Why is there one word that seems to be the worst of all?

Why is there one word that seems to be the worst of all? Photo: istock

A slip of the tongue was all it took for the good people of Australia to have their decency utterly destroyed. Like a rogue missile, the C-bomb was dropped onto the heads of every The Project viewer as host Carrie Bickmore mispronounced Qantas. And this is a problem because we all know there’s one word you just cannot say on public television, and it’s that word. The C-word. The Lady-Bit Label. The vile, disgusting, utterly offensive descriptor of vag that is not OK in company when dickheads are fine, cockheads standard issue, and few people crack the shits over bitch. But don’t you dare trot out ol’ see-you-next-Tuesday and expect to get away with it – especially if you happen to own one!

But here’s the thing: It doesn’t seem like people are that outraged.

Have we finally come to terms with c***?

(Dear Lord, I hope so.)

Network Ten had no complaints as of yesterday. Media critic Dr Mumbo doffed his cap. Most of the Twitter talk was positive (despite the ‘bog snorkelling feedback’ anticipated on the show’s official feed), and Aussie mummy-blog-cum-women's-super-site Mamamia wrote simply that “the fabulous Carrie Bickmore had a little word fumble”.

However, almost in the same breath, this cute word-fart was described as the “most-hated swear word of all time” – raising that old chestnut about why these four letters are considered most foul? Why is the c-word the worst word of all? (Or for some, why are we talking about this at all?)

Because beyond Carrie Bickmore, now is a good time to have this discussion: As Lindsay Zoladz in Slate points out, thanks to Pussy Riot, words pertaining to female genitalia are back in the spotlight. And thanks to Julian Assange, censorship and the power of words are concepts having a bit of moment – why, yesterday I even wondered aloud whether I’d even be able to publish the full, un-asterisked word in this very blog entry.  As you can see, the arbiters of good taste here at Fairfax say no ...

And that’s the point.

Why? Why is this word not allowed when so many others are?

Forget Pussy Galore, it’s pussies we abhor (and by ‘we’ I mean the patriarchal arbiter of Good Taste), one strand of feminist thought thinks. (Note: Not me, and certainly not me about aforementioned arbiters who are all lovely gentlemen and ladies.) According to this school, the problem society has with the c-word reflects a male-dominated society which has bred a culture that sexualises women, yet is terrified of their sex and so dominates through hate. In other words, tabooing the c-word is just another form of feminine oppression.

Then there’s the view which better reflects the editorial decision made here before you. Fairfax has a style guide, and style guides are perfectly wonderful tools for consistency, order and, well, taste. According to our official book “vulgar words do little for our papers”. And there’s nothing wrong with finding offence with vulgarity – vulgar things are ugly and so they offend by definition.

But that forces the awkward question:

Is it the thing the word describes which is offensive, or is it simply the word?

For my part, I don’t use the word. I don’t like to swear, if I can help it, though I often can’t. My reasons for this stem from a general notion swearing is simply what you do when you don’t have anything clever to say – I’d rather be verbose than vulgar. But I don’t think that there should be a reason this word is considered any more offensive than others. I certainly don’t like the culture of vagina/women-hate it often lends itself too.

How about you?

Do you use the word? Why/why not? And is it good or bad that we appear less concerned when it makes an appearance on primetime television?

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kfeeney@fairfaxmedia.com.au