes back to my original point in writing this: intent. Look at the intent and the motives behind Bee’s use of the word cunt compared to Barr’s comparison of a black person to an ape. (A disgusting juxtaposition that has its roots in slavery.) The former was expressing her outrage and disdain toward an Administration’s racist policies, while the latter was making an openly racist statement for no real reason whatsoever. Samantha Bee has a history of advocating for women and minorities, while Barr has a history of being a racist.

If you don’t think intent imbues a word with more meaning than the word itself, what do you think about Ted Nugent calling Hillary Clinton a “ toxic cunt”? In that case, it was coming from a virulent misogynistic asshat directed toward a woman he felt threatened by…Of course it was offensive! This is the same man who made public threats against then-President Obama; there is no way his comments were not meant to degrade and cause some form of harm. (Cheetolini still saw fit to invite him to the White House as a guest, where he posed for a picture in front of Clinton’s First Lady portrait. Classy.)

If we follow the idea that words are only meaningful because of the intent with which they are said and the context surrounding them, what then does the resulting apologies issued by both Bee and Barr say about their original intentions?

Bee issued a full-frontal apology (see what I did there?) on her show the very next week after the offending episode aired, facing the camera directly and saying “You know, a lot of people were offended and angry I used an epithet to describe the president’s daughter and adviser last week. It is a word I have used on the show many times, hoping to reclaim it. This time I used it as an insult. I crossed the line, I regret it and I do apologize for that.” See her full apology here.

Since the incident, Bee has had the full support of her fellow comedians and late-nights hosts, and TBS also announced that they backed their host. The same cannot be said for Roseanne Barr, who has since issued a number of confusing statements since her May 29th Tweet. She initially issued a subsequent Tweet saying, “Its a joke.” That was followed by a succession of explanations and excuses that include how she was on Ambien when she wrote the offensive Tweet (causing the manufacturers of said drug to quickly assure the public that racism is not a side-effect of Ambien), and that she didn’t realize Jarrett was black. Most recently, Barr sat down with Sean Hannity to explain that she wished she could tell Jarret she was sorry and that she (Barr) wished she had worded the Tweet better. Despite all of that, ABC dropped the reboot of Roseanne mere hours after Barr’s Twitter tirade, saying her “statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values.”

Intent matters. A person’s actions and the context in which they act or speak matters. There are no other reasons for these incidents to be treated so differently. Both were statements made by female television personalities, comedians even, who both have histories of being outspoken. That they should receive such disparate treatment in the court of public opinion speaks not so much to what was said as to how it was said.

Critical thought can take us a long way. Words are meaningless until we shape them with our actions, past and present, and display them in such a way that we either raise the bar of discourse or drag it through the mud.

By the way, while we spent all this time discussing trivialities in the English language, there are still close to 600 immigrant children being held in U.S. detention centers without their families. And lest we forget—many of these are legal asylum seekers, not people who have entered the country illegally. Approximately 400 parents have been deported while their children remain behind and the Trump Administration has no plan in place for reuniting them, going so far as to claim they have no responsibility to do so.

THIS was the issue Bee was trying to highlight, when the American public got distracted by a pointless conversation about four-letter words. Not a meaningless conversation by any stretch, but not the one we need to be having right now. Ivanka, by the way, remains virtually complicit on the subject of family separation. Her only comment when asked about it was that it “was a low point for her.” For her. Also, that was past tense, and this crisis is far from over.

If at any point in reading this article you became upset or offended at anything I’ve said and want to direct your outrage toward something constructive, a great place to start would be the innocent kids still being detained on our southern border. You can find your Congressperson’s contact info here and consider donating to help the organizations working on behalf of immigrant families.