terms of endearment (Colorado-style)

Alan Baragona abaragona at SPRYNET.COM
Thu Jun 17 23:01:47 UTC 2004

----- Original Message -----
From: "Laurence Horn" <laurence.horn at YALE.EDU>
Sent: Thursday, June 17, 2004 11:59 AM
Subject: terms of endearment (Colorado-style)

> In other reports on this that I've heard on the radio and television
> but can't locate electronically at the moment, President Hoffman
> defended her views by citing Chaucer (she's a medieval historian by
> training), which makes this an interesting usage-based analogue of
> the etymologically fallacy:  "cunt" was used as a term of endearment
> 700 years ago, so it's *really* a term of endearment.  (I'm not here
> presupposing either that she's right about its use by Chaucer or
> wrong about its use by football players toward their female fellow
> students now, just noting the tenor of her argument.)
> Larry

To be more fair to Hoffman than she probably deserves, the news reports I've
seen did not attribute the word history argument or the Chaucer reference to
Hoffman herself.  A spokesperson for her office, Michelle Ames, is the one
who gave the lame excuse that, as a medievalist, Hoffman was familiar with
the varied history of the word and Chaucer's use of it, but she may have
been saying that because Hoffman told her to.

In any case, Chaucer never uses the word "cunt," though he could have, since
it had come into English from Old Norse about 100 years before.  What he
does sometimes use to refer jokingly to the vagina is "queynte," which is
often glossed as meaning "female genitals," but is a euphemism, in fact
probably the adjective "quaint" made into a noun, and not actually related
to "cunt," despite the similarity of sound, which is part of the joke (cf.
"darn" for "damn" and "fudge" for "fuck").

In re: Lynne Murphy's message, I confess it took me a while, watching the
movie "Sexy Beast," to realize these men were really calling each other
"cunt," clearly insulting each other in the context, but taking it in stride
as part of the macho culture (cf. "pussy" in America).

None of this, of course, justifies Hoffman's absurd refusal to admit openly
that when the football player called his female teammate a "cunt," he was
deliberately being crude and insulting.  Forget about whether it might have
been used tenderly or even neutrally 700 years ago.  The fact that a couple
in Colorado today or at the University of Chicago in the 50s might use the
term for sexual arousal rather than insult (I can't imagine it as a real
term of endearment except as a crude joke) doesn't give her license to
rationalize away what she knows to be true about this particular instance.
It was a lawyerly thing to do in the worst sense, and it's a black eye for
academicians.  How many meanings of "cunt" can we balance on the head of a

Alan B.

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