Monday, December 06, 2010

Country matters

"Countryside," according to the definition given to it by Stephen Fry on the Radio 4 panel game I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue a few years ago, means "to kill Piers Morgan".

It was witty, it had a grain of truth that few in Britain would disagree with and, spoken rather than written, it was indisputably filthy.

No one was in any doubt that the National Treasure was calling the then editor of the Daily Mirror a cunt. Quite premeditated and purely for laughs. And at lunchtime on a Sunday too.

I could be wrong, but I don't recall there being any outcry or newspapers running stories about it. There was certainly no apology issued by the BBC and, given that the programme is recorded, there clearly was no problem with what Fry said.

Quite right. Except that Jim Naughtie's verbal slip on the Today programme, which was obviously said in error and apologised for immediately, seems to have got some people hot and bothered. Introducing the 8.10am interview this morning, he referred to "Jeremy Cunt... er, Hunt, the Culture Secretary".

Most found it funny, to be fair, including Naughtie, right, who had a bout of coughs as he tried to carry on reading the news while sniggers went on in the background. My mother sent me a text message within half an hour calling it Naughtie's "Johnners moment", a reference to Brian Johnston's fit of giggles after Jonathan Agnew described Ian Botham not quite getting his leg over.

But Today reported 16 emails of complaint by mid-afternoon and presumably there will be more when the papers report the story tomorrow. The Daily Mail, for whom countryside seems too tame, has already ranted on its website about Naughtie, and Andrew Marr who repeated the profanity when discussing the story, "turning the air blue", calling it an "embarrassment" and a "bombshell".

It is surprising that in this day and age people can still get so upset about the C word. It can be horrid when said with anger or venom, of course, but so can a simple "oi" when yelled by a drunkard in the street. Likewise, while it can be offensively sexist, so can "bitch" or "cow" if snarled on EastEnders. Motive offends more, to my ear, than meaning.

When I started in journalism, working for Giles Coren on the Times Diary column, cunt was used adjectivally. "Where's the cunting Daily Mail?" he might ask although probably not to Rupert Murdoch.

It had the same outrageous force as the words pillock or twat, both of which denote body parts but which come a fair bit lower on the Mail's List of Outrage.

Personally, I prefer the term "twunt", a portmanteau of twat and cunt for someone who doesn't quite fit into either camp. Or both, like Julian Assange.

The word has been about since the Middle Ages, in various spelling forms. Gropecunte Lane was a common street name in red-light areas until it disappeared in the 16th century. Chaucer has both his Miller - "prively he caught her by the queynte" - and Wife of Bath - "you shall have queynte right enough at eve" - use his spelling of the word quite openly.

Shakespeare has Hamlet make a play on the word when he relaxes in Ophelia's lap with talk of "country matters", a sign that it had become Carry On smut but still not offensive, while Katherine in Henry V mishears her English tutor saying "foutre" and "coun" (French for fuck and cunt) when she meant "foot" and "gown" and tells her off for being rude. John Donne, Samuel Pepys and Robert Burns also use the C word fairly tamely.

By the 20th century it had clearly become crude, with Joyce and Lawrence using it, but does it still offend? After all, even Sir Robin Day once used the word, in an interview with Dennis Skinner. And he was so straight he wore a bow tie. (video from Guido)

1 comment:

Peter McGuinness said...

Assange should be referred to as a 'cunting twat'. Although 'self-important tool' could be used in gentle company. Don't know what the fuss is about up there. Down here, 'cunt' is a simple common descriptive, used as a substitution for 'chap' or 'fellow'.

'Moot' (pronounced like 'foot') is the bad one in Australia. Same meaning. Sounds nice and crude too. Very satisfying to use in heavy traffic.