Language · On the box · Word of the week

Word of the week: The C Word

This piece is about the 4-letter word that begins with “C” and rhymes with “hunt”. In the thousand or so pieces published so far on this Blog I have referred to this word a few times but never spelt it out, and will not do so here.

Over the last ten days I have watched both series of the Netflix show “After Life”, written and directed by Ricky Gervais. All 12 episodes feature at least one character using The C Word. Even the woman who has just celebrated her 100th birthday, played by Annette Crosbie (best known to many of us as Margaret Meldrew in “One Foot in the Grave”), uses the word repeatedly to describe the other residents at her care home. It seems to have been a deliberate choice, to include the word in every single episode. In one of the later shows (S2Ep4 I think) you have to wait for about 20 minutes before it crops up, but there it is, in a home video flashback, uttered by Lisa, the late wife of Gervais’s character Tony.

The series is rated “15” and I have noticed that The C Word is used in many recent films with the same rating, including Oscar winners “The Favourite” and “I, Tonya”. It still surprises me to hear it. I have never been shocked by it but know many people who are. When the word was both spoken and shown on the screen in the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode “Beloved Aunt” over 20 years ago it really stood out. I don’t recall reading it onscreen before that time. This IMDb page summarizes the show: “When Cheryl’s aunt dies, the family asks Larry to write the obituary. But when it gets printed in the newspaper, an unfortunate typo lands Larry in the hot seat”. At the time I found it a bit of a stretch that “Beloved Aunt” would be printed with a “C” instead of the “A”, but it was certainly memorable.

This Guardian piece by Mark Lawson from February 2004 offers an excellent look at how people’s reactions to obscenities on TV have changed. It was prompted by John Lydon’s use of “the most generally offensive of the slang terms for the female genitals” (Lawson’s words) on a live broadcast of “I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!”. The term appears six times in the article, as he warns you in the opening paragraph. I read it at the time and have often quoted one specific part of it. Having just re-read it I was happy to find that I had remembered and quoted the relevant story correctly. Here it is, the last three paragraphs copied from the original article, but with the offending word asterisked out:

Let me finish, though, with an anecdote which may give some comfort to both sides in this dispute. Most of the language wars in broadcasting are fought in the name of children. But the young perhaps come to their own accommodation with obscenity.

Last year, I took my 10-year-old son to see Leeds United play at Arsenal, among whose supporters we were sitting. Following a series of mistakes by the home team’s defender, the red-and-white-scarved men around us began a furious chant of: “Luzhny, you useless Russian c***!” They repeated this line for several minutes.

At half-time, my son said: “Daddy, you know what they were shouting about Luzhny?” I was about to deliver a tender liberal lecture on how this was a grossly offensive term which should not be used in front of women or about women’s fronts, when he said: “He isn’t Russian. He’s Ukrainian.” 

I was at that game too. Leeds won 3-2, guaranteed Premier League survival for another season, and scuppered Arsenal’s chances of winning the title. Many of the Leeds fans were dressed up as Jimmy Savile (wigs, bling, cigars) and suggesting that “Jim’ll Fix It” for Leeds to stay up. I wasn’t impressed at the time – I never liked Savile – and in retrospect that stunt was far more offensive than any language used at the game.




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