No C-Word, Please, We’re American! Brits Export Last Linguistic Taboo

In the first act of Closer , Patrick Marber’s chilly, naughty award-winning British drama currently on Broadway, Ciaran Hinds’ character, Larry, confronts Natasha Richardson’s Anna in an aquarium. Because of a prank, Larry thinks he is about to have a roll in the hay with a woman with whom he has had cybersex. A shocked Anna informs him that he’s been duped, they have never met on line.

“What a c___!” Larry says, using a coarse profanity referring to female genitalia, of the unseen male trickster. He immediately apologizes to Anna for the slur.

“I’m a grown-up,” Anna assures him. “C___ away.”

It was the third of the play’s seven utterances of the profane word, and at the March 27 matinee, as a reporter braced himself for gasps from the Volvo-and-Viagra crowd which had packed the Music Box Theater, the epithet was greeted instead by waves of approving laughter. “C___ away” was a hit. Even the reporter’s Row F neighbor, a woman in her 60′s wearing an Hermès scarf and an imposing pair of librarian’s glasses, snorted with approval. C___ away!

On the sidewalk at intermission, a woman who introduced herself as Erris, a pleasant 68-year-old from Greenwich, Conn., shrugged and professed that the mother of all nasty words didn’t really bother her that much. “It’s sort of taken the place of the F-word, hasn’t it?” she said. “I remember being shocked when I first saw Blazing Saddles –all that farting and swearing. Now it’s nothing. And it’s the same way with that word now. It doesn’t bother me.”

What does it mean when that word, the word that every boy and man knows he must never, ever call a woman, is gaining grudging acceptance? It’s no secret that the F-word, helped along no doubt by David Mamet’s Broadway contributions, has lost all footing as a truly offensive word. But the C-word has seemed safely on the other side of propriety. Until now. In a culture that has seen the President have phone sex with a 21-year-old intern, the reliable barrier between decorum and smut has taken some direct hits.

More immediately, it has been Britain’s cultural exports, plays such as Closer and Shopping and F___ing , and films such as Trainspotting , which have brought the C-word to these shores. What remains to be seen is whether we throw it back.

“I’ve heard more women using it recently,” said Jane magazine editor Jane Pratt. “It’s kind of cool. It’s like a lesbian who calls herself a dyke. There’s something empowering about it.”

At Closer ‘s opening night party on March 25 at the Chelsea glam boîte , Lot 61, several former and current British subjects expressed puzzlement over the American unease with the word. Natasha Richardson raised an eyebrow and said, “I’m a woman and I’m not offended by it at all.”

“People don’t like the word c___ here, do they?” asked model Kate Moss.

Irish author Frank McCourt pronounced, “Words having to do with organs are no longer offensive.”

Nearby, Mr. Marber, Closer ‘s playwright and director, provided directions for how to use the word when on London holiday. “In England, you can call another man a c___, say to him, ‘Awright, ya c___,’ but you should know him quite well,” he said, adding, “It’s not a good idea to just go c___ing around in London. You’ll get in big trouble.”

Irvine Welsh, who wrote the novel Trainspotting , defined the word as, “All-purpose term for someone else, either friendly, or unfriendly.” Mr. Welsh employed the word during his American book tour. “For Irvine, saying c___ was like Americans say the word ‘like,’” said Maya Baran, Mr. Welsh’s book publicist at W.W. Norton. “We would have had to send him to a speech therapist and a hypnotist to make him stop.”

But there are Brits who are not happy about this latest export. “I don’t think I’d like very much to be called that on either side of the Atlantic,” said New York Daily News consulting editor Harold Evans. “Here’s a test: Ring up some other English person, and say, ‘I’m glad you answered the phone, ya c___, you.’ I think they won’t be very happy.”

“It’s about the worst word you can say around here,” British novelist Fay Weldon said from her home in London, noting that she felt queasy even uttering the word on the phone. “It is used a great deal down in the sort of Trainspotting , heads-down-toilets vomiting end of society, and there it seems to have lost any sort of sexual connotation. A man would say of another man, ‘Oh, he’s a c___,’ and it’s worse than wanker, but you don’t generally hear men saying it of women.”

According to Swearing , by South African linguist Geoffrey Hughes, the word made its English language debut on a London Street sign, Gropec___lane. Chaucer used the variant, queynte. Still offensive after all those years, the Dictionary of American Slang snubbed it by not including it in its 1963 edition. Then came Charles Bukowski. Norman Mailer. John Updike. Philip Roth. Irvine Welsh.

Thom Powers, who co-directed a current HBO penis documentary titled Private Dicks , said the word is one of his favorites. He picked up a fondness for the word on annual vacations to Britain and uses it as much as he can. “In England or Ireland, the word has no power. It’s c___ this, c___ that, he’s a c___, she’s a c___, my broken car’s a c___.”

Though Mr. Powers said he uses it in the non-gender-specific British way, he sheepishly admitted that as a descriptive word, it still works best on women.

“I feel bad using the word because it’s feminine. You wish you had a word with a male attribute that came close,” he said. “But when Linda Tripp was in the news, how else are you going to refer to somebody like that?”

“Ugh. I think it’s so offensive when he uses that word,” said Meema Spadola, who co-directed Private Dicks with Mr. Powers. She admitted that since her college days in the early 90′s at Sarah Lawrence College, where the word could provoke fits from feminists, times have changed. “Then the ‘do-me feminists’ came along and all of a sudden, it was very much en vogue to be a dirty-talking feminist. Smart, sexy women were using the word c___!” Ms. Spadola said she, too, has warmed to the idea of using the word, but only in private. “I’ve come around on the c___ issue,” she said. “I mean, I wouldn’t go to my GYN and say, ‘I need you to examine my c___,’ but in a sexy context, I’m not sure why people feel they need to censor their language.”

But while newspapers in the United Kingdom and Australia freely print the word, American print media seem to only print the word by mistake, like the photo caption in the Orange County Register last year, “Grover Mitchell, left, is the chosen man to keep C___ Basie’s swingin’ legacy alive.” And few U.S. publications picked up the most telling quote from Joyce Maynard’s book about her affair with J.D. Salinger. Mr. Salinger commented to Ms. Maynard that a woman he wasn’t fond of had “a mouth like a c___.” Rather, the papers focused on Mr. Salinger’s high regard for frozen peas.

And since Americans, unlike Brits, are accustomed to applying the word only to women, the C-word will have to overcome a significant hurdle before making its leap into the mainstream. That’s because women, by and large, are not fond of hearing the word. Dian Hanson, the editor of Leg Show , the below-the-waist fetish magazine, remembered going out with her cousin when she was 14. “Some older boys drove by in a car and tried to pick us up,” she said. “We giggled and blew them off and one of them stuck his head out the window and screamed, ‘You c___!’ and took off. It just sounded so impossibly mean I could never think of the word applying to me.”

“C___ means what bitch used to mean,” she said. “You’re undesirable, slutty, and at the same time the word remarks on your genitalia as particularly uninviting.”

“To me, the word has all this dark sexual value attached to it,” said postfeminist 30-year-old author Katie Roiphe. “It’s this word that I associate with Norman Mailer and that sort of 1950′s-era male writers, because that’s who you imagine using the word.”

Gay erotica writer Susie Bright said she wished everyone would use the word. “The Puritans really screwed us out of our sex dictionary,” she said. “The type who’s most freaked out about it is the conventional, unliberated straight woman who does not like to refer to her sexuality in any way. It’s so much better to just call it ‘down there.’ But if all these prissy Rules girls don’t like the word c___, too bad.”

The word made its big New York theatrical debut three years ago, when Eve Ensler, who wrote and performed The Vagina Monologues , regularly got theaters full of women, and celebrities like Melanie Griffith and Gillian Anderson, to chant “C___!” over and over again, as a way to exorcise the venom from the word. Linguists call this process of repetition “semantic satiation.” At the time, Ms. Ensler told The Observer , “I don’t know if vagina will ever be a great word. The word c___ I’m really interested in … I think c___ has the possibility to be a great word.”

“It’s a great word. I think it’s hysterical!” said Jill Richmond, a 30-ish guitar player living in Hoboken, N.J. Ms. Richmond, formerly of the band the Aquanettas, said she developed a fondness for the word while touring Britain. “They also use ‘tw__’ over there. That’s a funny word, too.” So, last fall, after she quit her music publishing job to go to graduate school and start a rock band, she had already chosen the name: the Mike Hunt Band.

See You Next Tuesday

Asked about the word, Ann Caruso, a 32-year-old fashion stylist and socialite who lives on the Upper East Side, replied, in keeping with the finest Upper East Side manners, “You mean ‘See You Next Tuesday’?” Ms. Caruso said that at a recent dinner party, a male friend referred to a woman using the term, and that while she was shocked, none of her dinner companions blinked. “I just personally can’t say the word. I don’t know why,” she said. “But I am more tolerant of hearing it come out of other people’s mouths than I was a few years ago.”

Indeed, society may be the last holdout. “I’m on the circuit all the time, and I haven’t heard anyone saying that ,” said society doyenne and founder of Quest magazine, Heather Cohane, who says she uses both sh__ and f___ at appropriate times. But Ms. Cohane said, if the big C becomes next year’s word, no big whoop. “I’m so international and I’ve moved in so many different circles that nothing really bothers me,” she said. “I’m practically unshockable. I don’t think the word is very attractive, though.”

“I’ll call someone a c___, but only in proper company,” said Robin Epstein, a 26-year-old single woman who is a contributing writer for Craig Kilborn’s new Late Late Show on CBS. “I know that the word makes a lot of people uncomfortable, but I don’t exactly know why.”

Richard Saja, a 33-year-old art director in a small Manhattan advertising agency, said he uses the variant, “c___y,” which he said was a personal “angloism.”

Random House senior editor Jesse Sheidlower, who edited a book titled The F Word , said he the C-word lacks the linguistic elasticity of f___. “C___, unlike f___ or sh__, has a very limited range of use,” he said. “For the most part, it refers to the female genitalia. There are a few additional senses, like referring to a woman, or referring to sex with a woman, as in, ‘Going out and looking for some c___’ or even referring to a man, but for the most part, you’re looking at a very small range of use.”

But according to John Singler, a sociolinguist and chair of the New York University linguistics department, any word can evolve in the way “f___” has.

“Words go through changes like that all the time,” he said. “English is a language where it’s easy to take a word and change its part of speech. The real question is whether or not c___ is going to lose its taboo power as a sexist word.”

It may already be halfway there. Mr. Marber said he had to make some changes to Closer since he opened it in London two years ago. “I’ve changed some of the English slang, some of the words that I knew Americans wouldn’t understand,” he said. “But I think they know what a c___ is here.”