A couple of weeks ago Julie Burchill was complaining in the Independent about people who use the C-word. She thoroughly disapproves. But I think she's wrong. It's a splendid word. A super word. A great full-stop of a word. Uttered with a suitable amount of venom, it can bring any conversation to a complete halt, whereas its miserably overused cousin, the F-word, has lost all power to shock.
Julie's objection seems be that using the word to abuse someone denigrates the female sex organ. But she's wrong. The word has two distinctly different meanings. And when used to abuse someone, it has no more to do with the female sex organ than calling someone a silly old bugger has to do with homosexuality.
As a term of abuse, the C-word has developed a distinct meaning of its own. Think for a minute at whom you might hurl it at. Nearly always someone stubborn pedantic, bureaucratic, and - in the way. That's the most important bit - in the way. Someone coming between you and something you want. Not reasonably; but because they claim principle, or bureaucracy, or correct procedure to be on their side. Like the waiter who won't let you sit at the table you want because it's for four, and you're only two, despite the fact the restaurant is completely empty.
A candidate for the C-word is always in the way of something that seems quite reasonable for you to want to do. And therein lies the clue to the word's transition from its original meaning of the female sex organ. In its transitionary stage to being used for an obstructive person, the word was used not about the sex organ itself but of its owner, for telling some randy full-of-himself lout to get lost.
Far from regarding the word unkindly, Julie Burchill should warm to its use in this context. It was created by stubborn, men-resistant, women, dismissing sexual predators. From there, it has come to be used about anyone who is stubborn and pedantic, who makes no effort to compromise, and who unreasonably gets in the way of what seems (to the other person) to be a perfectly reasonable objective.
A perfect example was a couple of weeks ago when a paraplegic passenger was trying to fly from Dallas to Denver. A flight attendant told the pilot his seatbelt might not be sufficient to secure him. So the pilot ordered him off the plane. Three law enforcement officers came onboard to remove him but when they saw the seatbelt was actually perfectly secure they told the pilot it wasn't a law enforcement matter. But the pilot still refused to take off with the man on the plane.
The airline later said, "We had a well-intentioned pilot who was seeking to do the right thing..."
No they didn't. They had a self-important, stubborn, bureaucrat. He never even left the cockpit to assess the situation for himself - a perfect candidate for the C-word.
The point is, it's such a wonderfully expressive word, both ugly and blunt. And that's its beauty - an extra offensive word for an extra offensive occasion.
Like everyone else, though, I don't find it much fun being on the wrong end of it. Some years ago, I was managing Ultravox whose keyboardist was Billy Currie, a likeable chap, but with a tendency to sudden irrational outbursts.
One sunny summer morning, I'd just made a cup of coffee and carried it into the garden to accompany the morning newspaper when the phone rang in the kitchen. I went back inside to answer it and when I picked it up the handset shrieked at me. It was Billy, and he was on fire. "You're an, ass-licking, shit-shovelling, cock-sucking CUNT."
And he banged down the phone.
I can tell you - it quite spoilt my day. I threw the coffee down the sink, put the newspaper in the bin and considered leaving at once for a year in Kathmandu.
But five minutes later the phone rang again and Billy was back with his nicest, smarmiest, what-a-great-manager-you-are voice.
"Simon, did I ring just now and swear at you? I'm really sorry man - I dialed the wrong number - thought you were someone else - sorry mate."
Too much cocaine for breakfast, perhaps?
Find out more about Simon Napier-Bell's work and interests at www.simonnapierbell.com
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