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The word's etymology is surprisingly complex and contentious.
Like many swear words, it has been incorrectly dismissed as merely Anglo-Saxon slang: "friend, heed this warning, beware the affront Of aping a Saxon: don't call it a cunt! In fact, the origins of 'cunt' can be traced back to the Proto-Indo-European 'cu', one of the oldest word-sounds in recorded language.
Genital, scatological, and sexual terms (such as, respectively, 'cunt', 'shit', and 'fuck') are our most powerful taboos, though this was not always the case.
Social taboos originally related to religion and ritual, and Philip Thody contrasts our contemporary bodily taboos with the ritual taboos of tribal cultures: "In our society, that of the industrialised West, the word 'taboo' has lost almost all its magical and religious associations" (1997).
At the heart of this incongruity is our culture's negative attitude towards femininity.
'Cunt' is a primary example of the multitude of tabooed words and phrases relating to female sexuality, and of the misogyny inherent in sexual discourse.
Censorship of both the word 'cunt' and the organ to which it refers is symptomatic of a general fear of - and disgust for - the vagina itself.
Cunt: A Cultural History Of The C-Word is therefore intended as the first comprehensive analysis of this ancient and powerful word.
'Cunt' has been succinctly defined as "the bottom half of a woman or a very despicable person" (Pentti Olli, 1999).
Taboos relating to language are most readily associated with the transgressive lexicon of swearing.
William Shakespeare, writing at the cusp of the Reformation, demonstrated the reduced potency of blasphemy and, with his thinly veiled 'cunt' puns, slyly circumvented the newfound intolerance towards sexual language.
Later, John Wilmot would remove the veil altogether, writing "some of the filthiest verses composed in English" (David Ward, 2003) with an astonishingly uninhibited sexual frankness and a blatant disregard for the prevailing Puritanism.