Among the litany of reported reasons that Fox News fired Tucker Carlson last month, perhaps the one that raised the most eyebrows — aside from his racist text messages — was his apparent affinity for a certain word. In a workplace that was allegedly rampant with misogyny, Carlson used “cunt” to describe both a senior Fox News executive and former Trump campaign attorney Sidney Powell.
He wasn’t the only TV news figure to get the chop over the word in April, either: ESPN fired baseball reporter Marly Rivera after she was filmed calling another reporter a “fucking cunt.” The word remains so controversial that last month Walmart also had to pull a T-shirt from sale that even “subliminally” evoked it.
Elsewhere in April, it was being celebrated. Guests in San Francisco attended a glitzy Museum of Modern Art dinner that was decorated with a variety of c-word derivations — “No Cuntry for Old Men” and “Our Cuntry Needs Y’all,” among them — as a protest for abortion rights by feminist artist Marilyn Minter. And when Beyoncé opened her Renaissance World Tour in Stockholm last week, she performed in front of a “KNTY 4 News” desk.
Yes, the most offensive word in the English language is having quite a moment — especially online.
Recently, “cunt” has been everywhere on Twitter. A series of viral tweets have asked questions like, “How do you serve cunt in a God-honoring way?”, “You’re serving cunt? Your father just died and you’re serving cunt?”, and “How do you serve cunt in a way that creates value for shareholders?”
Thanks to LGBTQ people, drag culture, and Stan Twitter, a new generation has been reclaiming “cunt” online, eliminating its misogynistic meaning and positioning it as something aspirational. “Serving cunt” now connotes ultimate girlboss status. If you “live, serve cunt, then die,” that’s a life well lived. To be “mother cuntress” or “the cuntiest bitch” means you’ve made it. Think “ballsy” or “baller” but for women.
“The c-word is being increasingly, if gradually, reclaimed,” says Stan Carey, one of the editors of profanity blog Strong Language. “It’s part of a long tradition of co-opting taboo words’ power. Since identity politics is now such a common and explicit part of public discourse, it makes sense that words intended as weapons against particular groups would, in some cases, be reappropriated by their targets as a way of blunting those weapons and redirecting their force.”
“Cunt” began its journey to a new meaning in New York City’s ballroom and voguing scene, where for decades Black trans women and queer people have been using it and “pussy” as adjectives to connote feminine superiority. In 1995, drag queen Kevin Aviance, a member of the powerful vogue-ball House of Aviance, released the song “Cunty (The Feeling)” — which Beyoncé sampled last year in her Renaissance track “Pure/Honey.”
As drag culture has become more mainstream, thanks in large part to RuPaul’s Drag Race, so too has “cunt” — even RuPaul herself released a song in 2017 called “Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve & Talent.”
The increasing use of this meaning of “cunt” now highlights the growing public influence of drag and transgender culture at a time when these communities are under attack, says Jules Gill-Peterson, associate professor of transgender history at Johns Hopkins University and cohost of Slate queer culture podcast Outward.
Although Gill-Peterson said she doesn’t use the word regularly, she’s seen more people use it in “self-aware” ways that hint at its special meaning for transfeminine people and drag performers. For them, Gill-Peterson says, the c-word connotes “a desirable, energetic, sexual, undeniable kind of confidence and recognition by your peers.”
“I think a phrase like ‘serving cunt’ is an affirmation. It’s a form of recognition of having crossed a really difficult threshold of not just a beautiful look or a really well put together face of makeup, but a bigger question,” she says. “It’s hitting a really high mark in terms of one’s appearance, one’s attitude and presence, in a way that is meant to have a positive transformation on the self.”
“It’s part of achieving a higher state of being that can be something really important for people who are queer or trans,” she says.
“Cunt” has a long history in language — and one that wasn’t always so taboo. Per the Oxford English Dictionary, it probably evolved from Germanic into the Old English “cunte,” alongside the Old Frisian as “kunte” or Old Norse as “kunta,” as the term for the female sex organs. In the medieval period, it was the main medical term for female genitals, but wasn’t considered inherently offensive in English. It was even recorded in surnames (Clevecunt, Fillecunt, and Wydecunthe) as well as place names, including the Middle English “Gropecuntelane,” which became a common place name for streets associated with sex workers.
But as blasphemous language gradually became less offensive, physical or sexual terms took their place as profanity. “Cunt” eventually became so taboo it didn’t appear in any major English dictionary from the late eighteenth century until obscenity laws relaxed in the 1960s. It was once so scandalous that one lexicographer who wrote a 1785 dictionary of vulgar words described it only as a “nasty word for a nasty thing.”
Part of the power of “cunt” may lie in its short, one-syllable punch and the bookending sharp, consonant sounds that make it differ from other swears like “fuck,” “shit,” or “whore,” according to Michael Adams, an English professor at Indiana University, former president of the Dictionary Society of North America, and the author of In Praise of Profanity. “I’ve always wondered, if to some ears anyway, it doesn’t sound more violent as a word because of its sound structure,” he tells Rolling Stone.
But misogyny has certainly played the main role in making “cunt” so offensive. “That’s a very old move in all Western languages, and not a pleasant one, that men particularly will use terms about the woman’s body to put the woman down,” Adams says. “Social control by means of bad language.”
Tina Fey would agree. In a 2007 episode of 30 Rock, based on a real encounter Fey had with Colin Quinn at Saturday Night Live, her character Liz Lemon claims to love cursing, but is outraged when she hears a male subordinate use the c-word to describe her. “There’s nothing you can call a guy back,” she says. “There is no male equivalent to that word.”
But it’s not just men who use the c-word to cause offense. In 2018, Samantha Bee was forced to apologize amid backlash to her calling Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt” on an episode of her show.
Feminists, including Germaine Greer in her 1971 essay “Lady Love Your Cunt” and Eve Ensler in her 1996 play The Vagina Monologues , have tried in the past to reclaim “cunt” as a symbol of power and beauty, but Oxford University linguistics professor Deborah Cameron tells Rolling Stone these efforts tended to be short-lived. That could be because censors block it in mainstream media, but also because of ingrained cultural barriers. “Beyond the subculture where it’s being reclaimed there’s a high risk people won’t understand that it isn’t meant to be offensive, and that tends to keep it confined to the group of people who do understand it,” Cameron says. “Personally I’m never going to love these attempts to invest cunt with positive/power-related meanings, because I don’t think you can get away from the long history of misogynist usage of the word. Reclaiming insults is a long game … and it’s always going to polarize opinion within the community the insult applied to.”
Like any use of profanity, two things are important when it comes to reclaiming “cunt”: context and intention.
While in the U.S. context, “cunt” remains at the top of the naughty list, in other countries, like Scotland, it can be used as a nongendered and nonderogatory term to refer to any person. (In my native Australia, we famously like to say, “You call your mates ‘cunt’ and you call cunts ‘mate.’”).
But Adams believes that the relative freedom of the online world, where it’s easier to type things rather than say them out loud, may help to slowly normalize new meanings for the c-word in the US. “I think that probably opens a door for use of ‘cunt’ that isn’t there in face to face speech in America yet,” he said.
Yet, intention also matters.
If, like Tucker Carlson, you intend for “cunt” to be insulting, it probably will be.
But if, like those in queer digital circles, you use “cunt” as a reference to, and a celebration of, feminine power — you may actually be lifting up marginalized individuals.
“It’s a conferral of womanhood or gendered realness, but also just a sense of power,” says Gill-Peterson. “That’s what I think these terms like ‘cunt’ or ‘fierce’ often refer to: achieving a kind of empowerment that’s being recognized by your peers.”