Don’t call me a bitch, cunt! Some profanity is worth reconsidering

You can say “bitch” on TV.

This is not especially problematic for most people. But this, more than anything, is the problem. While most people will agree that the word “cunt” packs a wallop, both emotionally and linguistically, the same people often will not say the same things about “bitch.”

I hear people say “bitch” with astounding frequency. From casual conversation to music to prime-time network TV, one of the last bastions of censorship, it is entirely acceptable to call someone a bitch. But this word that people throw around with abandon promotes many of the same images of women and femininity as its more aggressive counterpart, and our inability to process exactly what we think when we hear “bitch” is dangerous.

In a recent office conversation, a friend noted that “bitch” brings to her mind an angry but powerless woman. She is frustrated and probably complaining, but can she do anything about her situation? No.

Meanwhile, that same friend and I agreed that “cunt” calls up an image of a woman who knows what she wants and is going to get it done. It might cause a bit of collateral damage, but this woman is OK with that. This is not a characteristic that would be particularly damaging when applied to a man, but when aimed at a woman it becomes one of the ugliest things you can call her.

But the fact that these words bring unflattering images of women to mind is not the problem I’m interested in right now. In an ideal world there would be cusses of equal value that apply to men, but even within our imperfect world the over-use of “bitch” is a troubling phenomenon.

When a word like “bitch” is used so frequently that people forget its original meaning and fail to register the ideas behind it when they use or hear it, those ideas do not recede into meaninglessness. If you call something “gay” when you mean “stupid,” you are enforcing the idea that being gay, the state of gay-ness, is wrong. It doesn’t matter if anyone in earshot reflects on it consciously or not; everyone who heard you has digested that idea.

Similarly, the casual use of “bitch” reinforces an image of women that is demeaning and wrong. And because the word is used so frequently, people no longer stop to think about what it means.

Of course, “cunt” also propagates unflattering ideas about women. It makes an insult of female power and turns women’s genitalia into arguably the most powerful swear word in the English language. It is, by any measure, a terrible word.

But when you hear it, you know those things. You think about what “cunt” means.

It may be the hard consonants or the force with which many people say it since they rarely say it without wanting to be heard loud and clear, but that small word cuts through conversations like a knife. Whatever “cunt” makes you think of, you are sure to actually reflect on it if you hear the word.

This is not a plea for people to replace “bitch” with “cunt” in their everyday speech, since that would just reverse the problem. This is a plea for people to think about what “bitch” means to them, and to make an effort to not let that word slip by unnoticed from day to day.


Photo: duncan/Flickr