I cannot resist posting the following links; the second is of obvious linguistic relevance, and the first is just so damn funny I have to share it. But they are rough and knotty and deal with scandalous or salacious material. Readers of delicate sensibilities should pass over this entire entry. You have been warned.
1. A John Dolan review of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, a rehab memoir. Anyone who knows the Exile and its evil ways will not be surprised to hear that it begins “This is the worst thing I’ve ever read” and then takes off the gloves. It gets down and dirty. It may well be unfair. But I really can’t bring myself to care when it includes passages like this:

Walking on a trail outside the clinic, Frey names and capitalizes everything: “Trail,” “Tree,” “Animals.” Then he sees a lower-case “bird.” I was offended for our feathered friend. Why don’t the birds get their caps like everybody else?
But then Frey is no expert observer, as he proves in one of the funniest scenes from his nature walks, when he meets a “fat otter”: “There is an island among the rot, a large, round Pile with monstrous protrusions like the arms of a Witch. There is chatter beneath the pile and a fat brown otter with a flat, armored tail climbs atop and he stares at me.”
Now, can anyone tell me what a “fat otter with a flat, armored tail” actually is? That’s right: a beaver! Now, can anyone guess what the “large, round Pile with monstrous protrusions like the arms of a Witch” would be? Yes indeed: a beaver dam!

I warn you, however, that the review contains Bad Language and Worse Attitudes.

2. The second link contains almost nothing but Bad Language. It is, in fact, an immensely long and learned discussion of what must be considered (in the U.S., at any rate) the Worst Word in the English Language. (Damn, I’ve picked up James Frey’s Capital Abuse Habit.) No, not the f-word, which we hear so often only the most reclusive and old-fashioned could possibly be shocked by it, but the c-word. It is A Cultural History of C*nt (the namby-pamby asterisk being mine, not the author’s—an attempt to avoid misdirected Google hits). It begins with an etymological excursus to which, frankly, you should not pay much attention (“The ‘cu’ prefix of ‘cunnus’ has long associations with femininity…. Eric Partridge discusses the ‘quintessential femineity’ [Partridge, 1937/1961] of ‘cu’, and James McDonald explains that this word/sound, or an equivalent such as ‘ku’, ‘existed in a common Germanic language over two thousand years ago.”) and proceeds to a fascinating history of the usage of the word. Here is one of the few bits I can actually quote without resorting to more asterisks; it’s also as funny as the Frey review:

…when John Spellar MP made a speech in the House of Commons: “[he tried to say] ‘We recognise that these cuts in the defence medical services had gone too far,’ but he inserted an unwanted letter ‘n’ in the word ‘cuts’. It still made perfect sense.”

The author is Matthew Hunt (yes, it rhymes), and the piece is headed “Dissertation”; it has a long enough bibliography that it may actually be one. At any rate, enjoy it if you dare!
Credits: the first link is via No-Sword Sieve (2003-06-04, bottom), the second via Stavros. Thanks, guys!


  1. Does the cultural history mention a famous (well, maybe only to my family) news reader on bbc radio 4, obviously bored with his bulletin –
    “…and the Chief Censtable of… I’m sorry, I’ll say that again, the Chief Constable of Kent…”
    Really happened! but many years ago.

  2. No, but he does say: “Johnny Vaughn has joked about ‘Kent’ sounding obscene, as has Frank Skinner: ‘I went out last night to a golf club in Kent. I knew where I was [because everyone] shouted ‘Kent!’ when I [went in]!'”
    Great story; thanks! (For Yanks, I should point out that Brits pronounce “constable” as if it started “cun-.”)

  3. I was staying in a youth hostel once, and, as tends to happen in youth hostels, got into a conversation with some Australians. One of them started telling a story that involved what she would only refer to as “The Word Australians Will Not Say”. Based on what I’d seen so far, I had a pretty good sense of the magnitude of this title, and was more than a little curious about what the word could be. I can’t remember whether it was me or someone else that pressed for more details, but the storyteller was steadfast in her refusal to say The Word. We kept pressing, and offering up a few wrong guesses, but remained unenlightened. Finally, the storyteller noticed a friend of hers who had just come in: “Tell them about The Word Australians Will Not Say,” she said.
    “What,” said the friend, quite loudly, and without a moment’s hesitation, “you mean C*NT?”

  4. The word under discussion is related to quean, queen, quaint, and the gyn– in gynaecology. And I’ll never forget my shock at hearing a respectable, little old lady in France refer to some young houligan as a petit con. At least in the Romance languages, it’s not as pejorative as in the Germanic. (During a year while living in Bonn, I never heard the German word once, though I did hear a soft euphemism.)

  5. Yes, it’s pretty mild in the Romance languages, at least in French and Spanish. The amusing thing in Buenos Aires (where I spent some years) was that in the local dialect coño (the usual Spanish word) was replaced by concha, which happens to be the usual nickname for girls named Concepción in the rest of the Spanish-speaking world. Much hilarity ensued in interactions with visitors.

  6. One of my thesis advisors gave me a book by José Dueso called Los mil y un nombres del coño. Some of the 1001 names are quite whimsical. Not much under concha except a short bibliography.

  7. LH, if you want to avoid misdirected Google hits, without running the risk of the English-as-a-second-language people misunderstanding you, (or annoying those with a prejudice against coy phrasing for these things) you could consider replacing “c” with с с CYRILLIC SMALL LETTER ES in the word in question. Search engines’ comparisons are based on the numeric value of a character, not how that character looks; thus, change the numeric value, and the search engines’ process breaks.
    You can replace “k” with к к CYRILLIC SMALL LETTER KA (admittedly, that will look different), and “i” with і і CYRILLIC SMALL LETTER BYELORUSSIAN-UKRAINIAN I, if you want to generalise it to other swear-words, though I’m sure you’ve thought of that, and further letters, already.
    An educated French friend tells me he’s convinced that, of the people who use “con” regularly, comparatively few of them think it retains any substantive meaning any more, and should thus not really be considered to mean what its root implies. I’m not 100% convinced; it didn’t seem to me to be used any less there than its English counterpart is here in Ireland, and we all have a pretty clear idea of what the latter means. They swear lots in France, we swear lots here, Australians swear lots, meh. I think the US is the exception 🙂 .

  8. Apochryphal tale from the Australian Government.

    Whenever a new member of Parliment is voted in they inevitably make their maiden speech to a reasonably full house as existing members naturally want to find out how much of an orator he or she is.

    As is often the case when a new member represents a rural constituency, some fall unwittingly into the trap of starting their speech with the words:-

    “Now, I’m a country member….”

    Whereupon, some wag from the back benches can always be relied upon to shout out:-

    “Yes, we remember!”

  9. i cannot read the article because of a long ad for lycos that obscures the right half.

  10. Is “the c-word” actually a common substitute for the expletive under discussion? I myself would not know what word someone had in mind who referred to “the c-word”. At least, I don’t think I would.

  11. ‘the c-word’
    Er, that was a joke. Clearly not a very good one.
    *flings creampie, dances his way out, stage right*

  12. I have a video clip of Tom Brokaw referring to “tax c*nts.” It makes me happy.

  13. I just ran across this book (Los mil y un nombres del coño) at Avva.

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