What’s In A (“Bad”) Name?

There’s no way I could or would avoid addressing last week’s flap over Samantha Bee’s use of “the C word” about Ivanka Trump. My favorite responses to the outrage over the comedian’s use of the word were both by actors, and both showed wit. Minnie Driver tweeted, “That was the wrong word for Samantha Bee to have used. But mostly because Ivanka has neither the warmth nor the depth.” And my friend Sally Field tweeted, “I like Samantha Bee a lot, but she is flat wrong to call Ivanka a cunt. A cunt is powerful, beautiful, nurturing, and honest.”

Etymologically speaking, Sally is close to the mark. The word currently spelled in English c-u-n-t is actually one of the oldest words in the English language. Linguistic scholars believe it to be derived from Indo-European names for the Great Goddess, variously known as Cunti or Kunda, the Yoni (Door) to the Universe—the same root that gave us the words country, kin, and kind. Related forms were the Latin cunnus, the Old Norse and Frisian kunta, and the Basque cuna. It appears in Old English as cyn and in Middle English as conte or konte (usually spelled with a k), and is closely related to the words ken (to know something), count (numbers, and as in to matter, to have worth), and the words cunning, knowledge, conundrum (a puzzle). In her exhaustive work, The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, scholar Barbara G. Walker noted that other cognates are cunabula, a cradle; and Cunina, a Roman goddess who protected children in the cradle. Our own word cunning originates with kenning and ken—knowledge, learning, insight, and wisdom—and is still in common usage in Scotland today, as in “Do you ken it?” We can also trace the relationship with concipient—which is related to conceptive, and conceiving. Not to be confused with concupiscence, which means intense desire (though I would wager there’s a connection in there somewhere. . . . ).

Cuneiform, the most ancient type of writing, derives from kunta, which meant female genitalia in Samarian, the language of ancient Iraq. Even today, kunta is “woman” in several Middle Eastern and African languages. It was also spelled quna, which is the root of queen. Since priestesses were known to be administrators and accountants at the Temple of Inanna around 3100 B.C.E. when cuneiform was first used, scholars think it likely that cuneiform was originally the sign of the kunta: the women who kept the books (clay tablets) for the temple in economy, and for the redistribution of wealth that evolved from communal economics in ancient mother-cultures.

Back in England, the Kennet River still flows near the Standing Stones of Avebury and Stonehenge. This river was holy to the Druids and even further back—to older, local, matrifocal religions. It was a symbol of the sacred female, because life (food from fishing, irrigation for crops, mobility and thence trade) came from the river.

The way words become “dirty” is actually through a sort of ossification, a lack of use; words regarded as the most unutterable ones are almost always the oldest and the least altered words in a language. The word “cunt” was free of negative connotations when it was used by Chaucer, but later fell into disuse, then virtually became unspeakable—although still intact. That’s the category it remains in today, and Bee decidedly used it as a pejorative term.

But if instead you choose to use it in a non-negative way, because you ken its real meaning, then you may, like me, delight in learning a real word that means the power of a woman: cuncipotence, with the second c variously pronounced as a hard or a soft c.

If you’re a woman, I heartily hope that you are cuncipotent. If you’re a man, I definitely hope you’re not afraid of cuncipotence.

Aren’t words delicious fun? Etymology is like tracking the spoor left from where human thought has passed through.

And I ask you: Really. Outside of academia, what other blog post would be mad enough to offer you the etymological and political background of the word cunt?