the c-word and gendering mansplaining

In 2011, Douglas Bigham asked me if I'd write a piece about "the c-word" for the Popular Linguistics website, which he was trying to get started at the time. He observed:
It *seems* to me that "c---" is less gendered in the UK, but can only be directed at a woman in the US.
(He didn't censor the word, but I have. I'd say it in a linguistics lecture, but putting it on a page is a bit too in-your-face for a blog that wants to be used in schools. I think I've screwed my chances with the nanny software already, though. Of course, I'm talking about the word that's an anagram of the name of a certain Danish king.)

The article never happened (I'm sorry!) and the site closed (I hope unrelatedly, but I will admit my contribution by non-contribution, if necessary). But today I am moved to write a bit about the word because of this (slightly censored for this blog) message I got on Facebook this morning:

I will come back to why I got this message and why I've hidden his full name. Let's just deal with the BrE/AmE difference first.

This message looks like it's from the USA (and his Facebook profile agrees), because he called a woman a 'dumb c-'. Looking at the GloWBE corpus, there are two unique instances of this phrase in the American data. Both refer to women. There are five in the British data and they refer to: a male athlete, a male friend, and fans of a certain football team or football magazine. This is not to say that it can't refer to either sex in either country, but there are definite different tendencies, and they give the word a different feel in the two places. The shift from feminine to masculine in BrE is (of course) part of a more general tendency to use words for women (or our parts) as the ultimate way to put down a man. Which just sums up the status of womanhood in our culture rather neatly.

(The data for stupid c--- are a bit more mixed, but still tending toward(s) AmE=female, BrE=male. And, as we've seen before, the nationality of GloWBE data is probably 15-20% corrupted by the internationality of web data.)

In the UK, the word is thrown around rather easily among men. It can be used among friends in a playful way, but more often (as far as I can tell) it is a term of abuse for men they don't like. The statistical analysis in the GloWBE corpus marks it as a particularly British word, with 1634 British uses to 467 American ones. The statistically "most British and not American" words to come before it are that, fat, black, some and the. (The American data shows up no 'strongly American' collocates.) That shows us that it's often used referentially in BrE--i.e. to talk about people rather than to address them directly, as in "Some c- of an economics analyst on BBC News 24 just tried to equate...".

The British can be amused by how much this word offends many Americans. And it does offend. For me in my American state-of-mind, only certain racial insults are viler than this word. It was a very long time before I could say it out loud at all (I don't think I ever even heard it till [AmE] college/[BrE] university), and I am not usually one who is shy about words.

But the intent with which words are uttered is what really matters and this reminded me of something else that happened recently:
This was in the UK, and what the man yelled (really aggressively at a woman in an open-windowed car) was "YOU STUPID COW". While cow isn't a taboo word, it can be used very aggressively (and also often playfully) to refer to women in BrE. (Worth noting here that everyday life in the UK provides ample evidence against the American stereotype that the English, as a people, are polite.)

I wouldn't claim that  cow got started as a substitute for the coarser anatomical word (women have been insulted by all sorts of animal names for centuries), but I think that in cases like this road-rage incident there's a link. The former c- word for women is now used for men, but cow provides a similar articulatory gesture.

I've seen lots of cases of women reclaiming the c-word as an anatomical term, but less so reclaiming it as a word for people, rather than people-parts. (Compare the word for a female dog, which has been reclaimed often as a word for women showing strength of character in the face of sexism.)

a bit on the mansplaining...

I'd like to say a bit about what led to this point. It started when the Linguistic Society of America shared a link on its Facebook page:


That's a bad piece of  (AmE) subhead /(BrE) standfirst writing. What it means is that studies are equivocal about whether bilingualism helps cognitive development. What it says is that there might not be any advantage to bilingualism. Linguists know well about these debates, and so I posted an ironic comment on the article:
"not show any real benefits"? Like speaking two languages isn't a real benefit?
I later added a smiley face. But without the smiley face  Mr Jason, above, felt the need to explain to me that there are studies that have said that there are cognitive benefits of bilingualism and other studies that have said there are not. (He deleted his explanation before I received his personal message.) I went back-and-forth in my mind a bit about how to respond to it, and I went with this comment-reply:
Sorry, is this what they call 'mansplaining'? It was a critique of the phrasing. I do know this. I do teach it!
And in the morning, I got the private message you see above. Before reporting him to Facebook and blocking him, I did get a look at his public profile. According to that, he had studied English Applied Linguistics at a Wisconsin university less than 10 years ago. I am not including his full name here, because, honestly, it's not worth whatever further abuse he might be willing to give. I have once before received a very similar Facebook message from another  young man (that one in Ohio) after I beat him repeatedly on an online game and he accused me of cheating. (I no longer play on-line games against people I don't know.) I know a male Scrabble champion who gets such cheating-accusation abuse all the time. All they needed to do was google his name to know how silly their accusations would sound. But that seems to be expecting too much of some people. So here are some helpful rules if you want to insult people on the internet.
Rule #1 for insulting people on the internet: find out who you're insulting first.
Rule #2 for insulting people on the internet: don't insult people on the internet.
(I bother with rule #1 because you might learn something interesting. )

Now, you might say here that I did not follow rule #2. I would disagree that I literally insulted, though I will admit that it seems to have had the same effect. I used the word mansplaining in order to call out a behavio(u)r. I did not call the person anything. Maybe that one needed a smiley-face too.

I had weighed whether to call it mansplaining (and even when I did, I did so indirectly), but in the end I went with it (and even got a 'like' and a supportive message about it). I've posted this Jason's message on my Facebook page and have been discussing it with my friends this morning. One (male) friend, whil{e/st} being sympathetic to my situation and angry on my behalf, said
this is why I'm not a fan of the word 'mansplaining'. Let's not taint the name of a whole gender because of these morons.
And I've got mixed feelings about that. I replied (in part):
I have had my joke explained to me three times and it has been by a man each time. Any genitals-free behavio(u)r can be done by anyone, sure, and I have used 'mansplain' at least once of a woman, but that doesn't mean it's not gendered behavio(u)r. Just like I argued two weeks ago(?) that I felt it important to call out creepy behavio(u)r as 'creepy' I think this needs to be called out for what it is. [...C]alling it out with the 'man' is to acknowledge male privilege, and I think men (and whites and straights) need it pointed out once in a while that they are coming from a position where they've assumed some things based on that privilege. I 40% agree with you, but I 60% agree with me.
The creepy thing relates to another debate with my Facebook friends. When an inappropriate appreciation of my photo was posted in the '10th blogiversary' post, I went back and forth a bit about whether to just delete the comment or to thank him for the other part of the comment, followed by "but let's keep it non-creepy, please".

In that case I got a mix of advice in both directions. I put up the "thank you for your kind comments on the blog, but please let's keep it non-creepy" comment and deleted it almost immediately (I don't know whether the post will have gone out to people who were following the thread by email) and then deleted his comment (because I do have a comments policy and I just didn't want to spend my time debating it with strangers). I found it interesting that several female friends suggested paraphrases of the comment (mostly without the warm thanks part) that changed creepy to inappropriate or that asked for "no personal comments, please" or that I not post a photo of myself. I reacted to those suggestions [in part] with:
I don't mind personal comments. I don't like creepy comments. If I'm going to [comment on] it, I'm going to say 'creepy'. [...]  'Inappropriate' doesn't tell him what was inappropriate about it. Creepy does. Some guys don't reali{s/z}e what creepy is [...]

I post pictures to be more human. Having a face isn't an invitation for somewhat sexual comments about it. I do have a comments policy where I say that I reserve the right to delete things that aren't in the spirit of helpful conversation. But I'm not interested in banning comments about appearance. If someone says "You look just like one of my cousins!" or "I think your hairstyle has got more British while you've lived there" (I don't think it has!), that can be a bit of fun.
So, as I said above, I 60% think that when unfortunate behavio(u)r is gendered, it's important to point out the genderedness of it. That way, you hope that the person who's creeped you out, or exasperated you, or insulted you might go ahead and think about their sociali{s/z}ation to act in this way and to maybe pause to think a bit more about the things they've been led to believe about the world.  Maybe before "helping"  someone who's said something that they think "needs help", they might pause to wonder whether there's another possible interpretation of what she's said (it could have been a joke) or whether she might know more about the topic than you do.

The act of explaining things to people who don't need an explanation can be done by any gender of person to any other gender of person, sure. And it is usually done with no malice. But there's a reason it's been called 'mansplaining' and it is exhausting. Women get their jokes misunderstood or explained to them because there is a cultural assumption that women aren't funny. Many men (in many cultures) are put in positions from childhood where they are listened to, treated as authority, expected not to keep quiet and play along. And so on and so forth.

The main reason not to call out genderedness of gendered behavio(u)r (the other 40%--but it's important to note that my 60/40 split sometimes reverses) is that it makes people defensive when they're treated as a phenomenon and not an individual. And so they might not learn. But if the genderedness isn't pointed out, then they might not consider everything there is to learn there. I tweeted my ironic comment (my joke, if you will) as well:

At the time I'm writing this, 30 people have retweeted it, and 80 have 'liked' it, so I think many are getting the joke. But another three men have tweeted back to 'explain' the line about 'no real benefit of bilingualism' to me. Another follower called one of them out for mansplaining, and the explainer protested that he hadn't mansplained--he just hadn't read the article. So to him, explaining an article you haven't read to a person who has read it (and made a joke about it) isn't mansplaining. To me it is a perfect example. But it may well be the naming of it as a gendered behaviour that (apparently) kept him from thinking more deeply about the matter. This is why sometimes my 60/40 thinking flips to 40/60. I could try to deal with the situation by saying "let's all be good humans and treat each other with respect", and that's what I want in the end. But I think it's hard to think about what "being a good human" means without being able to reflect on sexist privileges, beliefs, and behavio(u)rs. If you've grown up male (and comfortably masculine) in a culture where masculine power and the masculine point-of-view is the default, then your perspective on what it means to be treated badly in that culture starts from a position with a limited view.

Of course, the other reason not to point out sexism is that there are a lot of scary men out there. They send threatening messages. They call the other scary trolls' attention to you. And in Jason's land they're allowed to own guns. America has become a violent opera about the dangers of damaged masculinity. It's a complete Catch-22. Don't call out sexist behavio(u)r, and sexist behavio(u)r is allowed to thrive. Point out sexist behavio(u)r and you might have to live with more (and worse) of it.

(I'm sticking to sexism here, but I think the argument and the dangers are fairly transferable to other kinds of discriminatory structures and behavio(u)rs and the privilege they create. But that might not be for me to say!)

In case you are ever accused of mansplaining or any other kind of unhelpful 'splaining, here are some responses that you might consider:
"Whoops! Sorry about that!"
"It hadn't occurred to me that I was doing that, but thanks for pointing it out."
"Fair enough. Never mind!"
"Hm. That's given me something to think about, thanks."
If you use the last one, please note that you can do the thinking without involving the person who felt mansplained-to. Don't expect them to give you a sticker for working it out. Don't expect that they want an argument about why what you did wasn't really mansplaining. Just take it as someone else's observation on your behavio(u)r. (You don't even have to reply at all on social media.) And then, if you want to be helpful, try to see it from their side.

on  irony

And, yes, it's dangerous to try to achieve irony on the internet. Next time, I'll try to remember the smiley face. British people often comment on Americans' alleged inability to interpret ironic statements (here are two old posts about that: one two and a BBC piece on the matter). There are definite regional differences in this, however, and that may have been a factor here.  I'm a northeasterner. (It may also be relevant that I'm an academic.)  I do irony, and I enjoy it when others enjoy it too.

p.s. avoiding mansplaining

I forgot to add my easy mansplaining-prevention tips for any gender:
  1. If you feel the urge to explain something (especially to a stranger, especially on social media), pause to ask yourself: was I asked a question? 
  2. If you were asked a question, consider: might this be a rhetorical question?
  3. If you weren't asked a non-rhetorical question, there is no need for you to explain.
Regarding the second item: it's not a bad idea to avoid rhetorical questions in writing.
Regarding the third item: this doesn't mean you can't have a conversation about the topic. But rather than trying to explain, you could ask a question and find out more about the other person's relationship to the topic. You could say why you too think the topic is interesting. There are many things you could do that don't involve making yourself seem like a mansplainer...

p.p.s. I've reali{s/z}ed that you can't search for this post on the blog because I've been coy. So: cunt.


  1. When I was a little girl, the standard response to anything that approached mansplaining (usually me, as a pedantic child, trying to explain things to the adults around me) was "Teach your grandmother!", From the proverb, "Don't teach your grandmother to suck eggs"

  2. I might go with "teach your grandfather!" ;)

  3. Not perhaps very relevant to your main points, but your note about reclaiming the c-word reminded me of its use in Robert Burns' poem "Comin' thro' the rye", in his alternative version which you can find on the BBC web site read by Kate Dickie. The sentiment in the line is, I think, a positive one, even if the claim that Burns was an early feminist is quite fragile.

  4. Actually, I think you'll find... um, that you're probably absolutely right :-)

  5. Great post, thank you. I enjoyed reading it.

  6. Glad you took time to 'splain, Lynne!
    Women I have talked to about the c-word find it VERY offensive and avoid using it. This from my experience in NE and Midwest US. I consider it so vulgar that I do not use it and would consider it inappropriate in any context. Hearing it used in conversation sparks a very negative reaction in me, and marks the user as insensitive, boorish, or worse.
    I feel that ethnic/racial slurs are the "dirty words" of today's American English. Most "four-letter words" of previous years no longer carry much shock value. But the c-word still does.

  7. The underlying issue (as you point out in the footnote) is that irony doesn't work on the Internet - nor does dark humour. There are too many stupid people who read things superficially and literally - and then give a stupid response. But have to say that Mr X (and I assume he was a "he") does take the biscuit in responding in such a stupid and offensive manner.

  8. I would even say, only calling a man a cunt is fun and acceptable.
    Calling a woman a cunt is super douchy, sexist and not acceptable.

    My background is BE.

  9. There's so much to say about the word. Great to read different experiences of it!

  10. You refer to "cow" as not being taboo...but it was for my paternal grandmother (1901-1993)it was almost synonymous with "bitch" and to her generation of working class, northern, British women, that meant you were referring to someone as a prostitute. And that was very, very taboo, except among sexworkers, presumably.

  11. Does the mansplaining come because the mansplainer can't imagine that a woman is capable of irony (or clever word-play in general)?

  12. While not disagreeing with you about mansplaining, I feel less and less tempted these days to attempt irony on the internet. Even with emoticons people will take offence (it's possibly even better to explain 'this is intended as sarcasm/irony/a joke' afterwards just to make sure people get it). On the 'c' word, I remember first hearing it on British TV in a Dario Fo play, possibly Accidental Death of an Anarchist, and possibly in the late 80s. I also most remember it being used in a useful way by the northern British gay artist David Hockney to explain the point of one of his poolside paintings - this on a BBC arts programme, I think. As so often with these things, context can matter. However, even though it is almost totally taboo outside groups of men and, I would venture to suggest, some occasions in the bedroom (people who wouldn't use it in everyday language sometimes feel it pleasantly transgressive to use in a sexual situation), it has through overuse tended to lose a small amount of its shock value, much as 'fuck' has. There are times, I must admit, when it seems almost the only word to use about someone behaving totally idiotically, but I understand of course the sexist connotations. Very interesting piece. Thank you.

  13. I've added a postscript to the post about 'how to avoid mansplaining', if any of you are interested...

  14. There goes the gender card and the white privilege card again. As a woman, I cannot stand when other women face problems by using such cards instead of reason. Women do have a tendency of not being able to understand irony and most of all, get offended/upset for every single thing people say to them, like you just proved. Somebody explained something to you? You didn't think about the Internet being the place where irony can't easily work, you immediately went to "It must be that a man is oppressing me again!" Ridiculous and pathetic, especially considering how Western women are the most pampered and privileged women in the world, thanks to our (yes, mostly white) men who have stood up, respected us, supported us and defended us forever. Yet, we constantly bash them, call them all rapists (which truly is offensive, but you don't have a problem with that, because it's directed to men not to women), and legally discriminate them in court (divorce, alimony and no parental rights, dads stripped of their children and livelihood), no reproductive rights, no rights against genital mutilation (unlike women), university courses that BAN male writers from being studied and the list goes on and on and on. Not to mention the false statistics and myths that have been disproved countless times - wage gap, college rape, and so on. Check Christina Hoff Sommers, if you don't believe me. Our great-grandmothers, who actually did have less legal rights than us today, appreciated manhood and honored and respected men. The least we can do today is use reason to check what facts are before we blindly buy into a narrative that has destroyed families and honorable manhood and fomented a war between the sexes. Check your facts, not your privilege.

  15. So you think my failure in this situation was not to recogni[s/z}e that a man was being ironic in calling me a 'dumb c---' on a private line where he could not be called out on it?

    Now, that would be ironic, wouldn't it?

    What's more ironic is that I'm being called out for being a *woman* doing something while simultaneously claiming that women don't get singled out.

    "Lara" has a hidden profile with no links, so we can't know who or what "she" is. I considered from the start changing the comments settings, and I may do so yet.

    "Lara" asks for facts while claiming that any facts that don't agree with the point that "she" is making are made up. Which university, specifically, is banning the teaching of male writers? You'd think that would be news in higher education, but I can't find it.

  16. *fewer legal rights.

  17. *I meant 'changing the comments settings on this particular post'. I did think it might attract a certain type...

    Ironically, I spent part of the afternoon at a staff development thing talking about academic blogging and I claimed not to have a problem with trolls!

  18. I was once on a date with a man and brought up a documentary I had seen and liked. And his response to me mentioning that I had seen the documentary was then to *explain the entire documentary to me.* He summarized the plot and the points it made, while I periodically interjected "Right... Yes, I remember..." and finally a stern "I know - I told you I saw it."
    He honestly didn't see any problem with a surface-level review of a movie *I* had brought up and explicitly said I watched and liked. And it's not like he was an expert in the field giving me deeper insights - his background on the topic was... watching the movie. The same background that I had just told him I had.
    He did it again with another topic I indicated I had knowledge about, and I was honestly befuddled. This was a man over-30 with no other indications of any sort of diagnose-able social disorder, except a mysterious inability to process the fact that his female date could process information and know things just as well as he could.
    There was no second date. There's only so much energy in the world for dealing with mansplaining.

  19. Regarding "cow", I think there may be an Atlantic difference there too. I may be misremembering this but I recall Sharon Osbourne calling a colleague a "cow" on US TV a few years ago and many American friends being aghast, while I thought it was fairly innocuous. As we discussed it further, it turned out that in American English "cow" has an element of body-shaming as it implies that the person is overweight; in British English, that added implication isn't there, which is why you get "fat" bolted on the front sometimes. It's still an insult, but it's not about the person's weight. As Osbourne is British, I assume she meant it in the British sense.

  20. Oh, and I'm sorry you're getting trolled. That's never nice.

  21. Thanks--and keep the 'cow' comments coming! The word undoubtedly deserves its own post, but I'm all blogged out for the week!

  22. Relevant to the initial topic is the Monty Python "Bounder of Adventure" travel agent skit that includes the self-accusation, "What a silly bunt!"

  23. I wouldn't feel comfortable using the C-word, even in reference to a man. There are plenty of other words, many more suitable to specific instances.

    And I don't see any problem with your calling out mansplaining as mansplaining. Your examples of possible responses were helpful, as were your mansplaining-prevention tips. Thinking before speaking or posting can be difficult, especially for those of us used to the privileges you outline.

  24. The c-word discussion offers a lot of opportunities for pop-culture references. Ben Zimmer has pointed out to me the previous discussion about its UK/US difference when the film Kick-Ass came out.

  25. Perhaps Lara is being ultra-deeply ironic? (Or thereagain, perhaps not?)

  26. I am a woman, a mother and wife, if you really need to know. I am not a feminist though. I am not an English mother tongue, so I apologize for my linguistic mistakes). My problem is with not using reason. I am trying to tell you that immediately resorting to attacking males and assuming you're being oppressed instead of thinking why something has happened does not show that you like equality nor that you have a love for reason and respect for intellect.
    Want facts? How about this:

    This is my last comment and I will unsubscribe to your blog.

  27. Hi Lynne --

    Whew -- it's not often that I read one of your posts, browse the comments, and my pulse starts to race. I guess it's inevitable when you venture outside the linguistically anodyne.

    Not much doubt that being a public person on the Internet can be dangerous -- and being a public woman more so. And in my experience with dry wit it's just as easy to be misunderstood when speaking as when writing. (More than once I've made a sincere observation and had my wife ask me "Are you being serious?" not because she didn't believe what I was saying but because she simply wasn't sure if I was making a deadpan joke.)

    As an aside, I'll also mention that as much fun as Facebook can be it's a thoroughly dreadful platform for debating most anything, controversial or not. Far too many people on Facebook aren't interested in debating -- they're interested only in vigorously offending those they disagree with. Outrage, alas, is the Internet's most widely traded currency.

    With respect to the "c" word, as an American I'd like to relate two stories that illustrate how much more meaningful this word appears to be in the UK than in the US. The first concerns a voice mail my daughter received on her cell/mobile phone a few years ago. She was about 15 at the time and the voice mail appeared to come from someone a few years younger; he spoke with an English accent and didn't give his name. He began his charm offensive with the "c" word and proceeded in the same vein because, I guess, he thought he was merely playing a harmless prank. When I asked my daughter if she had any idea who this boy was she said she didn't, but that she knew of an English girl in her grade who had a younger brother -- so she assumed he was behind it. Mercifully this was his only call and no, we never learned how he'd got hold of my daughter's number.

    The second story concerns an old friend of my wife's. She married an Englishman and moved to the UK, where they raised two children and, as often happens, eventually separated and divorced. Late in this still viable marriage her mother was visiting and in her son-in-law's presence heard him refer to her daughter by using the "c" word.

    Granted, these anecdotes constitute a microscopically small sample that can be said to prove nothing. I freely confess that my own attitude toward the "c" word is much the same as that of Frank Abate above. I consider the word profoundly offensive and am reasonably certain I've never used it -- even in jest. Which means, of course, that I'm mystified by its apparently widespread (and even jocular) usage in the UK. Especially by 12-year-old boys who use it when they place prank calls.

  28. 1. I was wrong.

    2. Revenons a nod moutons: As a BrE speaking male in his 50s. I think the "C" word continues to be taboo. I would never use it in any circumstance that I can think of - and I would be shocked if I heard it being used by anyone else.

  29. That link dump ... wow. Breitbart, JudgyBitch, AVfM ... there's a trifecta of MRA opinion for you.

  30. In my experience as a British woman of hearing British people explaining to Americans on the internet that "cunt" isn't really that serious and we use it all the time, I think there is often a certain disingenuousness going on. I would agree that among groups of men there is a jocular use of cunt that is fairly playful, much like the casual use of fuck. As well as using cunt of each other, they might say something like "the cunting microwave's broken". I've heard it used like this and it doesn't bother me or seem specifically misogynistic, though I'd consider it extremely vulgar and completely inappropriate in e.g. a workplace, education setting etc.

    Then there's the use of cunt by women of women, like a stronger version of cow (which incidentally I was absolutely forbidden to use as a child, unlike pig, and which I would still regard as a fairly strong insult). It's my impression that this is more common in some regions.

    And then there's the use of cunt by a man as a direct insult to a woman, and in this case it is absolutely intended as completely vile and offensive and received as such. This use very definitely exists and is widely understood in British English. However I do agree that its existence doesn't override completely the other potential ways it can be used in some circumstances.

  31. Apparently blogger doesn't like my LJ. That anonymous comment was me:

  32. As a male I respectfully disagree with your assessment of mansplaining.
    I could see myself in the situation: explaining something to a stranger while actually, due to a misunderstanding, he/she didn't need any explanation. And I concur this is a behavior that is somewhat typical of men.
    But! I assure you I'd do the same regardless of the sex/gender of the other person!
    You are assuming it's men trying to correct you because you are a woman and those guys were victim of a prejudice, but maybe it's just women not bothering with replying to the tweet!
    I was a small boy when I began correcting people, and I always expected others to tell me if I was wrong about something (which may include this very comment, since I'm not a native English speaker). Nowadays, the usual random guy on the internet is easily needing some "mansplaining", because quite often they really don't have a clue.
    OTOH, I've been treated with condescension by people who assumed I didn't know my stuff, while I could have run circles around them on the subject, and again, they were both male and female. Sexism here, to me, is only mistakenly projected on the subject.

    Why do males engage more often in mansplaining (not to women, in general)? My guess has to do with a general approach to conversation: more practical and goal oriented for males, to the point of becoming blunt at times; less willing to engage with strangers confrontationally, for females. Other aspects are probably to be considered.

    Now, while your blog is engaging and unique, beyond being based on deep knowledge, frankly your tweet was a bit silly... questionable reactions are expected in cases like that...

    Alpha T

  33. Thank you so much for this, Lynne. These are important conversations to have.

    And as for "cow," I think of it as wholly innocuous here in the US except as it might be used to make fun of someone's weight. Can't wait for the forthcoming post about it -- for whatever reason, on the animal spectrum, I think of cows as generally cute, docile, and harmless so it seems an odd insult coming from this AE ear.

  34. Cow is neither here-nor-there in England, but in Scotland (in particular in Glasgow) it is considered very strong; only aimed at women, used by both women and men, if you use it, you expect a fight to follow.

  35. I'm a male living in the mid-Atlantic US and I've never heard the word "mansplain" used. Or, rather, I am pretty sure I've heard or seen the word without really knowing what it meant. And now that I do know, my first reaction is "is this actually a thing?" It just feels like one of those things everyone assumes to be true without checking, like women talking more than men or Eskimo words for "snow". And, as a newcomer to the word, I do find it insulting (certainly not nearly as insulting as calling someone the c-word, but insulting nonetheless).

    On an aside, my father is like that, but he's equal opportunity. He explains things to everybody as they come up in conversation. It drives me nuts, but I don't think I'll ever use the word "mansplaining" to describe it.

  36. I tried writing a response to Alpha T's and Lara's post, but every time I try to post it, I'm told "your html cannot be accepted" even though I've used no html tags in it. I'm going to take that as a sign that it's time for me to mostly let the discussion proceed without me. I've said my piece. I'm happy to host civil conversation in the comments section.

  37. I think the central or prototypical meaning of mansplaining has to do with a kind of inability to hear: to realize that the person at the end of the 'splain already knows what she (almost always she) is being told. What's so damned annoying about it is the absence of actual conversation. In actual conversation about things and ideas, there is an assumption that people's contributions matter, that each wants to hear what the other is saying. In mansplaining, it's all about speaking as trumpeting, like a male gorilla pounding his chest. The woman is just supposed to murmur "Yes, dear" and be impressed by the whole thing. In the worst case, the 'splain is literal bullshit (in the sense of Harry Frankfurt), where its truth is simply irrelevant and meant only to impress.

    Geeks, however, explain stuff to because they want the other person to know what they know and to enjoy the knowledge for itself, and because they want to share. So if a geeksplainer answers questions that aren't being asked, it's because they are the answers to the questions that the geek themselves would ask if the roles were reversed.

    Lynneguist: Did you maybe use a stray ampersand in your attempted comment? That can provoke the same error. Best to stick to "and", or if you really need an ampersand, use "& amp ;" without the quotes and spaces. (This is geeksplaining, & if you already know the convention perfectly well, I apologize in advance.)

  38. I associate the "cow" slur with BrE, because I first heard it from British friends (all women, now that I think of it) and then from British TV/movies. But before that I'd been familiar with "heifer" (HEFF-er, a nulliparous cow) as a term of disparagement among African Americans. Various slang dictionaries suggest that it's used to mock obese women, but that's not exactly how I remember it. It was closer to "galoot" or "oaf" or "bumpkin" -- a girl or woman with the grace and manners of a cow, not necessarily the heft.

    (And I'm very sorry about the trolls, and glad they've left us.)

  39. One thing that caught my eye is the bit about women's jokes being misunderstood. As a male, I am oblivious to the existence of any cultural assumption that women aren't funny, unless such assumptions are pointed out to me. (Privilege in action as usual, I know.)

    But the comment made me think about other circumstances in which jokes are often misunderstood. For example, in my experience people tend to assume that anything said hesitantly is said seriously, as though no-one is ever shy about making a joke. As a result, the more difficult it is to pluck up the courage to contribute some humour to a conversation, the more likely it is to be misunderstood. Cyclically reinforcing the hesitation.

    The discussion of creepiness reminded me of this article , which contains a very specific definition of what it means to say that something is "creepy". I don't think the word is anything like so precise in common usage, but it's a topic worth talking about.

    I have some opinions about various parts of the blog post but they are not important.

  40. Lynne, I'm so sorry to hear you've been trolled. I think you were brave to respond to that c--t. I wouldn't have, because I'd have expected the worst and so not said anything.

    As a woman in the UK, the only time I hear or use the c-word is when I'm in relaxed male company (such as the pub) and it's usually in a humorous/exclamation sense. I might use it myself in extreme anger but only under my breath so no one else can hear.

    As for mansplaining, I'm unlucky enough to be an engineer, so I get it every effing day. Male engineers (I know this is a gross generalisation, but it's based on my 20 years in the industry) a) think they know everything and b) think women know nothing, so are exceptional mansplainers. It's made me really intolerant and my response these days is generally to talk back over whatever they're saying (womansplain??).

    The benefit of your post would appear to be that you've lost at least two followers who you really didnt want as followers anyway!!

    Keep up the good work, and dont let the haters get you down.

  41. So a Facebook friend (UK gay male) has posted a 'memory' photo of fridge magnets spelling out "HALF 100 CUNT" (I might as well spell it out, since it's already here in the comments...) in hono(u)r of his partner's 50th birthday last year.

    He now tells me that their fridge always has a message on it, and it always ends in that word. They're going on (BrE) holiday/(AmE) vacation soon, and so it says "ORKNEY CUNT".

    Has a different feel in colo(u)rful plastic letters between loved ones than from a stranger in one's inbox at 7 am.

  42. "The British can be amused by how much this word offends many Americans."

    Only younger Brits. And (in my mind) probably from hipster areas (East London and Brighton come to mind).

    But, I may be very wrong. All I know is that, like other 50-something BrE male commenters here, my relationship to the word is similar to one you arrived with.

  43. Thank you for your blog. I appreciate both your perspective and personality.

    The urge to explain has been around forever (my parents called those persons know-it-alls), and the prevalence is higher among those who need to be right, draw validation from display of their knowledge, and value win-lose competition- behaviour the culture reinforces in males, but which is practiced by both sexes, especially from the accountability-free duck blind of social media.

    I am Canadian (born and educated in US). We do not use the c-word casually or freely, in either of our official languages.

    I'm sorry that you were treated with incivility.

  44. The consequences of the inappropriate use of the "c" word is illustrated by a news item in the Law Society Gazette - a partner in a very substantial law firm has been fined £15k by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (and liable for the Solicitors Regulations Agency's costs of £12k) for the use of a variation of the word in some private e-mails which were subsequently leaked. Clearly different context from some of the uses mentioned in postings here - but I think it does serve to illustrate that the use of this word is not generally acceptable.

  45. Oh - a reference to the Gazette article -

  46. The man's abuse was disgraceful, and I commiserate, Lynne. The c-word is nasty: I (BrE) can't imagine ever using it to a woman, but it is so powerful (for someone of my extreme age) that I can remember using it once or twice as a word of abuse when I thought some bloke had been really nasty. I don't think I would use it in the "silly c-" way (for me that would be "silly bugger").

    I've reached the degree of decay where I regularly have no idea what a word means only to discover the rest of the world uses it every other sentence. Frequently the first time I hear a word is when it is being declared Word of the Year. So it's not surprising that the word "mansplaining" is unfamiliar to me. Moreover so is the phenomenon. I shall watch to see if I am guilty (I don't doubt it).

    Not so long ago I found that another poster on a blog I visited frequently was convinced (wrongly) that I was female. I wonder what stereotypical female traits I had been exhibiting. Womanbeingsplainedat. perhaps.

  47. Oh Lynne, this was a wonderful read, smart and on the right line of feminism for me (not aggressive, but grounded in facts).

  48. I have to drop by again and say that for in the '80s, I decorated a wall with a poster of the British improv group Cunning Runts.

    (Pardon me if I mansplain.) That was a reference to the now old joke, What is the difference between a midgets' chess club and a women's track team?

  49. I'm hesitant to even respond to this post, since there is certain part of the internet commentariat that seems to think that only females are qualified to discuss sexism. But since I'm feeling both earnest and reckless today, here we go:

    To reduce emotional loading, I'm going to talk about the conversation in chronological order. This should not, in itself, be taken to be an apology for the behavior of anyone involved.

    As I see it, you began with a fairly snarky snap comment of the sort that I've made many times. When I made such comments with as little humor-marking as you used, the results have been responses much the same as what your interlocutor's first response was. On the internet, where there is no body language, tone of voice, or facial expression to aid communication, there is very little difference between humor and clumsy insult. Latterly I have tried much harder to obviously mark such comments as intending humor, which seems to have helped maintain comity.

    The response to your comment was what sounds to me like an earnest attempt to ensure that communication was happening, though perhaps clumsily written. It is not reasonable to run a search on everyone you reply to in even a slightly active comment stream. Or perhaps I should say that there is no chance whatsoever that I would regularly run such a search. And misunderstanding and superficial reading is so rampant that being especially explicit to differentiate between snark and honest misunderstanding. (I must infer from your description, as you did not/could not quote the response.) The difference between condescension and an earnest attempt to communicate over a limited bandwidth communication stream can be very thin.

    I read your response to that as a funny/not funny, barely veiled accusation of sexism. And it was done in a typical passive/aggressive "Have you stopped beating your wife" tone that is normally intended to foreclose debate while offering insult. After initial snark followed by (apparently) intentional insult, there was no way that the conversation was going to have a happy ending. The best possible outcome from that point would have been for the conversation to simply disappear into the depths of time, but it sounds like emotions were starting to run rather high, as is typical when intentional insult is perceived.

    His final response was, of course, both boorish and stupid, losing the battle on both the emotional and intellectual planes. But as far as I can tell from your report, the real problem was with mismatched conversational marking schemes and expectations and a lack of charity on both sides that rapidly degenerated into ad hominem.

  50. Not going to go into the ins and outs of the spat, beyond noting it's yet another example of how something to do with internet communication tends to drive these things to extremes ever more quickly, but that's another issue.

    Just a couple of extra notes on the vocabulary. I'm with those of the older persuasion in the UK to whom the word is beyond the pale. Clearly there's some sort of process by which some words lose their offensiveness - compare and contrast, say, with the French word "con" which, though vulgar, nowadays simply means something without much more force than "idiot" (you should have seen the attempts by the British press to translate and parse Sarkozy's outburst to a voter- "Casse-toi, pauvre con!") - and then, perhaps interestingly, with the English "twat", which nowadays seems to carry more or less the same meaning and level of offensiveness, although AFAIK it has the same original physiological meaning (happy to be corrected, if I'm wrong). Or "bugger", which is very rarely used in its original meaning and with its original force, but is now mildly comedic. I remember being mildly shocked about 40 years ago to hear it used in the English Midlands by a mother as an affectionate collective term for her children, and it's so common in Australia as to feature in a well-known TV advert. Then again, even in the 80s or thereabouts, Kenny Everett invented a character for his TV sketch show of a grotesquely egomaniac female filmstar occasionally referred to as Cupid Stunt. But once something starts descending the offensiveness scale, what words do we invent to carry the original degree of offensiveness, or can existing words go up, rather than down, the scale (well, I suppose some racial/ethnic epithets, but I don't want to go there, either)?

    As for "cow" - interesting that it's considered so deliberately hostile elsewhere in the UK; it's offensive and meant to be, but the level of force behind it, to me, is not that great. I only ever seem to hear it as suggesting mostly temporary irritation with someone's perceived bossiness (which is odd, considering the animal's generally placid reputation). Since that someone would almost invariably be a woman, I suppose this is where we came in.......

    1. Kenny Everett was astounded that the BBC accepted Cupid Stunt but turned down another character called Mary Hinge. (In case it's BrE, Minge: female genitalia.)

  51. In response to Tilman Baumann (and acknowledging that I'm coming at this from the other side of the pond): I find that c*** used towards women is extremely offensive, but not innately sexist. In other words, we're female, so to call us by our female parts is crass, but to some degree accurate. To use c*** towards a male is both offensive and sexist. To insult a male, you call him a female. That really makes you feel valued as a woman.

    And Lynne? Sorry you're being trolled. I think that girls and women realize that having a Facebook account, playing an online game, commenting on a blog post, or having any sort of online presence means that eventually, inevitably, you are going to have people calling you explicit names and expressing their desire to place certain body parts into certain orifices that may or may not have been intended for that purpose. It's depressing that this is the expectation. Maybe someday our daughters will be shocked that this was ever considered normal...

  52. I had to look up "mansplaining." I hope I don't do it. I do find myself rattling on sometimes, but not in a condescending way, I think. I'll be on guard.

  53. Thanks for this blog post. For me, as an AmE speaker, I find the c-word utterly awful. I can't imagine using it, and have had it hurled at me very infrequently, but it has always felt like a threat. It isn't anything like the f-word, which is one of my all time favorite words and one I use a lot.

    But thanks especially for the articulation of mansplaining, which is something that so many women experience regularly, and which so many men seem utterly oblivious to. Maybe this post will help a few more people take women's experiences seriously!

  54. I'm too old to start using smiley faces. To me, it's like saying, "you might not get what I mean, so I'll draw you a picture". Isn't that a sort of 'splaining?

    I certainly don't believe that nuance shouldn't be used on the internet. It's never got me in trouble (much). If I think my words aren't making my point in a clear way, I rewrite them until they are.

  55. There is also (in AusEng) an interesting distinction between offensiveness quotient (OQ) moderated by qualifiers. A good example of which is the rock band TISM's 1998 hit, "I Might Be A Cunt, But I'm Not A Fucking Cunt."

  56. When you write "use words for women (or our parts) as the ultimate way to put down a man" did you mean that it's men, not women, who get insulted so, or that it's words for women (or our parts), not men (or theirs) which are used as insults? Because believe you me, here in Britain, among insults directed at men, there are some that are based on words for male parts, and are very commonly used. It's not just women whose parts are the basis of insults.

    I'm sorry you were the target of such inexcusably rude invective in that PM.

    Returning now to Jason's first remark: I agree with what Doug Sundseth said. Now, if that remark was wrong, what should he have said? What's the polite way to state opinions? Must we confine ourselves to just stating the opinions, but withholding what we think is their factual basis, unless explicitly asked for it?

    I don't see any evidence that he thought women can't be funny -- he might have overlooked humour in a similar remark made by a man.

    But really, "mansplaining"? I'm surprised to see that way of insulting men used in anger. I didn't know it was still used.

  57. Rosie, I wasn't claiming that words for male parts aren't also used for men, but that words for women used for men are extremely insulting. But I'd say calling a man a 'cunt' or a 'pussy' is qualitatively different than calling him a 'prick' or a 'dick' or a 'tool'. And the 'feeling' of these insults is also different in the US and UK (and probably elsewhere).

    Note also how calling a man a 'girl' is usually interpreted as an insult, but calling a woman a 'guy' or a 'dude' is not. There is an asymmetry in how words for and about the sexes are used. Similarly, "men's" names that come to be popular for women stop being used for men because somehow a woman being called a man's name is ok, but a man being called a woman's name is not. (cf. Shirley, Kimberley, Lynn, Leslie... will be interesting to see what happens with recent trendy names).

  58. Hello again. I read somewhere that, in our (subliminally) coercive civilization/culture/society, women and children have been traditionally considered as incomplete men, i.e. as incomplete human beings ―a man is the default person; a woman is just a marked term. This explains, for example, why it is right for a woman to dress like a man (because that seems to “complete” her, as it were) whereas an ordinary man cannot put on women’s clothes without coming down to a lower level.

  59. The primest of all prime examples of the British English use of the c-word is surely one of the recordings of Derek and Clive (Dudley Moore and Peter Cook) from the early seventies... there's a lot going on here to get - which I daren't mansplain! So here's the clip:

    Also, I remember hearing once that in parts of Wales the word cunt's used as an honestly friendly nickname, because it's a lovely thing. I don't know whether it's true or not, perhaps such propaganda says more about the relationship between England and Wales than anything else.


  60. Is the insult "tool" derived from the body part name? I always thought it was derived from the "object used by others, without a mind of its own" meaning.

    Also, speaking of insulting men by calling them female, is calling a man a "bitch" a British thing or is it just Elton John? I think the verb "to bitch" can be applied to a man, but I've never heard the noun, except in the song.

  61. I've been away from my computer for three days, but this topic has been playing on my mind.

    Other category terms seem to be gaining ground, but I'm still attached to the popular category of SWEAR WORDS — because it's so firmly based on how the words are used. This I take to be a two-fold expressive power:

    1 They express extremes of anger or frustration (or, more rarely, of disapointment).
    2 They express bravura at breaking a verbal taboo.

    The anger etc may be feigned or exaggerated, or the bravura may be playful but (for me at least) these two possibilities of expression are defining.

    These paired-together functions are (in our culture) timeless, so the category has survived while the contents have changed. The name swearing recalls the original content: oath-taking formulae that broke the Third-Commandment. The subsequent inclusion of non-religious use of God or Jesus or Christ is something one rarely encounters now. Most of the current contents are 'Anglo-Saxon' words referring to execratory and sexual organs and functions.

    C*nt is a swear word; cow isn't.

    I find it confusing to conflate swear words with other taboo words performing other functions.

    INSULTS are uttered not so much to express anger as to provoke anger in the person they're addressed to. Insulting words are unacceptable in context but not necessarily so when not addressed to anybody. Uttering an insult need not involve breaking a verbal taboo. Yes, there can be an association because speakers often want to add anger to insult.

    It's unacceptable to call someone a cow in the same way as it's unacceptable to call them a berk or a pillock or a non-slang term such as idiot.

    DEROGATORY WORDS convey a contempt or lack of respect. They can be used as insults, of course, but it's not the primary function. However something strange (strange to me, anyway) has happened in recent years. Derogatory words have acquired enormous taboo. The n-word has become far more offensive than most swear words. This is a little bit strange, but what I find really weird is that words that just might be used as paraphrases of insults are subjected by some people to the same degree of hostility. This is what I think is behind the political correctness argument.

    Personally, I have two seemingly contradictory reactions to the PC phenomenon

    1. I respect the consensus not to use terms like spastic or Paki.
    2. I have no respect whatsoever for the argument that the use of words in a non-insulting, non-derogatory context gives comfort to those who use them in anger. Allegedly, it normalises 'hate-words'. To me that's the opposite of the truth: the words were perfectly normal; this new verbal sub-culture has first redesignated them as 'hate-words'and then de-normailsed them.

    A skilled speaker can use either word playfully in such a way that the anger element is removed. The difference is that c*nt has such a strong taboo that it's so much more difficult to use than a word like cow without provoking a strong reaction.

    (Conclusion to follow)

  62. For reasons of word-count, I had to omit this conclusion...

    So (for me) cow is an insult when used insultingly. Occasionally it can be derogatory if that is supported by the context. What make the word either of these things is the surrounding tone of voice or context or combination with words like stupid.

    Unusually, the word can't normally be addressed to or refer to a man or a boy. (The same can be said for bitch.) So it can be used to add a note of msogyny, but that is surely not its defining function.

    In British English at least, the c-word can be addressed to or refer to a man or boy, so any link with misogyny is relatively sporadic, certainly not a defining function. The extreme degree of taboo compared to other swear words presumably reflects some underlying misogyynistic strain in our cultural history. But that doesn't prove that there' always a direct, here-and-now meaning.

    ... and the final paragraph in the posting above actually belongs here in the conclusion:

    A skilled speaker can use either word playfully in such a way that the anger element is removed. The difference is that c*nt has such a strong taboo that it's so much more difficult to use than a word like cow without provoking a strong reaction.

  63. For reasons of word-cout, I also omitted this discussion of the paired-together functions of
    1 expressing anger etc
    2 expressing bravura at breaking a taboo...

    Biographically, it's the second function, the bravura function that we exercise first, brilliantly encapsulated by Michael Flanders

    Ma's out, Pa's out. Let's talk rude
    Pee po belly bum drawers!

    In later childhood and adolescence we acquire a more adult vocabulary and start applying it to the expression of anger etc. Personally, I never properly overcame infant inhibitions, so I grew up to be inept as a swearer. I just can't do it.

    Historically too, I think the bravura came first. People often quote Chaucer use of queynte, but he limited it to the bawdy Miller's Tale and the salty speech of the Wife of Bath. The word wasn't as shocking, but it must have shocked a little bit.

    Shakespeare seems to have had fun in a mildly shocking way:

    By my life, this is my lady's hand. These be her very C's, her U's and her T's; and thus makes she her great P's. It is, in contempt of question, her hand.

    Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
    No, my lord.
    I mean, my head upon your lap?
    Ay, my lord.
    Do you think I meant country matters?

  64. This comment has been removed by the author.

  65. Jason did not delete the response. Rather, facebook hides all posts by people you have blocked. The post says:
    "For decades there has been a chorus of researchers who speak about other benefits: supposed improvement in cognitive functions, better memory, better social skills, etc. That's what they mean. Of course, fluency in a second language is its own reward."

    Jason also posted the following response to the comment about mansplaining:
    "Lynne Murphy No, it's not. Apparently you had nothing to say as well."

  66. Aha, thanks David. I did the blocking/looking in the wrong order, then. Will cross out that statement in the post.

    Now, if I'd seen his reply, I would have been far more tempted to post the screenshot of his private message to me as a response to his response there. (I won't now.) Facebook has done little or nothing with my complaint about the private messaging. I was rather annoyed with what FB allows you to report. (There doesn't seem to be a way to privately report it to the admin of the LSA page.) You can report abuse based on ethnic background or sexual orientation, but not on gender, unless it involves threats of violence. I just had to tick the box that said "he insulted me". But using the word he used in in the context that he used it, I would say it's gender-based abuse. Some might say the same about my use of the word 'mansplaining' (I wouldn't, for reasons outlined in the post). I think there are basic differences between questioning a behavio(u)r in public and disparaging a stranger's intelligence and gender in private.

    But this means that if any of you want to know who this pillar of the community is, the information is available on the LSA page on Facebook, my blocking of his identity notwithstanding.

  67. Browning, of course, has a fine example of the usage of the word twat in Pippa Passes
    But at night, brother Howlet, far over the woods,
    Toll the world to thy chantry;
    Sing to the bats’ sleek sisterhoods
    Full complines with gallantry:
    Then, owls and bats, cowls and twats,
    Monks and nuns, in a cloister’s moods,
    Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry!

    I'm female mid-fifties, British. I would not use cunt (normally) in any public discussion and find it very offensive when applied to women. But I think that is because it is used with such viciousness, rather than any objection to the thing itself (as shown by the mild offensiveness of calling people twats and berks (Cockney rhyming slang). I would be very happy if it became a term of affection. I've never understood why it (the anatomical object) was considered offensive. "Cow" used in the UK, can also have a nasty tone to it; implying a combination of fat, stupid and uncooperative. ("She was a right cow" implies someone who was extremely unhelpful.)

  68. Brilliant article! One of my friends has (female & British & English Language student) has said she has really become find of the c-word and will use it in sone cases endearingly and other cases...hmm not. 😃

  69. Reminds me of the transitions of fanny and bitch, which I still grapple with (AmE speaker). Fanny is utterly innocuous to me (and most yanks) and using bitch toward a male is utterly meaningless and inexplicable (and simply should not be used at all, except by dog breeders). I'll just never use the c-word, ever, toward anyone, anywhere.

    1. I believe 'bitch' is a term for the passive person in male homosexual anal intercourse. (Might that be Elton John's use?) It can therefore be extremely offensive to men. Coincidentally, yesterday evening I was watching a program about US prisons, which made it very clear indeed that 'bitch' was the absolute worst thing one male prisoner could call another, and would guarantee a fight.

  70. When you get round to the "Cow" post Lynne, can you refer to this range of toiletries ( (Does anyone else channel Fungus the Bogeyman's response to toilet water whenever they see the word in that context?)

  71. Typhon said...

    Here's a shining example of the BrE use of the word.

    I've seen that movie a few times and for the longest time I thought Brick Top was saying "a audible c*nt", which made no sense to me (it seems that someone in the comment section of that video thought the same thing). That's probably because his H-dropping, R-tapping Cockney accent makes "horrible" sound very similar to "audible" in an American accent. I know this isn't a phonetics blog, but I just found that interesting.

    But more on topic: the C-word is _clearly_ not being used to disparage women in that clip. The AmEng equivalent of what he said there would be, "I'm an evil f**ker/bastard/SOB." As Lynne said, that's very different from how you'd usually hear "c*nt" used in the US, if you ever heard it used. Although I have heard some Bostonians and New Yorkers use it to describe men or mixed-gender groups. But they're a bit closer to England than most of America, both linguistically and geographically.

  72. A propos the use of terms referring to male and female genitalia; in at least some of the (male-dominated, I guess) BrE circles in which I rotate, "cunt" is quite frequently used affectionately between friends (and more between quite close friends), but dick/prick would (hardly?) never be used that way, only with clear hostility or at best dismissiveness.
    In terms of qualitative difference, to me dick and prick have a primary connotation of stupidity which unmodified cunt does not (premodifiers like "stupid" make a lot of difference, though - you could probably find material for another article or two on those...); as a straightforward term of abuse, cunt carries instead a connotation of innate or wilful malice. Twat however carries a bit of both, while being a bit less forceful than cunt.

    Trying to examine my own idiolect, I (male, 50s, southern English) think I'd be very unlikely to use it as a vocative to a woman, but slightly more likely to use it as a descriptor, although I think I'd still set a higher threshold of dislike - say, only politicians and road users who seem actively likely to kill me - than I would for a man (or for an inanimate object. I think that I swear at inanimate objects a couple of orders of magnitude more often than I swear at people). It doesn't actually "feel" like a gendered form of abuse to me (although it clearly is in terms of both referent and usage patterns) - the literal meaning feels wholly detached from its use as a swearword.

  73. Those responses to being accused of mansplaining are fair enough if it's true, but they assume that your accuser is correct and that you WERE mansplaining. There's also the case of what happens when you weren't.

    The example in this post may have been a genuine example of mansplaining, but that doesn't mean that every instance of someone saying something is mansplaining actually is.

    For example, if i, as a man, correct someone or explain something to someone online, and don't know their gender/sex, (and depending on the site/ community, i often assume they're male because a lot of sites are skewed male), i don't see how i could have been mansplaining, since mansplaining is specifically about a man condescendingly explaining something to a woman he assumes knows less than he does when she in fact knows more.

    Or, when i do in fact know a lot about a subject, and i have spotted someone spreading misinformation which proves they do in fact not know as much as they think they do about that subject. (also usually without me actually knowing their gender before they bring it up to accuse me of mansplaining).

    Personally i haven't been accused of mansplaining many times, but i've seen various people being accused of it in such cases, and often the topic at hand is something i know about so i am able to determine who actually knows what they're talking about and who doesn't.

    I've also seen women accused of mansplaining (again because the 'mansplainer' doesn't mention their gender and the 'mansplainee' assumes it must be a woman doing it).

    I've also experienced 'femsplaining' by women who assume men don't know anything about a subject when they in fact do. usually it's about different topics that have different stereotypes about who is expected to know about them. But i've definitely seen it happen and had it happen to me.

  74. As background, I'm 72, British, Londoner, and spent nine years in the army, where I quickly learnt to swear proficiently. I had to give someone a short lift in my car part-way through reading this item, and with heightened sensitivity I noticed that I used 'cunt' twice when commenting on other road users. I meant it very mildly: no stronger than 'idiot' and possibly less so. They couldn't hear me (although my passenger could), but the swearing got rid of the frustration they had engendered and allowed me to carry on driving calmly and safely.

    I recently read someone, maybe Lynne in another post, regretting that certain words could shock and offend while other words with the same meaning would not. So: in the list vagina, vulva, pussy, minnie (BrE childish, prob from French 'minet'; Disney sell(s) girls' items proudly declaring "I love Minnie" ;-p ), muff, twat, cunt, it is surely only the last two that retain any force, and twat is becoming less offensive. The force of swearing ought to be related to the intention of the person swearing but clearly isn't, for an American hearing me call my brother a dozy cunt would be very shocked, judging by this post and comments, while I and my brother would smile at each other. These two points taken together seem to mean it is the sound alone that is offensive, not the meaning, not the intent. People are conditioned to react to the sound, regardless of context or meaning - a bit like Facebook's algorithm blocking people who live in Scunthorpe. And to my mind it is a shame that certain sounds in this almost magic thing that we call language have - purely in the sounds themselves, stripped of all meaning - the power to shock or outrage. I'm not putting down the shocked, the outraged, merely regretting their conditioning, which ought to be as relevant today as Victorians' supposed shock at the sight of uncovered piano legs.

    The force of swearwords wears off with more frequent use, desensitising the conditioning referred to above, which is why the taboo words of my mother's day such as bloody, bugger, bum, sod, are now just about innocuous. As someone who swears often and without thought, I have long hoped for a time when all swearwords have become mild intensifiers, terms of endearment or merely descriptive, and when the intent of a speaker to insult, provoke or denigrate will have to be carried by more than a random phoneme or group of them.

    And swearing does not indicate a limited vocabulary or intelligence - far from it.

  75. I should have said that I would not call an unknown male a cunt because of the certainty that he would take it as a provocation, no matter how much I might smile while saying it. And I would not say it to a woman who I don't know or who I know does not like swearing because I have no desire to cause offence. In fact I don't swear at all before women I don't know and seldom before those I do know who have communicated their distaste for it. I also rarely swear at all before unknown males because I cannot gauge what effect it will have on their opinion of me. Which demonstrates that I am conscious of my audience and the effect swearing might have on them. I suppose this boils down to what so many others have said: that it's only fine in a (mostly) male environment when people know each other, although for me that applies to all swearing, not just 'cunt'.

    But I think we are getting to where I hope we will end up: people of my son's generation (he's 23) appear not to have been sensitised to find swearing offensive and the males swear quite freely and the females are not offended. The females swear much less because double standards. It takes offensive delivery to deliver offence, which is to my mind how it should be, whichever words are used.

  76. Re mansplaining I find myself largely in agreement with Doug Sandeth. I hope my next paragraph doesn't seem to Lynne like a fourth "man explaining her joke to her", because frankly I know Lynne is an expert so I wouldn't dare condescend, and regardless of that I don't give a toss what sex she happens to be; I just want to record my point of view, for what it's worth, in the hope that I can maybe shine a different light on things, even two months late.

    Lynne picked up some imprecise English and, seeing the humour, pointed it out as being wrong in what it literally said rather than what it meant (so a bit like the 'mental health' blog item). Jason, a linguist so not an ignorant know-all, knew the subject matter. He surely read the offending subhead as it was meant without focusing on what it literally said, thought from Lynne's comment that she had not understood and, not identifying her sarcasm, responded with a brief explanation. Lynne, offended by what she interpreted as Jason's mansplaining, was provoked into posting a provocative response. This provoked Jason into overreacting with an utterly unacceptable outburst, presumably made privately because Jason didn't dare do it publicly.

    What I feel I see here is misunderstanding and over-readiness to be offended on both sides, culminating in Jason offendedly and so offensively spitting the dummy. I suspect that at the time neither took any steps to discover more about the other (well you don't, do you, when dashing off a 30-second comment).

    I don't think it helps to hang the mansplaining label on such a weak example when there is so much about that clearly qualifies. I just don't see enough evidence in "For decades there has been a chorus of researchers who speak about other benefits: supposed improvement in cognitive functions, better memory, better social skills, etc. That's what they mean. Of course, fluency in a second language is its own reward" (thanks for the quote, David). As the PM makes clear, Jason didn't know Lynne was a linguist so condescension is hard to prove, and any gender element has to be inferred from the fact that it was a male speaking to a female, which, without evidence of condescension, just isn't enough for me.

    Nice word and useful concept, mansplaining. I just hope my comment isn't an example of it.

  77. As a young Scot, cunt is used by everyone my age. It just means person now. I also had absolutely no idea it was a gendered thing. Never heard anyone refer to a vagina as a cunt either, that seems unusual to me. In fact, it is so neutral people need to prefix it with sound-cunt for a good person or shit-cunt for a bad one. If a male or female mate walked in and asked "anycunt up for the pub?" no one would bat an eyelid. Probably wouldn't say it around my parents though. Like KeithD said above, its the tone/context in which you say it that makes it offensive.

    1. Are you saying that, in your linguistic community, the C-word is completely disconnected from the female genitalia? Remarkable!

  78. If that's true (and it may very well be, as younger people in some circles in the UK do seem to have decided it's not as powerful an insult as all that, as happened to "twat" before it and "con" in French) - then it raises the question, what words will carry the emotional force and social impact that will do the same job? Because, sure as eggs is eggs, people (oh, all right, men) will still want to have graded levels of insult to apply to each other.

  79. BrE, Scot, mid 60s. I grew up in a mining village, and was used to men using the f- and c-words casually, although less usually in front of women. I do remember a particularly upsetting family dispute, when a distant uncle was referred to as a “pure swine”, in such vitriolic tones as to leave no doubt that this was regarded as a particularly strong form of “swearing”.

    I also remember several men being referred to as “old blurts”, because of a tendency for sleazy and inappropriate (even creepy) comments towards women and girls. Many years later, I was surprised to hear this word in the lyrics of a Christie Moore song. As a result of reading this post, I,ve just Googled the word. It appears to be Belfast slang, with the same anatomical meaning as the c-word.

    Lynne, I do not regard the e-mail you received as acceptable or defensible under any circumstances.

  80. I can relate to some of your points, and I agree that the act of explaining things to people who don't need explanations can be performed by either gender to any other gender. Anyway, thank you for bringing this up.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)