Thirty years ago Germaine Greer set out to defuse the most explosively taboo word in the English language. But now she has reversed her position. The c-word, she insists, should still be X-rated.
"I don't think now that I want the c-word to be tamed," she said yesterday. "I love the idea that this word is still so sacred that you can use it like a torpedo, that you can hole people below the waterline. You can make strong men go pale. This word for our female 'sex' is an extraordinarily powerful reminder of who we are and where we came from. It's a word of immense power - to be used sparingly."
Her views will intensify the present debate about the everyday use of abusive language, fuelled by everything from Tony Blair's "respect" agenda to Lynne Truss's book on manners and yobbery Speak to the Hand.
Even the Lonely Planet guides, not normally a vehicle for traditionalist views, last week said Londoners came across as "foul-mouthed, drunk and aggressive". Deborah Orr, the Independent journalist, is also set to publish an article in Vogue about the fashion for using the c-word. And, illustrating the point that even some of the most articulate can rarely go more than a sentence or so without swearing, Observer editor Roger Alton has used the c-word frequently in interviews.
Ms Greer will next week present a film for the BBC2 language series Balderdash & Piffle devoted to the c-word, examining its origins and uses. It may be too much for some to stomach.
The BBC show will be preceded by a warning about the strength of the language - after all, recent experience shows it still has the power to shock. When John Lydon uttered it during a live segment of I'm A Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here! in 2004, viewers complained in their scores and ITV issued an apology. Two years earlier Caprice let fly with the expletive during an edition of ITV1's This Morning as she talked about her role in the stage show The Vagina Monologues. Barely discernible because of her Californian accent, the reference was enough to spark complaints and ITV was censured by the TV regulator. And its liberal use in the transmission of Jerry Springer: The Opera brought a blizzard of indignant headlines.
The British Board of Film Classification says it is by far and away the most offensive word for the British public. Spokeswoman Sue Clark said: "If it is used aggressively towards women it is absolutely the last word in swearing. But it is not just a question of the word, it is who uses it, and the tone they use. A man using it aggressively at a woman is beyond the pale for many people."
Ms Greer points out that an alternative word such as "vagina" is wholly unsatisfactory to describe female genitalia, and refers only to a specific internal section of the genitalia, not the "fun bits". Its Latin derivation, meaning "sword sheath", she also finds inappropriate. "I refuse to think of my sex as simply a receptacle for a weapon," she says in her programme, to be screened a week tomorrow.
Recalling her drive to reclaim the word, she said: "In the 1970s ... I thought this word for the female genitalia shouldn't be abusive. I believed it should be an ordinary, everyday word. I tried to get people to say it, I tried to take the malice out of it. I wanted women to be able to say it. You think c*** is nasty? I'm here to tell you it is nice like black is beautiful, it is delicious, it is powerful, it is strong. It didn't work and now in a way I'm perversely pleased because it meant that it kept that power." Ms Greer believes it should be used as a word of last resort.
Not that this was the way it began life, back in the mists of etymological time. The c-word has been in common use in English since at least the 13th century, its earliest known reference being around 1230 when it gave its name to a street in Southwark, London, Gropecuntelane - a haunt of prostitutes of the day. Many other English cities had such streets but the vulgarity meant their names were eventually truncated to Grope Street or Grape Street.
It appears several times in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, written around 1390, and notably in "The Miller's Tale" where it appears in the line "Pryvely he caught her by the queynte" (an old spelling of the word). By Shakespeare's time it was considered quite obscene, but the Bard alluded to it in his work, if not quite so explicitly. Hamlet asks Ophelia: "Lady, shall I lie in your lap?" When rejected, he responds, "Do you think I meant country matters?", then hammers home that the emphasis should lie on the first syllable by adding: "That's a fair thought, to lie between maids' legs."
Such was the vulgarity with which it was viewed by 1796, when Grose published his dictionary, that he rendered it under the entry "c***". But it was not until the 20th century, at around the time of the First World War, that it became a term of abuse, rather than simply a term for genitalia. The lack of synonyms (unlike male equivalents for words like "prick"), and the especial power of the c-word means that it has retained its extreme force. No dictionary broke the taboo until Penguin in 1965.
By the late 1960s the comics Dudley Moore and Peter Cook were doing their best to push the boundaries with their Derek and Clive routine, including one sketch, "This Bloke Came Up To Me", in which the word is repeated 31 times in the course of two minutes. The tapes were an underground hit for a generation of sniggering schoolboys.
Within months Greer was trying to win the word back. It was used on television for the first time in an outburst by Felix Dennis - later a millionaire publisher - during a 1970 edition of The Frost Programme.
Nevertheless, while other swear words are now almost common currency, the c-word still remains off-limits for many. Linguistics expert Professor David Crystal said: "The f-word very quickly became widely used and now you hear it all over the place. I expected that the c-word would follow suit, but it hasn't.
"What is interesting is that most of the words in the language which are seen as most sensitive have that tonal variation - they can be lengthened or softened - but there is only one way to say this word. It has that impact. There are no options to modify it and it is a curiosity in that respect. It is not really a word that has developed a range of uses - it has retained its uniqueness."
There are those still pushing away. The artist Sam Taylor-Wood created a necklace with the letters of the word spelled out in rubies, and a play starring Patsy Kensit and Ardal O'Hanlon had a successful West End run with the title See You Next Tuesday, barely causing a ripple. This last is one of a number of attempts to smuggle in reference to the word, via euphemism. Kenny Everett's character Cupid Stunt was another, and so is "Can't Use Normal Thinking", a phrase often used with the full force of sexism, making Greer's point about the word's mysogynist luggage.
The BBC satirical series The Thick Of It is littered with the word, but gets away with it because everyone knows that under-pressure spin-meisters talk like that. In Jerry Springer: The Opera, screened by BBC2 last year, the word is sung by the chorus repeatedly.
Whether the c-word could ever become acceptable to a wider public in the near future remains to be seen, said Professor Crystal. "One thing I never do is make predictions about language - it only takes one small thing to tip the balance. One of the factors that has made the f-word so acceptable is the television series Father Ted where they use the word "feck". It is so close to the original that there is virtually no difference. That suddenly tipped the balance of power with that word. It would only take a famous person in the public eye to use the c-word in a way that was perhaps jocular and acceptable."
Series producer for Balderdash & Piffle, Archie Baron, said the word was perfect for examination. "Obviously it raised a few extra issues for the BBC to deal with, which they did properly and carefully. It's a popular show, but it is also post-watershed and it will be carefully flagged that there is very strong language there.
"The c-word ticked all the boxes with its etymology, its history and the offence aspect. You will find the most thumbed words in the dictionary are rude words. There is a curiosity - that's how we learn what they mean."
DO YOU FIND IT OFFENSIVE?
It's a radioactive word. The way women regard that word is mindful of a history of hurt. The word is not benign. It's impregnated with hostility.
Beatrix Campbell, Broadcaster and Academic
Ultimately it describes quite a nice thing. If you give words the power then they are nasty. But you can turn things around and use them in a different way.
Richard Herring, Stand-Up Comedian
The reason that it sounds ugly is because it is used as such a term of abuse. It's not like saying 'you idiot'. It's vicious and hard.
Natasha Walter, Feminist Commentator
You do see it in the magazines and newspapers now, which you wouldn't have done 10 years ago. Funnily enough, you wouldn't get it in a tabloid.
Clive Anderson, Broadcaster
It is still the unmentionable word in public conversation. The taboo on this word will only be broken when women start using it freely.
John Sutherland, Professor of English
THE SWEAR BOX
91: Number of complaints recorded by ITV when ex Sex-Pistol John Lydon calls viewers "f***ing c***s" for not voting him off I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here.
46: Percentage of males aged 16-24 who claim swearing is a turn-off in the opposite sex. The same poll found that for females the number is 21 per cent.
1979: First scripted use of c*** on British television in the ITV drama No Mama No. Producer Verity Lambert exchanged letters with the Independent Broadcasting Authority, convincing it that the word was "dramatically valid".
470: Number of swear words in British film Nil by Mouth, more than any movie in history. Las Vegas-based gangster drama Casino came in second with 422.
96: The percentage of viewers who still think swearing on television was offensive, in a recent ITV Teletext poll.
1066: Earliest known use of c*** in a surname - a nobleman called Godwin Clawec***e. Other names are Gunoka C***les (1219), and Bele Wydec***he (1328).
100: The number of four-letter words directed at the referee by Wayne Rooney at Highbury in 2004. As a result the FA adopts a zero-tolerance policy on bad language.
1960s: Language expert James McDonald notes: "In rural areas of England in the 1960s the c-word was still used as an ordinary everyday term, usually applied to the anatomy of farm animals."
1400: Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is published. The author uses the deliberately old-fashioned spelling "queynte" as a substitute for the c-word.
1600: Shakespeare's Hamlet, performed in this year, uses a play on the c-word. When Ophelia refuses to let Hamlet lie on her lap Hamlet asks: "Did you think I meant country matters?"
Tom AndersonReuse content