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Why the c-word is still the third rail of profanity


At a time when it often seems the public discourse couldn't be any more coarse, comedian Samantha Bee proved this week some words are still off-limits.

Exhibit A: the c-word.

The misogynistic term remains the third rail of profanity. When Bee used it Wednesday night to describe presidential adviser and first daughter Ivanka Trump on her TBS cable show, "Full Frontal With Samantha Bee," she set off a furious reaction.

"The word shocks. It's intended to shock," said Kory Stamper, a lexicographer and author of "Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries." "Even if you're a person who uses it casually, you use it casually knowing it shocks."


Bee's comment fanned the smoldering ashes of the culture wars that were ignited this week when Roseanne Barr's TV show was canceled over her racist tweet comparing a former Obama administration aide to an ape.

Bee's fans tried to draw distinctions between the comments — and to point out that some of the newly offended had laughed off the president's own vulgar anatomical references as "locker room talk." But few leaped to rescue Bee from her linguistic cliff.

Even Chelsea Clinton, a former first daughter from the other side of the aisle, spoke out against the language Bee used to describe the current president's daughter.

"It's grossly inappropriate and just flat-out wrong to describe or talk about @IvankaTrump or any woman that way," she protested on Twitter.

Unlike "bitch," whose power has been defused as it was reclaimed by feminists, the c-word has not been reimagined by American women. Many still recoil from it — even though they've become grudgingly more used to hearing the p-word, since Donald Trump was overheard uttering the hot-mike vulgarity 19 months ago.

The c-word has evolved in usage over the years, but it has never been complimentary.


Originally slang for female genitalia, the word was put to bawdy use in the 1300s and 1400s, and by the 1600s, it was being used to describe a promiscuous woman, a prostitute, or an object of sexual gratification. By the 1800s, it had settled in as a generally misogynistic term of abuse, said Stamper.

"Because its root is in genitalia and then in sex objects and then in women, I think it has just sort of taken on this really intense sense of offensiveness," Stamper said. "I think for women, it's different than being called a bitch because it refers directly to your genitalia. For women, it's offensive because you are nothing but your vagina, basically."

The word doesn't pack the same punch in Britain, where it's received as a jocular put-down, often for men, rather than a derogatory slur, she noted.

By midafternoon Thursday, the acerbic Bee had issued an apology that sounded unusually contrite.

"It was inappropriate and inexcusable," she wrote on Twitter. "I crossed a line, and I deeply regret it."

The TBS Network also posted an apology for the "vile and inappropriate language she used about Ivanka Trump last night."

"Those words should not have been aired," the statement said. "It was our mistake, too, and we regret it."

But the statement did not quell criticism from conservatives, who sensed a double standard and called for the network to fire Bee or cancel her show, as ABC had canceled Barr's. Many called for boycotts of TBS and its advertisers. Liberals, meanwhile, mocked conservatives for taking offense to the kind of language that they didn't reject when it came from the president. And they tried to draw distinctions between a personal attack against one person and a racist smear.


Regardless of whether the cases are moral equivalents, they are not linguistic ones, Stamper said. Bee's verbal barb was much more direct.

"I don't think they're parallel linguistically," she said. "One of them uses a word that is on its face offensive, and the other one uses sort of a racist dog whistle. They're used as sort of a way of calling up an image or a reference."

While President Trump initially didn't weigh in on Barr's comments — only later complaining that her network had been less responsive to comments against him — early Friday he called on the comedy host to be fired over the "horrible language."

Bee often uses profanities in her comedy and used the c-word last year to describe President Woodrow Wilson during the TBS special she aired as an alternative to the White House Correspondents Dinner, CNN noted. Bee, one of few women to anchor a late-night talk show and an outspoken feminist of the #MeToo era, has become a darling of the left for her withering commentary on Trump.

Bee used the c-word after criticizing Ivanka Trump for posting a picture of herself with her son on social media while the administration separates immigrant children from their own parents at the border. Bee said Trump's post was "oblivious" and urged her to do something about her father's immigration practices, calling her "feckless."


It was certainly not the first political usage of the incendiary word. Musician Ted Nugent, some noted, called Hillary Clinton the very same c-word when she was first lady. Trump still invited him to the White House after he was elected.

Liberals pointed out that Trump supporters showed up at his campaign events wearing T-shirts bearing the c-word. And a Texas official who had used the word for Hillary Clinton in a tweet had later been considered by Trump for agriculture secretary, the San Antonio Express-News reported.

The irreverent and profane political HBO series "Veep" devoted an entire episode to the word, repeating it ad nauseam as the president tried to root out which of her aides had been overheard calling her the c-word. (Spoiler alert: They all had.) The fictitious president's firing of employees to root out the name-caller created a public controversy known as C**t-gate.

No word yet on what the Bee controversy will be called.

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com.