One era’s foul-mouthed insult is another’s evocatively named topological feature, which is why, if you find yourself driving past a clefted hill in rural Lincolnshire, you might be delighted to know that it was once referred to as “Cuntewellewang”, not that far from “Scamcunt Grene”.
I gleaned these and many other utterly diverting facts from Jenni Nuttall’s Mother Tongue: The Surprising History of Women’s Words, in which she minutely details the shifts of language and meaning over the centuries through the lens of women’s experiences.
Who knew that medieval anatomists once used the term “stones” to mean both testicles and ovaries? That, for many centuries, “girl” was a gender-neutral term? That, in words equally applicable to men and women, where now we may describe sex as “fucking”, once we might also have said “swiving” or “sarding”?
Nuttall, an academic specialising in medieval literature, was partly inspired to write Mother Tongue by the process of trying to find adequate and accurate ways to explain the world – and women’s place in it – to her growing daughter; acknowledging the complexity of the past, she found, helped to make sense of the present.
This came to mind in light of recent reactions to women using words that in previous societies – though not, if Alison, the Wife of Bath, is anything to go by, medieval ones – were thought to render her unspeakably vulgar.
The journalist Mishal Husain, challenging home secretary James Cleverly on his use of the words “batshit” and “shit-hole” (allegedly to describe the government’s proposed Rwanda scheme and Stockton-on-Tees respectively) on Radio 4’s Today programme.
Emma Stone getting all the laughs by calling – in friendship, naturally – Taylor Swift an “asshole” at the Golden Globes.
Chief BBC News presenter Maryam Moshiri going viral after a jokey countdown with TV crew members that appeared to show her give them the middle finger was accidentally broadcast. (Moshiri explained the context on X, prompting a tweeted response from Rylan Clark – “Babe, iconic. Wanna send u flowers to celebrate” – that must have been worth all the BBC-haters calling for her censure.)
Women being rude, sometimes to one another, still seems to have the power to raise eyebrows. You might think Strephon, the disillusioned lover in Jonathan Swift’s 1732 poem The Lady’s Dressing Room, still walked among us. Strephon nips into Celia’s quarters when they’re empty, hoping to have a nose around, but is rewarded instead by her dirty underwear, sweaty and be-dandruffed combs and, the very worst of all, her chamber pot.
Thoroughly traumatised by the realisation that “Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!”, he scampers off, his punishment for voyeurism not merely that now Celia is ruined for him, but so are all the smelly women he ever meets. He should, Swift writes wisely, “learn to think like me, / And bless his ravished sight to see / Such order from confusion sprung, / Such gaudy tulips raised from dung.”
Having had so many of their body parts appropriated for the purposes of swearing, surely women should now be free to curse at will and at length. And, indeed, various studies over the past few years suggest thatwe do; the gap between men and women when it comes to words such as “fuck” has dramatically decreased. There is, after all, nothing like letting fly a volley of profanities and oaths when you drop a brick on your toe or when a talentless oaf gets the promotion you know should have been yours.
The only problem with swearing is that its prevalence diminishes its shock value – not especially to polite society, for who gives a fuck what it thinks, but to yourself. If you have ever wondered whether there is an as-yet-undiscovered curse that might give your angriest speech acts extra ballast, you will know what I mean.
All of which makes me keener than ever to see director Thea Sharrock’s forthcoming film Wicked Little Letters, based on a true story from the 1920s of poison-pen letters sent to the inhabitants of a British seaside town that became a national scandal. In the film, Olivia Colman’s innately prim and conservative Edith is liberated by her friendship with Rose, played by Jessie Buckley, an incomer from Ireland who is prone to unleash a stream of invective whenever crossed – which is often, considering she is accused of sending filthily insulting anonymous letters to her neighbours.
If you watch the trailer online, you will note the multiple comments entirely delighted by the sight of a swearing Colman; perhaps it’s because she’s played two British queens, or because we see her as somehow irreproachably wholesome, even when she’s playing against type.
The more serious point, beyond the gleefulness with which some of us turn the air blue, is the need to resist all attempts to impose on us any misplaced notions of delicacy. For sadly for Strephon, we do indeed shit, gaudy tulips that we are.