A Very Brief & Exciting History Of The C-Word On Television

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Warning: Mild spoilers ahead for season 5 of House of Cards.
There's a scene in the latest season of House of Cards that you may have missed amidst the cloud of election fraud, murder, and general intrigue that tends to follow the Underwoods wherever they go. It's a quiet moment, which takes place roughly at the 46-minute mark in episode 5. The senate is about to vote on a vice president after the mayhem of election day, and Claire confronts Donald Blythe as he's about to enter the chamber. He tries to placate her, telling her that she must be patient and wait her turn — her time will come, in four years. It's patronizing, sure. But her response is ice cold — bringing up his "dumb, dead wife"? Ouch.
Blythe has always been a bit of a wet blanket, so I was especially shocked by his next words: "You know what I just realized? Your initials. They're missing an 'N' and a 'T.'"
Claire Underwood's initials are C.U. Add in "N" and "T," and you get the word "cunt."
FCC regulations are strict when it comes to swearing on network shows, which are prohibited from using profane language, defined as "so highly offensive that their mere utterance in the context presented may, in legal terms, amount to a nuisance," between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. But with the rise of prestige cable and streaming TV, swearing has become commonplace. Hearing "shit," "bitch," "asshole," or "dick" is barely even worth batting an eyelash over. "Fuck," and all variations thereof, is more surprising, but not all that rare.
Hearing "cunt" is still pretty jarring, though, probably because it doesn't happen often. And that got me thinking — why not?
If you look up "cunt" in the Oxford English Dictionary, you'll get the following definition: "A woman's genitals," followed quickly by its related use, "an unpleasant or stupid person." (Fun fact: "Cunt" was left out of the first edition of the OED, published in 1928, despite having legitimate linguistic roots. In 2014, four different new variations of the word were added.)
Derived from Middle English with Germanic origins, the first English use of the word dates back to 1230, when London's center of prostitution was designated as "Gropecunt Lane." Seriously.
Interestingly, it wasn't always so taboo. Shakespeare has Hamlet and Ophelia banter about "country matters." In Canterbury Tales, Chauncer tosses around the word "queynte," the Middle English version. But eventually, it became, as feminist writer Germaine Greer put it, "the most offensive word in the English language."
Over the years, women have tried to reclaim the word — take The Vagina Monologues, for example. In 2013, Jezebel ran an essay called "Cunt Should Not Be A Bad Word," which asked: "Why do we let 'cunt' retain so much negative power? The only possible explanation is because so many people still think the worst crime a woman can commit is to be unapologetically sexual."
But still, the stigma persists. Greer offered an explanation while hosting an episode of the BBC's "Balderdash and Piffle" (please watch it, she literally paints the word on a wall in red paint): "For years, men identified female sexual energy as a dangerous force. And unlike other words for female genitals, this one sounds powerful. It demands to be taken seriously."
But maybe it's just because, as Tina Fey's Liz Lemon says in a classic episode of 30 Rock (for more on that, check out the following slideshow): "There's nothing you can call a guy to come back. There is no male equivalent to this word."
So, let's celebrate that! Click through for a brief overview of the most memorable C-bombs on TV.
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