Kira Cochrane has heard enough of the C-word

The C-word is so widespread now: repetition has dimmed its power. Yet, when you think about it, its

For wannabe subversives, life used to be simple. To induce conniptions in Middle England, all that was necessary was to wangle your way on to television and, well, swear. That was it. When Kenneth Tynan did so in 1965 (saying "fuck" on late-night TV) a Tory MP went so far as to suggest that Tynan should be hanged, while Mary Whitehouse (eyes popping, feet stamping, no doubt) was less harsh but more bizarre, suggesting that he "ought to have his bottom spanked". (In all her righteous fervour, little did Whitehouse know that Tynan would have welcomed this punishment.)

And had Tynan used the "worst" of all swear words back then, had he said "cunt" on air, who knows what punishment would have been mooted, or even meted out? Hanging and spanking would have seemed far too good for him.

Fast-forward four decades, though, and those of an anarchic bent are forced to work much harder for recognition. You probably missed the short news story tucked away in the Daily Mail the other week, which reported that a leading racehorse trainer had used the C-word twice during a live interview on Channel 4 Racing, well before the watershed. A story that would once have had veins popping in every suburban brow was relegated to a couple of sentences.

And this response reflects that of a couple of years ago, when the ageing Sex Pistol John Lydon appeared on I'm a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here!, addressing the British public as "fucking cunts". The show's 11 million viewers might have been expected to take umbrage, but few did. ITV received fewer than a hundred complaints.

It seems that the C-word, once guaranteed to shock, has lost much of its power. When you stop to consider, it is, of course, almost breathtaking in its misogyny: its sound, meaning and etymology all adding up to the nastiest of curses. When used as an insult, it implies that there is nothing more belittling or disgusting than to be compared to female genitalia. There are plenty of pejorative words that refer to male genitalia, but none that possesses the innate cruelty of the C-word.

Somehow, though, over the years, I've gradually become much less sensitive to it - as, it would seem, have many other people. A number of my female friends still find it deeply offensive (if not truly shocking), some objecting to it intellectually, others intuitively, and a few of them get red-mist angry if it's said in their presence.

In the past few years there has been a renewed call among many feminists to reclaim the word, to make something positive out of what has traditionally been an insult, a move spearheaded by Eve Ensler's play The Vagina Monologues. This is a laudable aim, but one that seems slightly dubious to me. For all the good intentions, I think attempts to revise the meaning of centuries-old swear words simply by embracing them is often little more than a sleight of hand. Intellectually and practically, I'm not sure that it works.

And, when it comes to the C-word, I'm not sure that it's necessary. The word is so widespread now - on the football terraces, in the playground and, indeed, even on TV - that constant repetition has dimmed its power. The reason that people barely react to it being said on screen is that overuse has somewhat de-clawed it as an individual word, reducing it to a nagging Neanderthal grunt.

Which is not to say that it is no longer a problem, more that it has blended into the vast swamp of misogynist swear words that shape our culture. If I'm not generally offended by individual words at the moment of utterance (I certainly like a good swear myself), I am offended by this network of misogyny, in which words such as slut, ho, bitch, sket and slag jostle and thrive, and in which just referring to a male friend or colleague as "a right woman", or as having done something "like a girl", is a recognised slur. As many people have pointed out, make a list of insults and a strong majority will be associated with either being a woman or being gay (and, therefore, in this context, "feminised"). And anyone who says that this has no effect on gender relations is either fairly stupid or disingenuous.

Given that this prejudice is written into our language, it's difficult to know what can be done to dismantle it. One way to start is extensive discussion in schools, with the consideration of sexist language being a significant part of sex education lessons (these are already supposed to include discussion of all forms of prejudice, but sexism isn't singled out for attention). Teachers and youth workers I've spoken to say that too often, while homophobic and racist bullying is rightly recognised as a clear, distinct problem, sexist bullying is seen as just another part of teenage life, which girls must necessarily put up with and assimilate.

Teaching kids to recognise exactly how the fabric of our language is constructed, and just how it shapes our relationships, is one thread that might help lead to a general unravelling.

Kira Cochrane has been appointed women's editor of the Guardian

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