When I Use The “C-Word,” I Mean It.
Add me to the group for whom the “c-word” (you know, rhymes with runt) induces a cringe.
We've heard a lot of the word lately, thanks to a Tweet by TV host Samantha Bee in which she called President Trump's daughter, Ivanka, a "feckless [c-word]," only she used the real McCoy, the vile godmother of them all. You know, rhymes with punt.
There has been a heap of online chatter lately on what the c-word means here in the US of A, where complicated issues tend to neatly bifurcate along political lines in any given news cycle. In the wake of Ms. Bee's Tweet, we've seen two predictable camps emerge, each taking the liberty to define the word in the image of their agenda.
One offspring argument that's been birthed in the last week centers on whether the c-word is feminism's “n-word.” As a white male, I concede to not having much useful insight on the matter. But I can say the n-word makes me cringe even more than the c-word.
More on the n-word in a moment.
I recently used the c-word seven times in a short story I wrote called “Cracked” about a woman who becomes unhinged when she thinks her husband is having an affair with his lawyer. Oh, I tried other words--scathing labels feuding women and emasculated men like to call each other when the situation warrants: bitch, slut, whore. They were OK, but didn’t dance with my anti-hero’s depraved inner monologue like the c-word. Made me wince every time I wrote it, just like it should. I was more comfortable with the less-offensive, sans c-word version of “Cracked." But I soon realized the story was a dud without its vile dance partner. The point of a narrative like “Cracked” isn’t to achieve comfort; it’s about making the reader identify with someone who’s losing her mind, her morality, and (even more fun) her sense of consequence. In fiction, bitches get slapped. Whores get a second chance. But c-words? They deserve to endure the butt-end of social justice’s most sadistic humiliation. At least, the c-word in my story does. Writing is the art of choosing the right word for a given context. In the case of “Cracked,” I chose the c-word because it was exactly what my character’s perverse inner voice would call the leggy blonde who needed to be strung up by her nipples and publicly shamed for bedding a married man.
Who needs etymology when context is perfectly willing to do the heavy lifting?
Which brings me to another short story of mine, “The Exalted Cyclops,” about an aging Klansman who re-examines his convictions in the Deep South in 1968. Guess what word I chose to describe the people this lifelong bigot thinks threaten his white superiority? I’ll give you a hint…rhymes with digger. If writing is the art of using the right word for a given context, then the artist’s responsibility is to know the meaning of the word he chooses and, more importantly, the effect it will have on readers based on their collective understanding of the word.
When I use the c-word or the n-word in my writing, it’s because I’ve agonized over the context and potential impact these words will have on readers. I’ve made a choice that makes me uncomfortable and I believe will have an intended effect on readers based on whatever prejudices they bring to the story. Some words deserve more examination than others. If we’re not willing to put in the rigor, it's a safe bet the racist c-words will do it for us.
"Cracked" and "The Exalted Cyclops" appear in Fred Smith's latest book of short stories, The Closet, available on Amazon HERE.
Fred Smith was born in the 70s, wore long socks and short shorts in the 80s, played drums in bands in the 90s, and became a husband and a father in the 2000s. This decade he's made a few movies and written a few books you can check out on this site. Stick around. Have a few rounds on the house. Then, you know...buy something.