Offended by the word ‘****’? (This one’s for you)

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Mark was my best friend.

We grew up together. I knew him since I was 4 years old.

We used to sleep over at each other’s houses, sliding down the staircases in sleeping bags, keeping each other’s parents awake at night.

I never felt comfortable in his house though. Everything was too clean and tidy – not a thing out of place.

And he wasn’t allowed to say ‘God’. He got round this by saying Gaw’ instead (like Gawd – ‘Queen’s English’ pronunciation, but without the D). I remember the first time I heard him say it. I laughed out loud.

His mother (who I must say is a lovely lady, and still friends with my mother) didn’t let him say God, but Gaw’ was ok. Even though we all knew that the meaning was the same.

I was always afraid of his Mother as a child. She reminded me of Nurse Ratched.

“Medication time”

The thing that bothered me the most about this vocabulary restriction that my friend was under – it sounded so contrived. As if, at the moment when he wanted to exclaim “Oh my God, the house is on fire!” or “Good God, I’ve never seen such a large carrot”, or “God Almighty is that really the time?”, he had to check his surprise / indignation / relief, and redirect his feeling into another direction. It was the censorship of expression that I found hard to swallow.

Once, when I was sleeping over at Mark’s house I woke up having shat in the bed (I promise you, it never happened before or since). After I got over my fear of waking up Nurse Ratched and telling her the bad news, I stood in the hall and chuckled to myself as she changed the sheets. Somehow, it seemed like some kind of divine retribution.

And I don’t imagine that she was saying to herself: “Oh my Gaw’, what a mess”.

In 1939 when Gone With the Wind was released, the famous line: “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” almost didn’t make it past censorship. In those days, the words ‘hell’ and ‘damn’ were taboo. Hard to imagine that now isn’t it?

Nowadays there is really only one word left that universally causes us to pause and consider “can I really say that?”


A cunt is a vagina. We all know that, right? But a cunt is also a person so despicable that no other word/s will suffice to describe. In my recent article Why I Had To Leave Bangkok After Just One Night – The Girl With The Black Eyes I used the word ‘cunt’ to describe the various men who tried to ‘sell’ me an 11 year old child for the night. I personally think that a nastier word would have been better, but I can’t think of one. If you can, please let me know.

Several people commented that the story would have been better without the use of the word ‘cunt’.

Really, this is my reply to those people.

I think that a word is just a sound. The word cunt is a single syllable. And it can of course have a meaning attached, but meaning is subjective. So one person who hears it will react in a different way to another…

And of course, cunts can be beautiful genitalia (your vaginas are all beautiful, girls, please realize that) or they can be despicable men. In the same way that a dick can be a phallus, or a fool!

So in a way, the two people who react differently to the same word are really only separated by their cultural exposure to the word itself (the more someone has heard it, the less they will react).

For example: Gone with the Wind did wonders for the cultural acceptance of the word damn. (At that time the word ‘damn’ was prohibited from use in films – it was considered, yes, vulgar. Nowadays we don’t batt an eyelid do we?)

This article is doing wonders (I hope) for the word cunt (although perhaps not for my reputation. Oh well).

The meaning doesn’t change. Just the level of cultural acceptance.

So, when I am speaking or writing something, I won’t dampen my expression, my voice, to suit the audience. I just won’t do it. What would be the point – to protect delicate sensibilities? If so, should I worry about every word – god, damn, cunt…?! Where do I draw the line?

Rather, I challenge those of you who find this use of language offensive to question what part of you it is that is offended, and why?

If you remain offended after said questioning, then I apologize for causing pain. It certainly was not my intention. I promise you that I don’t often use the C word. (I save it for special occasions)…

Mark and I drifted apart. We were too different.

Last time I saw him was Christmas a few years ago. He came over with his fiancée, who I’d never met before. During dinner I went upstairs to find an old photo of the two of us at University. I wanted to show his wife-to-be how hilarious the two of us looked, both wearing wire-rimmed spectacles, with long hair and glowing red eyes. He intercepted me on my way back into the dining room, and insisted that I shouldn’t show her that photo.

Later, I figured out why. He had a joint in his hand, and he didn’t want her seeing that he’d ever smoked.

A couple of years later he and his (then wife) had a baby. I found out about it from my Mum. That was when I realized that our friendship was dead and buried.

Censorship is not a Good Thing.

Please help spread the word (ahem) love by sharing, ‘liking’ (or recommending, or whatever facebook are up to now), Tweeting, etc, and leave a comment! I’d love to know what you think…


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Ben Ralston

Ben Ralston has been practising personal development—necessity being the Mother of invention—since he was about six years old. He’s been teaching and sharing what he’s learnt along the way for a couple of decades. His main thing is Heart of Tribe retreats—whose very purpose is to help you fall back in love with life, no less. Leading these retreats alongside his woman Kara-Leah Grant—also an elephant journal writer (that’s how they met!)—they combine a deep well of lineage-based yoga teaching experience, with expertise in healing trauma and various other methods of personal development. Ben also works with clients one-on-one via Skype, writes, makes videos from time to time, and is passionate about parenting.
He lives in an intentional, tribal community in the hills of Croatia, where you might find him gardening barefoot and talking to the rocks. Connect with Ben on Facebook or YouTube or check out his website for more info.

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anonymous Oct 12, 2014 12:04am

"Any unit of discourse can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways." – George Gopen, Professor of Rhetoric at Duke University – The best you can do is first be clear about what you mean to say, have some sense of how others might interpret or misinterpret what you are saying/writing and attempt to minimize the possibility of gross misinterpretation as much as you can. For a few pointers, you might consider this article: – it is focused on scientific communication but there are general rules that can apply to all kinds of writing/communicating. But, in general, there is no way to communicate that avoids all possibility of misinterpretation or offense.

anonymous Feb 25, 2013 12:16pm

[…] And sadly, it was spoiled by an urge from one of your pot-bellied writers, who, in an effort to grab just a little bit more of that uber-competitive ratings space, distilled all of this young gal’s accomplishments into one vulgar ‘c-word.’ […]

anonymous Nov 18, 2011 12:24pm

[…] […]

anonymous Nov 18, 2011 11:04am

[…] […]

anonymous Aug 28, 2011 3:41am

I continue to appreciate Ben bringing up these honest discussions.
To me, and I guess I should enquire more about it, it was not the reference to (female) genitals which made think that there was no need to go that explicit, but the use of crude written words. I guess 1. I am also getting older (46 now) and becoming more sensitive to other people sensitivities, and 2. a bit hypocrytical in that I feel that swearing has a smalle impact when spoken than it has in writing. But I also guess this is also what Ben wanted, transmit his anger/disgust in a very explicit and immediately effective way, so I have nothing against it.
As for the cultural impact of using wortd indifferent/similar languages, just think about the use of the word fanny in English or American….
And as Italian, and thinking aboutthe use of the word cunt in Dutch conversation, I can perhaps add that as a foreigner, swearwords never feel as bad as they do to native speakers, and their true impact is often lost on us. My mother-in-law certainly was not impressed when she first met me, and my use of the English swearvocabulary…
Having said this, aren't we a bit of a bunch of twats to keep these mindwanks going? haha joking of course, hopefully nobody got offended

    anonymous Aug 28, 2011 3:55am

    Haha! I like your joke Chiara. The best jokes are at least a little true 🙂
    Fanny is a great example. When I first heard an American girl refer to their Fanny Pack I was utterly, utterly gobsmacked. It was long time ago…
    Thank you for your comment Chiara.

      anonymous Aug 30, 2011 8:47am

      And don't forget smoking a "fag". I nearly passed out the first time I heard that on the Brit soap "Coronation Street". Now when I hear a Brit use it, it is merely a reminder to me of the culturally based dos and donts that we have.

        anonymous Aug 30, 2011 10:12am

        I (an Englishman) worked for a year in a gay bar in London. I cannot tell you how many times I said (out of habit) "I'm going for a fag", and how many men were stopped in their tracks. And how embarrassing it was sometimes…

anonymous Aug 27, 2011 10:47pm

On saying "fuck" occasionally:

anonymous Aug 27, 2011 10:31pm

I think the context is more important than the word itself , in some situations and with certain people a word like cunt or fuck fits rather nicely e.g hanging out with the dudes…whereas in some other situations, places and with certain other people e.g grannys knitting circle- you would definitely want to watch your language …and not because theres something wrong with the word itself but because it is not the place where to use it…just the same way you wouldnt go to the mall to practice your yoga poses….so all in all i think using the word cunt in the context where you used it is just correct , appropiate, quite fitting ..just perfect

anonymous Aug 27, 2011 10:12am

A word is just a word.. a sound. Nothing more. Nothing less. It's the intent of the user that makes it offensive or not. I agree with you, Ben. If this word offends you, never go to England. LOL.

    anonymous Aug 27, 2011 10:25am

    I believe the intent of the user has little to do with it. It is the interpretation of the reader/listener which makes it offensive. No one can control what others are going to think.

      anonymous Aug 27, 2011 12:30pm

      So Katherine, by that logic you are responsible for every reaction that everything you say has in everyone who hears it.
      You really think so?
      Because if it's true, then I'm wrong, and Mark's Mum was right to stop him from saying 'God' (after all, he was 'taking the Lord's name in vain, and I know many who could be offended by that). And we should censor pretty much all media. Where does that end I wonder?

anonymous Aug 27, 2011 9:19am

“And of course, cunts can be beautiful genitalia (your vaginas are all beautiful, girls, please realize that) or they can be despicable men. In the same way that a dick can be a phallus, or a fool!”

It clicked for me after reading this part. (Funny, I was momentarily offended by the word girls, but got over that uptightness quickly.) The word cunt is so offensive to some mostly because the thinking is of woman as oppressed & suppressed. A sexually and otherwise empowered woman has no problem with cunt. She knows she can be a cunt and that she can be a cunt. The former not meaning the same as the later. It is her choice.

Words have been used to insult and degrade women, and this is word has always made me cringe until recently. The change has come in me, not in the acceptance or usage of the word. The change is one of claiming my sexual power. A word can have it’s effects on me, and it is largely my choice what that effect will be. If I am offended then I use it to inform me of where I am not in alignment with myself or the speaker.

A man usually isn’t oppressed when he is called a dick in an offensive kind of way, because he just keeps on keeping on with his direction and purpose. So thank you, Ben Ralston, for not tip toeing around and thus keeping the attitude that women aren’t powerful enough to have a man use the word cunt. When more men and women use the word cunt lovingly, be it toward a man selling children (yes, calling out despicable is love) or towards a lover in a moment of passion, then the word will cause motion and movement in an otherwise frozen place in us. May it stir people up, loosen or tighten them… whatever! It’s motion that needs to happen.

    anonymous Aug 27, 2011 10:01am

    Ah Gloria, I could kiss you right now.
    Thank you for this. You write very well, and what you said, well, I applaud you.
    In motion!

anonymous Aug 27, 2011 6:15am

Hey Ben,
I very much appreciate your take on words. I teach young kids and am studying literacy at a local university. I always enjoy conversation about the power of language, especially when it results in self-reflection about our choices in making meaning in all forms (speaking, listening, reading, writing, art, etc.). Too often we blame or place responsibility of the meaning made on the writer/speaker when it is a joint effort, always. The reader/listener plays just as much a part in the making of meaning as the one generating the text. I think that if more people understood that their experiences, cultures, and choices contribute to what they understand, the world would be a more responsible place. Censorship is a bad thing, very much agreed. I think that it provides for irresponsibility on the part of the listener and creates a repression or redirection of expression on the part of the speaker. Not cool. This week, one of my students said this as we were getting ready to study writing, and I think it applies in kind of a backward way. "Passion is important because if you don't care about anything, you really can't express yourself." I think censorship sucks passion out of things, and even 9 year olds know that is bad. Thanks for sharing something so important.

    anonymous Aug 27, 2011 9:50am

    Hi Emily, I love what you wrote, and I LOVE that a 9 year old said that.
    Thank you 🙂

anonymous Aug 27, 2011 5:59am

When words have no meaning attached no communication is possible either. You are successful in that.

anonymous Aug 27, 2011 5:23am

You don't find it a bit troubling that the worst insult you can think of is to call someone a woman's vagina? That the most insulting words, "bitch", "cunt", or "pussy", suggest that being a woman is the worst thing you could be, where as in my opinion, the words "dick" and "cock" are smaller insults? If calling someone a women is the worst thing you could call someone, what is that teaching people about women?

    anonymous Aug 27, 2011 9:54am

    "Opposing the use of ‘cunt’ is itself sexist, because it grants more respected status to a woman’s genitals than to a man’s."
    The above is from Joe's comment (also above). I think it says it all in response to your question.
    I believe that the reason the worst insult is female is because the patriachal society we live in has been suppressing the feminine for 2000 years.
    Should we continue to treat the words Bitch, Cunt, and Pussy with awe, and cringe when we hear them (surely that's the worst thing we can do isn't it?!) Or should we embrace them? I prefer not to hide…

      anonymous Aug 30, 2011 8:37am

      Ben: when you say "embrace them" are you saying that we could potentially "reclaim" such words (and thus take the sexist/patriarchal power) away from them? Similar to gays/lesbians reclaiming the word "queer". If so, I'm on on board.

        anonymous Aug 30, 2011 10:06am

        Yes, that's exactly what I am saying. And your comment reminds me of the Slut Walk phenomenon (which I love). Women are taking to the streets making the word 'slut' become cool. Or at least removing the stigma of it.
        For how long has it been acceptable for men to sleep around, but a woman does that and she's a 'slut' (horrible word)?
        Now, I'm not proposing a Cunt Walk, but hey… 🙂

anonymous Aug 27, 2011 3:46am

The following elaborates on etymology and mentions the term of endearment usage cited by yogi tobye above:

Also note the *very* interesting addendum, which makes reference to the following 2003 essay by a British woman, on a contemporary feminist blog/site. It contains quite a statement worth considering, in my opinion:

"Opposing the use of ‘cunt’ is itself sexist, because it grants more respected status to a woman’s genitals than to a man’s."

    anonymous Aug 27, 2011 4:57am

    Joe, thank you for two truly wonderful links. I'm glad and a bit relieved to see my view confirmed, and by a feminist too! I love the Bill Casselman page too, I'll favorite it.

anonymous Aug 27, 2011 2:37am

when you understand the depths and subtleties and power behind every word, and the damage that has been done to men and women through thousands of years of patriachy, and how that is reflected in language, then maybe you will wish to challenge your socially induced programming round this, Using cunt as a swear word is really unacceptable for someone dedicated to healing trauma – thats not a moralistic unacceptable, its just the truth of using this particular word give its historical context, and what it reflects, it might not be that big of a deal to you, but – eventually you have to challenge even the smallest details, if you really want to heal the forces that created the situation you are upset about in the first place, love to you ben

    anonymous Aug 27, 2011 3:45am

    Thank you Molly, I do appreciate your perspective. I don't agree, but am glad that you took the time to comment in such a gracious way.
    To what you say, I'd answer: I don't really understand what you mean about 'the damage done through years of patriarchy'. How is that relevant to my use of the word – I used it to describe men!
    Also, the word 'dick', or 'cock', (or many similar) are frequently used. They are accepted.
    Pussy, which has the same meaning as the C word, is much more acceptable, even used widely as a comedy term.
    Also Twat. Widely used, but same meaning.
    I'm sorry, but I just don't understand why one word is unacceptable, while another that has the same meaning, is not.
    And on the contrary, I feel that as a therapist, healer, and personal development coach, my job is to liberate people from their conditioning. Which believe it or not, is one of the purposes of this article.
    So I hope you'll reply – not because I want to argue about it, but because if I'm missing something here I'd really like to know. And if that is the case, I will apologize and remove this article immediately…
    With love and gratitude, Ben

anonymous Aug 27, 2011 3:36am

Hey Joe,
Thanks for your comment. Can't quite believe that my first comment in this article is from a sociolinguist. Not sure if I should be chuffed or intimidated (only kidding).
I hear what you say about the 'girls' phrase. Check the link and it'll explain perhaps a bit more my perspective on it…

anonymous Aug 27, 2011 3:48am

Yep, I guess my point ultimately is that the power of the word is more to do with our conditioning (in this case, it's fear; a taboo) than to do with anything else (sound, vibration, meaning). People are startled and *react* because it's generally accepted that " you don't say THAT ".
But why?

anonymous Aug 27, 2011 3:52am

Hey Tob, thanks for the comment.
Yeah, I think there's a vast difference between English usage of the word (more accepted) and US usage (much more taboo). I read that somewhere…
So, with most of EJ readership being US I might be offending a lot of people here.
As for vibration, I agree. It's not a word I would use frequently, because it is powerful in itself. Hence my using only once, ever, until this article.
Cockney slang – never knew that. V interesting. You great big Berk you 🙂

anonymous Sep 1, 2011 8:03pm

I immediately had the same thought… a big part of it is cultural & context. The context you used it in is the same way my Irish & UK friends use it…sort of interchangeable with asshole…and even then, not always with hurtful intent. I've met more than one rugger who would jokingly refer to a friend that way…

anonymous Aug 27, 2011 4:36am

Thanks Myriah, this is precisely my point.

anonymous Aug 27, 2011 4:39am

Ha! Ship's anchor! 🙂

anonymous Aug 27, 2011 4:45am

Someone's gonna get a daisy in the niagras if we keep this up fella! Oh, I see a blog on it's way!…. you or me?

anonymous Aug 27, 2011 4:45am

🙂 had to think for a while before I figured that one out…

anonymous Aug 27, 2011 9:59am

First let me just say that it makes me very happy that you feel this a safe place to express yourself openly and honestly about a great deal of past hurt. I know, and you know, that self-expression is a key part of healing. That you could do it here makes me very happy.
Secondly, I feel that i could help you with the part of the journey that you're now on. Please email me – if money is an issue, I'll be happy to sponsor you.
With love,

anonymous Aug 27, 2011 10:05am

Your comment speaks to the heart of what I believe is the greatest problem in the world today. Trauma.
Although I haven't yet read the book you mention it is on my reading list. And I had already formed the theory that abuse trauma is the reason for all ills in this human world (war included) when I came across it. Very powerful synchronicity…
Thank you. Ben

anonymous Aug 27, 2011 1:59pm

You are not mistaken, I am British. I'm also aware of said cultural difference.
British use of cunt is not as mild as American asshole, but it is milder than the American.

anonymous Aug 28, 2011 10:08am

well said

anonymous Aug 29, 2011 12:36am

Thank you!

anonymous Aug 30, 2011 10:19am

Thank you for a great comment. The reason it took me so long to reply: I didn't know how!
I'll try –
On the one hand I agree. I am (in the article) saying that we shouldn't be afraid of the word, and that it means vagina, which shouldn't be hidden from. But at the same time I am using it to describe a despicable person. And you say that by using the word in that context it is degrading to women. I hear you. And I agree, in a sense, I suppose.
On the other hand, all swear words (pretty much) are sexual. Take for example dick. Or cock. Now, people use the word dick to describe someone they feel is an idiot. I don't think that it degrades men though. Do you? Isn't there a separation in meaning – when used as a description of your vagina, i agree that cunt is a sexier word. When used as a description of a despicable person I don't think that there is an association between the two.
I say I don't think, because I'm not sure. But it seems to me that swear words are a necessary part of language, and often they're sexual, and I don't think it's such a bad thing.
What I do think is bad is this 'fear' of words. And from there, censorship, and lack of self-expression.
I dont know – what do you think? Does calling someone a dick degrade men?

anonymous Aug 30, 2011 5:46am

Hi Luis! thank you for finding the humor that I had hoped very much to inject into a serious subject. I also think it's a funny (and sad) piece of writing. Glad you got it 🙂

anonymous Aug 30, 2011 10:25am

Hi Andie,
Well, I guess you're the first person here who has made me think that I'm probably wrong. Because if you *feel* sad / hurt when someone uses sexual slang then perhaps we all shouldn't use it.
On the other hand, I believe that swear words are a useful – perhaps necessary – tool for letting off steam and releasing stress / trauma. So I just don't know. Because most swear words are sexual, and when I stub my toe shouting out damn, or hell, or god, just doesn't do it for me.
I may be less spiritually evolved than you, or vibrating at a denser level or something. Very possible.
Anyway, I'm sorry that it hurt.

anonymous Sep 1, 2011 11:52pm

Ah yes.. the auld Rugger Buggers!

anonymous Sep 2, 2011 5:00pm

A kick in the balls? I get about half of the cockney rhyming stuff…some of it goes over my head.

anonymous Dec 13, 2011 4:39am

Thank you Jason, nicely written, and sums up exactly what I feel about that issue. Some will say that because you are a man you are not qualified to decide… and that the word is perpetuating the patriarchal suppression of women… bla bla. I think it's exactly as you say: choose not to be offended by a word. There are much, much more important things to do (like heal the trauma that has caused the reaction in the first place).

anonymous Jan 8, 2012 12:14pm

I am a woman and as child I was the victim of a sexual predator that became my step father in my early childhood, and he degraded me while abusing me (No, I am not a victim anymore). So, I do not understand why a pedophile/child pimp is called a vagina as the worst possible thing he could be. He was offering you an abused female child and you respond by calling him a vagina? Why did her vagina (or any vagina) became the worst thing he could be? Why does he become the very word that every other man like him use to "put the girl in her place"? I have not heard of the wide spread use of the word dick or cock to fully degrade, define and enslave a man while raping him, so yes, it is different. I hope that in this context you will have the insight to be able to understand that. Consider if we were talking about race how this would apply, and your ignorance in claiming the authority over it as a white person. It's not about being PC or about fear of a word, it's about genuine feelings/triggers associated with the word. Let women reclaim the word in the bedroom as something positive if they want to. Allow them to express their feelings and opinions on the matter without accusing them of being PC or fearful. But, that word has a personal history with women that dick and cock does not have.