[Thanks to Neil Gaiman for the post title. It may not be original with him, but that’s where I saw it first.

This is one of those posts, only to be expected here from time to time, that is not primarily about Shakespeare. The post is very much about language, so it’s not as if it is out of place—and it has got some Shakespeare in it. However, it contains 23 uses of the C-word, so if that word offends you—or if you like the writing of Jenny Diski—you may want to skip this one. Otherwise, proceed beyond the fold—if you dare.]

I subscribe to the London Review of Books. It’s the perfect thing to read on the treadmill, fighting tedium and enabling me—here comes one of my secrets, possums—to talk about books I’ll never read and subjects I’ll never research, enabling me to appear even more erudite than I actually am. But even the LRB isn’t perfect, at least as long as it continues to publish Jenny Diski. I know whereof I speak, having read two of her books. Who would have thought that a memoir alternating between an institutionalized childhood and an adult trip to Antarctica could be boring? Diski manages the feat in Skating to Antarctica. What kind of book captures all of the tedium and none of the glamour of a train trip across the United States? Diski’s travelogue Stranger on a Train, possibly the worst book I have forced myself to finish this century, does the trick. After that book, I wanted nothing more to do with Diski, making her the only contributor to the LRB I regularly skip.

By contrast with the LRB, I can’t remember the last time bought a paper copy of the New York Times. Gone, gone are the days when it was a Saturday night ritual to stop off at the newsstand or the corner market (how I miss the Ace Supermarket in Park Slope!) slough off the sections one didn’t want to read (Automobiles? In Brooklyn?) and settle in with the rest. As the century wore on and the paper’s credibility, interest, and expertise deteriorated (Elvis Mitchell as chief movie reviewer?), I clicked on it less and less; I scarcely miss it now that it’s behind a paywall.

So imagine how I felt when I saw a tweet from the professional reader Maud Newton: “Meanwhile, Jenny Diski tries to figure out why we’re squeamish about the c-word. (Chaucer & Shakespeare said ‘cunny.’),” with a link to the Times. I knew the literary claim was wrong on so many levels that I had to check out the original for myself.

The piece Newton linked to appeared in the New York Times Magazine on May 22. It is a rumination on the word “cunt.” I mean “rumination” in the literal sense of chewing a cud, because it is difficult to see an argument in the mashup. Is it about the fact that the New York Times won’t let Diski use “cunt,” or indeed anything less periphrastic than the heavy-handed “[the word I can’t use]”? (Teachable moment: if a joke has to use brackets, it’s too labored to be funny.) If everybody were as priggish as the Times, this might serve as evidence for a general taboo that could be analyzed and debated. But scarcely anybody is as priggish, as Diski herself abundantly documents, cataloguing some of the wide variety of uses in which “cunt” is acceptable in a the United Kingdom, even applied to men. If Diski wants to use “cunt,” she can write for another outlet. Oh, wait, she knows that—she used “cunt” in the LRB, in italics no less, as recently as January (scroll down to the bottom of the fourth paragraph).

Or is her point about reclaiming the word from its taboo status as the most insulting word one can apply to a woman? I’d be wholeheartedly behind that project; I’m against all taboos, especially linguistic ones, and I’m even more against anything that demeans women. But the struggle is much less straightforward than Diski seems to realize. The insulting use, which ought to be neutralized if not retired, is synecdoche; as the first-wave feminists put it, to call a woman a cunt reduces her to her genitals. However, the taboo has always also applied to the anatomical usage. Thus, Diski quotes one Francis Grose as writing in 1811 that “c**t” is “a nasty name for a nasty thing”; he couldn’t have been more wrong on either count (really, doesn’t this tell us much more about him than about the word or the thing?), but he certainly captures an attitude that is still widely shared. So appropriating “cunt” for the cunt is not likely to work by itself. Indeed, as Diski certainly knows and should have acknowledged, the reclamation project has been ongoing, at the very least since The Vagina Monologues, with obviously mixed success.

The obvious comparison is with the N-word, and Diski does raise it, but in a glib manner that epitomizes so much of what I dislike about her writing: “Reappropriation worked interestingly when African-Americans took back their unmentionable word.” Can she possibly have chosen a mushier, more weaselly word than “interestingly” in this context, which is still so fraught that—as the editors of the Times well know, if she truly doesn’t—just this January an academic on the make garnered headlines by announcing an expurgated version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that replaces the N-word (inaccurately) with “slave”? Reappropriation is all well and good, but the change that really needs to be made is for those who misappropriated it in the first place to stop using it to hurt. It would be nice if reappropriation had better results for “cunt,” at least in its anatomical sense, but the comparison isn’t so promising.

For another timely example, look at “slut.” One of the best known and most respected book blogs is Bookslut.com, and while I was writing this post, on 11 June 2011, a march took place in London to reclaim the word “slut.” Here “taking back” the word stands in for a power issue more obviously than it does with “cunt,” pace the first-wave feminists. The Slutwalk has less to do with the word than with the proposition that women can dress any fucking way they want and that their wardrobe is not an indication of their sexual availability to any Tom, Dick, or Harry. Understood? Discuss among yourselves why there is a Slutwalk, when “slut” is censored by nobody, not even the New York Times, but we’re not likely to see a Cuntwalk any time soon.

But what does all this have to do with Shakespeare? Just that in her hodgepodge historical discussion of euphemisms for “cunt,” Diski says: “Perhaps the British tradition of bawdy has something to do with the word’s being more ambiguous in the U.K. Words like ‘quaint’ and ‘cunny’ were used by the likes of Chaucer and Shakespeare to get a dirty laugh from their audience.” That’s what Maud Newton’s tweet was alluding to. I don’t know how these usages would show that “cunt” is more ambiguous in the U.K. even if they were accurate. But they are not. To take Chaucer briefly first, the word he uses is “queynte.” It’s not clear whether this is an alternate spelling or a synonym (the OED has separate entries for “cunt” and the modernized “quaint”), but what is clear is that “queynte” means “cunt’; it isn’t a euphemism.

“Cunny” is a euphemism, but neither Chaucer nor Shakespeare used it. It is an eighteenth-century coinage: the OED’s first citation is from 1720. Its very sound marks it as the quaint sort of euphemism we expect to find in Fanny Hill,  and indeed its latest citation in the OED is to Frank Harris’s My Life and Loves, a much belated (1922) addition to the corpus of Victorian dirty literature.

However, Chaucer can look out for himself; this blog is not about him. What especially irritates me is Diski’s cavalier treatment of Shakespeare. Not only does Shakespeare never use “cunny,” he never uses “cunt”; not because he didn’t know the word, but because he knew it’s far more effective to insinuate it. Thus, Hamlet to Ophelia:

Lady, shall I lie in your lap?

No, my lord.

I mean, my head upon your lap.

Ay, my lord.

Do you think I meant country matters?

I think nothing, my lord.

That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.

What is, my lord?


Hamlet puts the “cunt” in “country,” and just in case anybody missed it he comes back with “nothing” (which, as I’ve said, was an Elizabethan euphemism for “cunt”) as “a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.” Not a cunny in sight.

The same is true of the even more blatant instance of Shakespeare’s insinuating the word “cunt” in Twelfth Night, where Malvolio reads a letter he believes is from his mistress (i.e. employer) Olivia

By my life, this is my lady’s hand. These be her very c’s, her u’s and her t’s, and thus makes she her great P’s. It is in contempt of question her hand.

Her c’s, her u’s and her t’s. Why that?

I’ll have a great deal to say about this passage at the end of the line, when we get to Twelfth Night; for the moment I’d just call attention to Shakespeare’s extreme resourcefulness in suggesting “cunt” without saying it. This is not someone who needs a word like “cunny.”

Perhaps now you can see why I dislike Diski’s writing so intensely. This lazy mistake is a typical instance of the sloppiness that pervades her writing and her thought. To be sure, the Times’s fact checkers should have caught it, but how much nicety can we expect in literary matters from an organization that missed the plagiarisms of Jayson Blair and the—to be as diplomatic as possible—reporting of Judith Miller? No, Diski is responsible for her own writing.

But why is that writing worth two thousand words in a blog about Shakespeare, apart from the longstanding animus toward Diski’s writing I’ve copped to? There are morals large and small here. First, as far as I can extract a position from this unfocused essay, it is that “cunt” ought to be reclaimed by women and that taboos on its use should be effaced. I couldn’t agree more, but I can’t imagine that Diski has made a case that will persuade the unconvinced. Second, as far as Shakespeare is concerned, I’m naturally chagrined to see an intellectual make such a lazy mistake; it undermines the work of this blog in trying to convey Shakespeare’s extraordinary vitality, especially his linguistic resourcefulness, to those who are not familiar with it. Finally, Diski’s essay opens itself to the worst insult one can level today at a piece of serious writing today: it could have been improved with a glance at Wikipedia.

The Internet may be making us stupid, but some of us don’t need the help. Just within the last year or so I’ve detected a lurch toward embracing the stupidity the Internet allegedly engenders—a lurch toward disparagement of knowing stuff. This brilliant post, (check out this reply-to-comments post too) ironically by a cofounder of Wikipedia, makes the point in devastating fashion. Shakespeare is all about knowing. If you really grapple with him as I hope this blog will help its readers to do, you can’t help but see how open he is to everything—to knowledge of the world, other people, and ourselves. That’s why he’ll be read, let alone performed, as long as there are readers—not because he offers some set of “universal” or “transcendent” truths or serves as a convenient repository of “life lessons.” One misstatement from Jenny Diski isn’t going to change that, but it’s an indication of a battle bigger than both of us that I fear is turning against the good guys.

I’ll be coming back to that battle again and again as we proceed.

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