Saturday, 25 August 2012

Divided by a common language (or The "twat" Debate)

1)

Last night on Twitter I was discussing the word "twat" with a feminist* called @MelodyHensley. I wanted to illuminate what I think is a cultural difference in how that word is used or perceived.

In the United States it's pronounced like "cot", and is a sexist insult usually aimed at women. In the United Kingdom, it's pronounced like "cat" and is simply one more genital-based epithet that's used interchangeably with words like prick, dick, knob, cock and bellend.

(As @Thiefree pointed out, there may sometimes be very subtle differences in usage discernible only to native British English speakers, but the consensus** seems to be that all these words are synonyms for either "idiot" or "unpleasant person" (see also: bastard, wanker, arsehole, fucker, tosser, shit and turd).)

What "twat" is categorically not, when used as an epithet by British English speakers, is a euphemism for "pussy". Melody correctly says that in both countries "pussy" has connotations of weakness and inferiority, (and in any case for BrE speakers it's an American import, not a native term). Nor is it a word that is directed at women more than men; the British tend to be quite egalitarian when it comes to abusing one another.

Our debate*** went on for a while, with Melody suggesting that the word twat should be seen differently from dick, prick & cock etc, even though they all have genital roots, because the male-genital-based words are not intended "to disempower".

At the time I answered "and neither, in the UK, is twat" – but I misspoke.

I think you could argue that all epithets are intended to disempower. That's their purpose. You don't call Rush Limbaugh a prick to express admiration for Rush Limbaugh. You call him a prick because you want people to understand that you see him as an obnoxious idiot, with the added implication that everything Rush Limbaugh says is worthless. Because what he says has emerged from a prick, and is therefore on the same level as urine, semen or any other odorous discharge that a penis may produce. Because Rush Limbaugh is a penis. And a penis is a Bad Thing To Be.

So, if we can agree that the purpose of an epithet is to disparage the target, what remains is to decide whether the word twat – in British English – is in any way more severe or disempowering than its male-genital-based siblings -- and I believe that British people would argue that it is not.

But feel free to debate this in the comments.

2.)

Also interesting: possible reasons for the cultural difference in usage of these terms. Do Americans find them more offensive because America is way more sexually puritanical than Britain (although paradoxically more open to discussing sex without sniggering)? Do some people find these terms offensive because of a propensity to intellectualise and analyse semantics to a degree that sometimes goes, dare I say it, too far? Mere speculation, I have no well thought out view.

3.)

Ophelia Benson has written about this same question here http://www.butterfliesandwheels.org/2009/the-epithet-question/ and the comments thread that follows is interesting. I agree with the points made by John Meredith.

And as for the word "cunt" – that's a whole other... I was about to say "kettle of fish" or "can of worms" but, No. It's another issue.

And I've just been directed to this post regarding that:
http://lostinheadspace.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/someone-explain-this-cunt-thing-to-me.html

4)
EDIT: Worth scrolling down to read the comments, where OrganicPrankster has added some great stuff that I was unaware of.

* Feminist is only a disparaging term when used by people in the manosphere (or androsphere, as I think they've started calling it)

** Data gathered scientifically by tweeting "British people, what about these words eh?"

*** It was an interesting debate. The very opposite of a previous debate with a young man who thinks feminism is irrelevant and a waste of everyone's time because hey, sexism happens against men too.




19 comments:

Zappdo said...

Similarly, Cunt. That term is much more associated with vajayjays than twat, yet I would argue, similar to this post, that it's not an inherently sexist insult, since the source of the insult is not the fact that it's a woman's genitalia, but, like prick, etc, is a general term for genitalia.

One thing I would argue is sexist is using pussy to mean coward, wuss, etc.

Pete Knight said...

Yeah, I was kind of half following the exchange until terminal boredom set in! I was startled by the yank feminists insistence that the American usage of English takes precedence over the native speaker addressing a predominantly domestic audience. Would she correct a Spanish speaker because they didn't use Mexican Spanish terminology?

Having exchanged unpleasantries with a rabid feminist myself, and having been called a misogynist for daring to point out discrepancies in her argument, I can only sympathise with you.

I hope my intervention halted that pointless debate, not that the Merkin understood my humorous quip.

Pete Knight said...

Oh, and another thing!

It's a good job you didn't introduce famnny, that would have caused confusion, although the feminist wouldn't have leapt on it quite so readily since both men and women have fanny's in America!

So there!

Mike Booth said...

Peter - I'm in no way criticising the "yank feminists". I don't remember her insisting that American usage takes precedence last night, though that is an attitude I meant to address here.

The point of this post is to try to encourage greater understanding and tolerance of the cultural differences, and I'm not sure that using words like "rabid" and "Merkin" is really constructive...

Pete Knight said...

Mike I have nothing but disdain for anyone who insists that their viewpoint is the right viewpoint, her refusal to accept that words have different meanings in different countries, let alone in different parts of a country, can only be met with derision.

Am I to assume that no Merkin has ever used a slang term for a non-American, and was it not George W Bush who unwittingly coined the term Merkin?

organicprankster said...

A few more or less random and ill-furnished thoughts surrounding this subject.

1) Piece of tangentially relevant trivia: the American English 'ass' may these days simply be a variant of British English 'arse', but began its life as a euphemism for 'arse'. You will encounter Americans to this day who will say that 'arse' sounds much coarser to them than 'ass'.

2) We can argue that Americans are more sexually puritanical than the British. But we can also argue that they're more linguistically puritanical. British people who object to Americanisms tend to be unfamiliar with the fact that in many, many cases the US version of something is older, and it is usage in the rest of the world that has changed. One example would be spelling -ise words -ize. Another example would be the pronunciation of 'twat'. You will still hear 'twat' to rhyme with 'cot' among posh people in Britain. If the Queen were to use that word (and I bet after a meeting with the prime minister of the day she does) she would most likely pronounce it to rhyme with 'cot'.

But also:

3)Strictly in terms of swearing, American English appears to lack the variety of tones, registers and nuances that British English has. There seem to be no - or at least fewer - levels of swearing between the very mild, and the outright offensive. They have 'ass', and then they have 'motherfucker'... but they have no 'tosser', 'wanker', 'bugger', 'sod', 'git' to lie in between. It seems at some point much of the quainter British slang was filtered out of the language in the US. I would conjecture this is precisely because of a puritanical streak... but possibly also related to a phenomenon we see in Britain, wherein puritanism is a middle class affectation. The working classes swear like troopers, so not swearing becomes an aspirational mark of class... but the middle classes are unaware that the upper classes swear just as freely as the working classes. It has always been thus.

4) Anglo-Saxon (and subsequently English) has a rich history of robust informal language, and much of it has becomes divorced from its origins. Anyone aware that when you use the word 'git' you're actually calling someone illegitimate. It means exactly the same as bastard. No-one thinks about this when using these words. Neither the person using it, nor the person hearing it takes any meaning from it beyond that they are being insulted. Thus many of these words are used interchangeably.

Likewise, my own mother will call people 'berks'. Mild slang. Not offensive in all but the most formal company. As far as my mother (and anyone else) is concerned it just means stupid or contemptible person. She is - as most are - unaware it's rhyming slang: Berkeley hunt.

5)Context is always key with language. Personally, if I hear 'twat' (whether rhyming with rat or cot) used to refer to actual anatomy, it makes me deeply uncomfortable. For one thing it sounds stuffy and archaic, and for another thing it sounds sexist. I have no problem with people insulting a person by telling them in no uncertain terms they remind them of genitalia. If the terms - 'dick', 'prick', 'cock' are in essence interchangeable with 'twat' then they're not really sexist. 'Twat' doesn't seem to me any worse than 'cock.' You're unlikely to hear someone formulate the thought: "I thought you were a dick. But it turns out you're much worse: you're a TWAT!"

... and here's where I lost my train of thought - such as it was - and failed to draw a conclusion. What a twat!

Mike Booth said...

What I'm saying is that Melody was perfectly able to continue a civil discussion with me despite having a different viewpoint.

And "But some Americans do it too!" isn't much of an argument against me saying "it's not constructive".

Basically, I am sick and tired of how most internet discussions are conducted, and I would like to avoid sinking to a YouTube level in places where I have control of the block/delete function.

Pete Knight said...

Stephen Fry on being offended:

"It's now very common to hear people say 'I'm rather offended by that.'
As if that gives them certain rights; It's actually nothing more...
It's simply a whine. It's no more then a whine.
'I find that offensive,' it has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be respected as a phrase.
'I am offended by that,' well so fucking what?"

Mike Booth said...

I agree, Pete, but that has nothing to do with wanting to keep a conversation on a civil bearing.

Sure, you can write in a confrontational manner and slap prejudiced assumptions onto potential future opponents, but I repeat that I don't see it as constructive.

There are a million websites where people are happily flinging poo comments at each other, so if that's what you want to engage in your options are nearly unlimited. But it's not happening here.

Nod Wisely said...

Such a long series of explanations all starting from a tiny word like twat. I always refer to George Carlin when the subject of swearwords comes up. He seems to be able to sum it all up so much more succinctly, and funnier too.

Mike Booth said...

There's another inevitability about online discussions. A bunch of people are talking about a topic, and then someone will come along and say "Pah! What a silly thing to be interested in. I'm not interested in this. Besides, someone once made a joke about it so nothing more ever needs to be said."

Ophelia Benson said...

It used to run the other way, you know - I remember being told that "bloody" was a simply terrible word in the UK and I must avoid using it at all costs. I could never figure out why. Menstrual blood? Or what? How could it be all that terrible? I still don't know, to be honest.

I was a zookeeper for awhile, and worked with elephants for a couple of years - four females, two adults and two calves. They developed some kind of genital herpes, and we used to have to examine them regularly to keep track of the blisters or cysts or whatever they were. I dubbed this duty "twat watch" - the a sound the same in both words, of course.

It's not Puritanism. Just using "cunt" as a word doesn't bother me in the least. But as an epithet - it's very hostile here, and "twat" and "pussy" are barely less so.

Tristan Miller said...

I think you're wrong about "pussy" in the sense of a weak or finicky person being an American import. The Oxford English Dictionary's earliest citation for this meaning is the 1583 British pamphlet "The Anatomie of Abuses".

More anecdotally, I grew up in North America and don't recall "twat" ever being used, regardless of pronunciation. The only place I ever heard it was in British sitcoms they occasionally showed on TV; its "idiot" meaning was obvious from context but I think it was years before I learned that it also referred to the female genitalia. If anyone has a clip of an American speaker using the term I would be interested in hearing it.

Ophelia Benson said...

I don't have a clip, but the above-mentioned "twat watch" joke was 1983. Also, I remember identifying a fairly overpowering shade of paint in a room of a house a relative had just bought as "twat-colored" (and causing an explosion of mirth) around 1975.

It was rare enough and taboo enough that those items stick in my mind.

Stuff You Don't Really Need to Know said...

I suppose it would help me understand what Ophelia is saying if I knew where "here" was. At least which side of the Atlantic and this side is not an acceptable answer.

As I understand it bloody comes from the oath By My Lady, which is blasphemous as it refers to the (alleged) mother of jesus. An explanation which probably has as much veracity as any of the many others I'm sure are out there. Blasphemy is far more serious to those of a religious persuasion than mere genitally induced slang.

And here was me thinking that pussy meant wussy via comparison with a cutsy wutsy cuduwy ickle wikkle puddy tat. You live and learn.

Stuff You Don't Really Need to Know said...

I suppose it would help me understand what Ophelia is saying if I knew where "here" was. At least which side of the Atlantic and this side is not an acceptable answer.

As I understand it bloody comes from the oath By My Lady, which is blasphemous as it refers to the (alleged) mother of jesus. An explanation which probably has as much veracity as any of the many others I'm sure are out there. Blasphemy is far more serious to those of a religious persuasion than mere genitally induced slang.

And here was me thinking that pussy meant wussy via comparison with a cutsy wutsy cuduwy ickle wikkle puddy tat. You live and learn.

Stuff You Don't Really Need to Know said...

I suppose it would help me understand what Ophelia is saying if I knew where "here" was. At least which side of the Atlantic and this side is not an acceptable answer.

As I understand it bloody comes from the oath By My Lady, which is blasphemous as it refers to the (alleged) mother of jesus. An explanation which probably has as much veracity as any of the many others I'm sure are out there. Blasphemy is far more serious to those of a religious persuasion than mere genitally induced slang.

And here was me thinking that pussy meant wussy via comparison with a cutsy wutsy cuduwy ickle wikkle puddy tat. You live and learn.

Anne Marie said...

Yeah... I've read enough MRA crap to understand how dehumanising and misogynistic 'twat' and 'cunt' can be when used in the American sense.

But to me, as an Englishwoman, the immediate association of 'twat' in my mind is a pretentious, ostentatious MALE yuppie. My friends and I refer to boy racers' cars as 'twatmobiles' with the 'twat factor' being the difference between the initial value of the car and the value of the ridiculous add-ons.

It's particularly irritating when people who claim to be aware of the whole concept of privilege are so blind to their US-centrism. I'm not talking about the girl you mentioned here, but Americans jumping into social justice discussions that do not involve the US and forcing their terminology onto everyone is getting to be a huge fucking problem.

Will "Pyro" Tingle said...

I know that you address it (insofar as to say its different) but I've always felt much the same about "Cunt".
It's a strong form of "Twat" but not inherently sexist, IMO. In much the same ways already discussed re: "dick", "prick" and "twat".
In the States, I get the impression that "Cunt" is used almost exclusively against women, in the UK, it seems to get used more against men (as do, come to think of it, "Prick" and "twat").