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Man’s Never-Ending Search for an Insult to Replace ‘Pussy’

Can ‘cuck,’ ‘snowflake,’ or ‘corn cob’ ever live up?

Calling another man a “pussy” isn’t woke. That may not be relevant when you’re picking a fight in a roadhouse dive bar, but on the internet — where a single wrong word can shatter one’s delicate reputation — it matters. If you want to insult someone on the right while remaining a good ally, if you want to say they’re weak and afraid without invoking female genitalia as the prime symbol of negative, weak qualities, you’re going to need other options.

Then again, you needn’t be politically correct to crave an alternative to “pussy.” The near-involuntary ur-slur has lost its reliable punch; it makes you sound like a 13-year-old screaming into his Xbox headset. Despite the rise of the alt-right and MRA culture, a steady erosion of 20th-century gender norms has left it flat and inert as a provocation, which makes perfect sense if you see those toxic dude-movements as reactionary: They’re rebelling against a world in which labeling each other “pussies” is passé.

So what comes next?

Cuck
During last year’s presidential race, Trump supporters mainstreamed the term “cuck,” which had been in ascendance since the days of GamerGate. It’s a shortening of the medieval word “cuckold,” i.e., the husband of an adulteress, which in recent American vernacular can also code racially — pornography built on this dynamic often plays out between an unfaithful Caucasian wife and an African-American man, digging into anxieties of genetic inferiority and miscegenation.

On the surface, then, “cuck” might serve as a useful replacement for “pussy.” It shifts the locus of fragility from a woman’s body to a man’s psychosexual status. MEL’s John McDermott touched on this divergence when he interviewed Michael Adams, an Indiana University linguistics professor who specializes in profanity and slang:

Shortening the term to rhyme with “fuck” made a more visceral insult, Adams says. And using the term alongside “beta” — as in, the opposite of an alpha male — reinforced its meaning as a man who’s timid, deferential and lacking in toughness and conviction. That said, cuck isn’t the same as “pussy.”

“‘Pussy’ feminizes a man,” Adams says. “‘Cuck’ stays in the masculine sphere, but it says you’re an unnatural man, someone who can’t stand for himself. … A cuck isn’t a doofus who doesn’t ‘get it.’ He’s inadequate, unable to hold on to what’s his.”

Clearly, “cuck” trades some of the misogynist flavor in “pussy” for a lot more baggage: It implies that women are to be owned, dominated, or stolen, and it uses female agency to diminish a man’s claims to power and control. Insults are meant to be nasty, of course, but this one stains the speaker rather than the target; it remains a tool of the trolls.

https://twitter.com/I_AM_JUST0R/status/895692059532709888

Snowflake
Inevitably, then, an equal-opportunity smear emerged: “Snowflake.” Carrying a whiff of the impotence we get from “cuck” (snowflakes melt easily, after all), the word also stings at millennial ego: The members of this generation, the baby boomer pundits keep telling us, got too many participation ribbons, don’t die in wars enough, and suffer delusions of uniqueness — hence, snowflake. Frequently seen in conjunction with the phrase “safe space,” it matches the “oversensitive” connotation of “pussy.”

https://twitter.com/carney/status/895689228146946050

This usage can be tied to Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, a novel whose satire of masculine angst is continually, breathtakingly misunderstood. In both the book and the film adaptation, crypto-fascist leader Tyler Durden informs his male followers that they are not a “beautiful or unique snowflake” but “decaying organic matter,” deprogramming their sense of individuality in order to make them into a collectivized guerrilla army.

Palahniuk was only too happy to take the credit for coining this version of “snowflake,” but it turns out he was at least a century late to the party. While he’s no doubt correct that the alt-right eagerly swallowed Durden’s definition without pausing to consider authorial irony, Merriam-Webster noted that it was liberals who first made “snowflake” into an insult: “In Missouri in the early 1860s, a ‘Snowflake’ was a person who was opposed to the abolition of slavery — the implication of the name being that such people valued white people over black people,” the dictionary’s editors wrote earlier this year.

In that vein, “snowflake” is the perfect barb to throw back at antagonistic conservatives who claim that the left can’t take an off-color joke but fly into an outrage and scream boycott whenever Starbucks or the cast of the musical Hamilton takes a political stance. Rather than being an ineffectual, easily upset person, a “snowflake” is now best understood as someone who dishes out abuse but can’t handle the mildest of criticism. Yet that’s not a valence typically attached to “pussy,” whose closest application might be “a guy who talks tough but would shrink away from any manner of physical altercation.”

Corncob
No, for a sui generis and fully satisfying “pussy” substitute, we need a word divorced from its own etymology, existing on a plane of sheer absurdity. Enter: @dril.

The beauty of this iconic image from the godfather of Weird Twitter is layered and complex. What concerns us here is that it connects humiliation and failure — to be “owned” is to lose not only a public debate, but social and intellectual standing — with the humble corncob. Crucially, the owned party in this instance is also protesting the idea that they’ve been embarrassed, further cementing the ownage. Much as people who claim they are “not mad, actually laughing” are indeed categorically mad, the ownee cannot argue their un-ownedness without (hilariously) compounding the effect.

For years, “corncob” was an inside joke known only to @dril fans. That changed a few days ago, when the affinity between Weird Twitter and Leftist Twitter resulted in the denunciation of Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), a potential 2020 presidential candidate, as, among other things, a “centrist corncob.” Critics on the left had, in theory, “owned” Harris by calling attention her eyebrow-raising choices as attorney general of California. Yet insofar as they wanted to demonstrate how Harris has occasionally defaulted to anti-progressive positions, “corncob” reads more like the right’s use of “cuck” to describe a Republican who readily capitulates on his ideals for the sake of political expediency.

Either way, the whole thing went nuclear when journalist Al Giordano — a guy who said in 2016 that Bernie Sanders was destroying the Democratic party, and therefore vowed to run against him in 2018 — decided to tweet his own take on the meme.

This sort of confused hysteria is, naturally, a far better expression of the corncob phenomenon than Harris’ record. And Weird Twitter ran with it, to the point that just about anyone in the center of the Democratic party (the left would call them “neoliberals”) is now susceptible to the epithet. Many of them believe it’s hate speech.

Taken with the left’s belief that moderate Democrats are essentially cowards — refusing to engage in a fight for popular policy goals like single-payer healthcare or a higher minimum wage, etc. — the strange renaissance of “corncob” does contain shades of “pussy.” It certainly helps that the so-called corncobs tend to wilt under mockery, choosing to rage at or block anyone who replies to them with slang they don’t comprehend. Their insistence that they do glean the secret, insidious meanings of Weird Twitter’s irreverent jargon feeds the hostile paranoia that makes them targets in the first place. And so “corncob” marches toward a place in the pantheon of generalized insults, away from its original value as an emblem of one particular web niche. Now anyone can be a corncob if they fuck up badly enough on the internet, and the argument about what “corncob” means is almost funnier than @dril’s tweet. Almost.

The future
You realize, though, in studying these words, that none will ever live up to the problematic legacy of “pussy,” because none challenge the systemic forces that made it an pseudo-acceptable form of harassment. I’ve come to see that it will take a wholesale inversion of our norms to create the “pussy” of the 21st century, and for that reason, I stake all my hopes on “cissy.” Aside from emulating the reptilian sibilance of “pussy” (and its softer homophobic analogue, “sissy”), it flips the script by giving transgender people a term of derision for cisgender individuals who whip themselves into a moral panic about LGBT identities. Calling someone a “cissy” is a novel way to chastise someone for their fear of diversity and difference. Most importantly, it works.

https://twitter.com/fragileprinxe/status/892121262172123136

Where we once lobbed “pussy” around to goad other men into displays of primitive manhood — yelling, chest-puffing, an exchange of violences — the next generation of insults could well seek a reconciliation of civility and reflected image. “Pussy” says: “Aren’t you ashamed of acting like a little girl?” Yet “cissy” says: “Aren’t you supposed to be a man, or a woman? Don’t you have more important things to worry about?” I can’t speak for everyone, but I know which of these comments is sure to cut me to the quick.