‘Cunt’ has a long history of abuse, though the standard terms ‘vagina’ and ‘pudendum’ themselves are far from neutral. ‘Pudendum’ is derived from the Latin ‘pudere’, meaning ‘to be ashamed’, thus ‘pudendum’ describes the vagina as a shameful organ. ‘Vagina’ is Latin for ‘sheath’, ‘scabbard’, and ‘quiver’, protective coverings into which one slides swords or arrows, and is thus closely linked to pejorative conceptions of sex as a violent, male stabbing act: “In fact, “vagina” is the nastiest kind of name for the female genitalia […] There is more to the female sex than accommodation of a male weapon” (Germaine Greer, 2002). The German equivalent is even more demeaning: ‘Schamscheide’ (‘vagina’) translates literally as ‘sheath of shame’.
When men use the word ‘cunt’ to insult women, courts have deemed the act to be unlawful. When men use it to insult other men, as Julia Penelope demonstrates, their usage is still inherently insulting to women: “[words] used by men to insult other men, motherfucker, son-of-a-bitch, bastard, sissy, and cunt insult men because they’re female words” (1990). ‘Cunt’ insults men because it acts as a verbal castration, removing their masculinity by denying them their penis, implying that having a cunt is inferior to having a cock: Signe Hammer explained that to call a man a ‘cunt’ “is to call him a woman: castrated” (1977).
Specifically, the status and deployment of ‘cunt’ as “The worst name anyone can be called [and] the most degrading epithet” (Germaine Greer, 1970[a]), and especially as the worst name a woman can be called, serves to reinforce the tradition of cultural patriarchy, as Jane Mills points out: “the use of ‘cunt’ as the worst swearword that anyone can think of says a great deal about misogyny in our society, and I think it reveals fear, disgust, and also [a] denial of female sexuality” (Kerry Richardson, 1994). Joan Smith agrees: “It is impossible not to make a link, as lexicographers and feminist writers have done, between the […] decline [of ‘cunt’] into obscenity and illegality, and fearful attitudes towards women and their sexuality” (1998).
Been hunting around on the ‘net, can’t remember how I came to it, but was reading the Wiki entry on Cunt. Which is absolutely fascinating.