Animals, Women and Terms of Abuse: Towards a Cultural Etymology of Con(e)y, Cunny, Cunt and C*nt

Abstract

That sexism and speciesism on occasion operate in concert has been well documented in animal studies, in ecofeminism and in green criminology. This article shows that for much of its history, the taboo term cunt has embodied terms of abuse that are at once both sexist and speciesist. In opening up a new direction in the analysis of intersectional oppressions, this article examines how the burden of this dirty work has been carried by species represented by terms such as bitch, bunny, cow, fox and pussy. In uncovering this history, this article constructs a cultural etymology of cunt, finding that: (1) the term acquired its full vitriol only when speciesism was shackled to its latent sexism; and (2) only when its speciesist aspects were censured and rendered obsolete did its abusiveness toward women begin to ebb. The article concludes with a warning: Those who nowadays aim to rehabilitate cunt and reclaim it on behalf of women should be mindful that this project can proceed only if it ignores the history of how this binary term was enabled and intensified by human violence against other animals.

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Frontispiece to printed pamphlet. Robert Greene, 1591.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Le Cunte appears in Calendar of Close Rolls, Henry III: Volume 1, 12271231, and Cunneslegh in Lancashire Assize Roll 404 (30–31 Henry III, part 2 of 2).

  2. 2.

    There are interesting similarities between the twelfth-century Milanese carving, La Tosa Impudica, and the early but undated sheela from St. Mary’s church in Egremont in Cumbrian England. Each figure holds shears in her right hand, seemingly in the act of trimming her pubic hair. The exposure by both figures of their pudenda could be interpreted, as does Bailey (1983: 114), as a device to ward off bad luck. But the shears complicate matters. Perhaps they represent a male’s mockery of an older woman.

  3. 3.

    Williams’ comments on Gent’s Dictionary definition of gig: “[s]exual use may derive from this according to the correspondence theory; cf. the folkloric ‘big nose, big cunt’” (1994: 597).

  4. 4.

    Ortus Vocabularum (1500) was published in London for the English market, as was the Italian–English dictionary Worlde of Wordes (1598). The latter defines cunno as “a woman’s private parts,” potta as “a womans privie parts, a cunt, a quaint,” and pottacia as “a filthie great cunt.”

  5. 5.

    The Chaucerian queynte has been severally defined as “vagina or external female genitalia” (OED), “an elegant, pleasing thing” (Riverside Chaucer 1987), and “a clever or curious device or ornament” (MED).

  6. 6.

    Marlowe’s punning mony/Cony should be compared with Philip Massinger’s later complaint of 1622: “A pox upon your Christian cockatrices! They cry, like poulterers’ wives, ‘No money, no coney’” (The Virgin-Martyr, Act I, Scene 1).

  7. 7.

    The phrase, cunny-thumbed, has been explained as “to double one’s fist with the thumb inwards, like a woman” (Dictionary of The Vulgar Tongue 1811) and “given to shooting a marble as a girl does” (Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English 1984). Scunt means “having lost all one’s marbles” (English Dialect Dictionary 1898) and connyfogle “to deceive in order to win a woman’s sexual favors.”

  8. 8.

    Though venery became obsolete as a legal expression for “game” animals, the modern English, venery, has two apparently unrelated meanings: (1) the hunting of game (from the Latin venari and the ME veneriei); and (2) associated with Venus, the gratification of sexual desire leading to the unwelcome venereal as malady, disease, syphilis, genital warts and so on.

  9. 9.

    While it refers to cony as “an obsolete term of endearment for a woman,” the OED unhelpfully adds only that it has been used “indecently.”

  10. 10.

    One of the witnesses was the renowned literary critic Helen Gardner. In her opinion (Gardner, verbatim in Rolph 1961: 60):

    I don’t think any words are brutal or disgusting in themselves. They are brutal and disgusting if they are used in a brutal and disgusting sense or a brutal and disgusting context. I think that by the very fact that this word is used so frequently in the book, with every subsequent use the original shock is diminished, and I would say by the end Lawrence has gone very far within the context of this book to redeem this word from low and vulgar associations, and to make one feel it is the only word the character in the book could use.

  11. 11.

    Resolutely anti-capitalist and anti-corporate in its original version, successive editions of OBOS softened its overtly political tone and broadened its appeal beyond its white middle-class base. On the intricate publishing history of OBOS and its pan-global appeal, see Davis (2007a) and the exchange between Haraway (1997) and Davis (2007b).

  12. 12.

    In a later statement on the issue, however, Greer (2006) warned:

    In the past…I wanted women to be able to say “You think cunt is nasty? I’m here to tell you cunt is nice. Like black is beautiful, cunt is delicious. Cunt is powerful. Cunt is strong. It didn’t work. And now, in a way, I’m sort of perversely pleased, because it kept that power…now I don’t think I want the C Word to be tamed. I love the idea that this word is still so sacred that you can use it like a torpedo: you can hole people below the water line; you can make strong men go pale…It is a word of immense power, to be used sparingly.

  13. 13.

    For feminist attempts to reclaim sheela-na-gigs for women, see Goode (2016) and Pearson (1997).

  14. 14.

    This is not to say that there was a complete abeyance of the term in England. Thus, between 1950 and 1961, cows’ vulvas were known as cunts on the Isle of Wight and cunnies in Wiltshire (Upton et al. 1994: 108). The same study recorded cunny-handed for left-handed in Gloucestershire and cat-handed in Essex (Upton et al. 1994: 71). Cockney rhyming slang retains rabbit hutch and cat and kitty, the latter referring to “the woman who puts her pussy to work in a cat house” (Puxley 1998: 19). In London, “Bunny Clubs” are high-end sites where, for men’s entertainment, human females don rabbits’ ears, waist-hugging corsets and fluffy tails.

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Acknowledgements

For their generous comments on an earlier version of this article, the author is most grateful to Kathy Davis, Maurice Herson, Linda Kalof, Caitlin Kelty-Huber, Raymond J. Michalowski, this journal’s anonymous reviewers, and its editor, Avi Brisman.

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Beirne, P. Animals, Women and Terms of Abuse: Towards a Cultural Etymology of Con(e)y, Cunny, Cunt and C*nt. Crit Crim 28, 327–349 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10612-019-09460-w

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