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The offensive word to rule them all?

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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  • i almost never swear but don't see it as much of a problem either but have to admit i don't like it a ongoing habit.
    after all, actions speak louder than words

    Victorious Painter
    Date and time
    August 31, 2012, 6:47AM
    • I guess if i call someone a bastard it is quite tame. A-hole ramps things up a bit but c--- is in another league again. If someone is being a c--- they are being as bad as people can get. It's the pinnacle of abuse.

      Date and time
      August 31, 2012, 9:26AM
    • @gypsy: Really? The pinnacle of abuse? Worse than racial slurs, or physical/sexual abuse? What about in feminist writings, where it is used as a synonym for vagina and isn't used as an insult?

      It's all about context. Unfortunately, context is often missing in the era of the media soundbite, despite it also being the information age, where full context is only a few clicks away. Regarding the C-bomb, I'm in full agreement with Sue, below. In general, the way it is used demeans half the world's population.

      But what about the other end of the 'rude word' spectrum?
      Children being raised to think that anatomically and scientifically correct words are rude and immoral, better used as insults than in mature conversation.
      The recent case of the Michigan senator gagged for using the word vagina in parliament (

      Open and honest education is required in the home, because the damage is usually done before children get to school. To hear this attitude from politicians during public debate is terrible.

      Date and time
      August 31, 2012, 1:01PM
    • YAWN

      Date and time
      August 31, 2012, 3:13PM
  • I don't like the word because it reduces women down to being valued for their sex bits only. It cuts a little close to the bone because in a patriarchy that's pretty much the highest value a woman can attain.....their sex bits are being used and they have procreated. It is dismissive of everything else a woman is.

    When you call a guy a *dick* this is remediable. A guy can go from being a dickhead to an okay guy. If they're a C then they can remedy it by being less of a girl.

    Women however still have a lot of their status dependent on the value of their ladybits. You're going to say OMG this is not true. Really? Seen any single motherless women past childbearing age that have never being shamed by anyone for that status? And the other side of that is being called a C and all of the descriptive words that preface it. No one with any decency would say this directly....they'd probably say what a great mum, wife etc. Whereas a guy is still traditionally a great provider/earner for his family and less often a great dad, father....

    I cringe at the C word. Because it carries with it a history of oppression (that's the way things were) and the currency of oppression (oppression happens in some countries and in some scenarios no matter where you are). It is a word that carries a threat of violence.

    Maybe when there is a world where ladybits have no more currency than manbits the word c--- will be less scary....a world where it is as hard to pick up a magazine with a naked lady in it as it is to find a mag with a guy flashing off their manbits.

    Date and time
    August 31, 2012, 7:37AM
    • Thanks for your post, Sue. You may notice we edited your use of the word "c---", as per Fairfax style. We'll be doing that with other posts, too.

      We're just not at a stage, yet, where we'd allow the word to appear on our site, which I guess accentuates the point CityKat was making in her blog.

      - Ed

      Date and time
      August 31, 2012, 8:14AM
    • all that from 1 word? and the conclusion that it's not so bad to call men d!ckhe@ds? double standards much?

      Victorious Painter
      Date and time
      August 31, 2012, 8:31AM
    • Just subvert the use of the word.

      Date and time
      August 31, 2012, 8:54AM
    • "they can remedy it by being less of a girl"
      really? I've never seen c--- used to call a guy weak. Pussy, yes. but not c---.
      I've only seen it used as either a term like any other "heya you're a funny c---" same as "paul, ya dickhead, come over here and meet my mate gary" or as a worst-possible-term such as putting a heap of effort behind 'you ARSEhole' which I personally only use like that. You're a C---. You f--king c---. If that c--- comes back tell me, nobody has to put up with her shit. or just "c---!"

      And I've never heard it used like bitch or chick or woman, just ot refer to someone being female.

      And most guys I know are actually referred to not by how much money they make but by who they are and what's good about them - like great dad or mate.

      Oh and this: "Really? Seen any single motherless women past childbearing age that have never being shamed by anyone for that status?"
      Yes. Every. single. female. I've. known. Me, my sister, my other sister, my cousin, cousin, cousin, cousin.

      chewing salty razors
      Date and time
      August 31, 2012, 9:16AM
    • Sue, Well said, thanks. I particularly like your paragraph, "I cringe at the C word. Because it carries with it a history of oppression ... It is a word that carries a threat of violence."

      There may be a very narrow set of circumstances where the word can be used, but it is rich in deep sexist connotations and violence (as you say) whether used towards a woman or a man... and I swear way too much, a habit I find verbally slack, but not agressive.

      Date and time
      August 31, 2012, 10:32AM

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