Cultural Learning Curves

  In The Canterville Ghost (1887), Wilde wrote: ‘We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language’. This statement rang true for me recently. I had just posted a picture of a female protester in Scotland. She was near a Golf Course owned by Donald Trump who was visiting. The woman held a placard which read ‘Donal Trump is a C*nt’. Not been a huge fan of the racist demagogue I immediately had some empathy with the woman. I posted the picture on social media.

What happened next took me by surprise and is a lesson to everyone. Several people viewed the post but two of my American cousins commented that the post was ‘obscene’. Now growing up In Ireland and especially after living in Australia I have heard the ‘C’ word (hereinafter to be just referred to as ‘It’) used in conversation regularly. I’ve heard It at football games, in bars and It wasn’t been uttered exclusively by men either. In all these uses not once was It used to describe female genitalia. More often it was used to describe a questionable refereeing decision, a person who had done something lousy to a friend, someone who was a tough employer, an over-zealous policeman, a strict teacher and so on. I would never have considered any of these uses ‘obscene’, rude yes, but the reality is that on a scale of insults I would put the ‘It’ on a par with ‘a**hole’. I had the feeling that I had offended my cousins all over a cultural difference. I decided to do a bit of Google Study to try and establish why the attitude to this word had diverged so dramatically.

The first place I looked was an American site The entry on the ‘It’ word says it is a

“Derogatory term for a woman. Considered by many to be the most offensive word in the English language”.

Did I just disseminate ‘the most offensive word on the English language’? Surely not?

A later entry said a ‘C*nt’ was a stupid/contemptible person of either gender” with the foot note ‘Only in America is this considered a specifically misogynistic insult. In Britain it is most likely to be heard amongst men quarrelling’. 

Kate Warwick guesting on a blog called ‘Strong Language’ describes it as ‘a hand grenade of a word’. 

Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue describes it as ‘a nasty name for a nasty thing’ which would suggest the Scottish Protestor was on the right track.

But still there is no explanation why the ‘C’ word has a vastly more significant impact when used in the US than in the rest of the English Speaking world? That is not to say that it is not a strong word to use anywhere other than the US but it is unlikely to elicit such a visceral disapproval or sentiment.

It would seem that somehow the word in the US evolved a different severity than elsewhere in the English speaking world. There is no real reason for this save that curse words seem to evolve arbitrarily to the point that ‘It’ in America is now practically taboo to use. Contrast this with Australia where the word can be used almost as a substitute for ‘mate’ amongst men. This is not the only word that appears the same but has different connotations on either side of the Atlantic. I remember my first time living in Queens, New York and going in to a shop (that’s a Store thank you) and asking for a ‘box of fags’ instead of a ‘pack of cigarettes’. Then there is the American use of the word ‘fanny’ which refers to a different part of anatomy than over here.

So one can only conclude that there are many words that although they appear to be the same word are radically different both culturally and idiomatically. In Ireland and the UK it is a generic insult, in Australia it is very main stream but in the US it is extremely offensive and slanderous.  We can be all unintentionally guilty of cultural ignorance. I obviously didn’t realise that some people might be offended by the wording of the placard. It seems some of them perhaps did not realise that where the picture was taken the ‘C’ word is just another generic insult. Any wonder George Bernard Shaw described England and America as ‘two nations divided by a common language’, suggesting that whilst Trump may be still a ‘C you Next Tuesday’ in Scotland he remains just a plain asshole at home.

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