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Bitch (slang)

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Bitch, literally meaning a female dog, is a pejorative slang word for a person—usually a woman—who is belligerent, unreasonable, malicious, a control freak, rudely intrusive or aggressive. When applied to a man, bitch is a derogatory term for a subordinate. Its original use as a vulgarism, documented from the fifteenth century, suggested high sexual desire in a woman, comparable to a dog in heat. The range of meanings has expanded in modern usage. In a feminist context, it can indicate a strong or assertive woman.

The word bitch is one of the most common curse words in the English language. According to Dr. Timothy Jay, there are "over 70 different taboo words," but 80 percent of the time only ten words are used, and bitch is included in this set.[1]

Contents

History

 
Literally, a bitch is a female dog. Its original use as an insult was based on a comparison of a woman to a dog in heat.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term bitch comes from the Old English word bicce or bicge, meaning "female dog," which dates to around 1000 CE. It may have derived from the earlier Old Norse word bikkja, also meaning "female dog."[2][3]

"Dog" has long been used as an insult toward both women and men. In ancient Greece, dog was often used in a derogatory sense to refer to someone whose behavior was improper or transgressive. This could include shamelessness or lack of restraint, lack of hospitality, lack of loyalty, and indiscriminate or excessive violence, among other qualities.[4] Over time, classicist C. Franco argues, a "persistent symbolic connection" developed between dogs and women in Greek literature that expressed and reinforced women's subordinate position in society and their supposedly inferior nature.[4]

There may also be a connection between less literal senses of bitch and the Greek goddess Artemis. As she is the goddess of the hunt, she was often portrayed with a pack of hunting dogs and sometimes transformed into an animal herself.[5] She was seen as free, vigorous, cold, impetuous, unsympathetic, beautiful.[6]

The earliest use of "bitch" specifically as a derogatory term for women dates to the fifteenth century.[2][3] Its earliest slang meaning mainly referred to sexual behavior, according to the English language historian Geoffrey Hughes:[7]

The early applications were to a promiscuous or sensual woman, a metaphorical extension of the behavior of a bitch in heat. Herein lies the original point of the powerful insult son of a bitch, found as biche sone ca. 1330 in Arthur and Merlin ... while in a spirited exchange in the Chester Play (ca. 1400) a character demands: "Whom callest thou queine, skabde bitch?" ("Who are you calling a whore, you miserable bitch?").

Bitch remained a strong insult through the nineteenth century. The entry in Francis Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) reads :

A she dog, or doggess; the most offensive appellation that can be given to an English woman, even more provoking than that of whore, as may be gathered from the regular Billinsgate or St Giles answer--"I may be a whore, but can't be a bitch."[8]

Throughout the word’s evolution into the nineteenth century, it became gradually less offensive. The Oxford English Dictionary in the nineteenth century described the insult as “strictly a lewd or sensual woman”.[9] The word went through many similar phases throughout history. It was not until the 20th century that feminism began to reevaluate the term and its appropriation.[10]

In the 1920s, bitch became once again a common insult used against women. The term bitch became more popular in common language during this era. Between 1915 and 1930, the use of "bitch" in newspapers and literature more than doubled.[11] The writing of Ernest Hemingway popularized the more modern meaning of "bitch" in this era. He used it to represent favorable qualities such as ferocity, edginess, and grit.[12] It was during this time that women began gaining more freedom (such as the right to vote through the Nineteenth Amendment).[13] These new civil rights that women gained upset the male-dominated society, threatening misogynist men of the time feel threatened. The word "bitch" during the twenties meant "malicious or consciously attempting to harm," "difficult, annoying, or interfering," and "sexually brazen or overly vulgar".[14]

Modern use

In modern usage, the slang term bitch has different meanings depending largely on social context and may vary from very offensive to endearing,[3] and as with many slang terms, its meaning and nuances can vary depending on the region in which it is used.

 
"Bitch" has been reappropriated to have positive meanings in some contexts.

The term bitch can refer to a person or thing that is very difficult, as in "Life's a bitch" or "He sure got the bitch end of that deal". It is common for insults to lose intensity as their meaning broadens ("bastard" is another example).[7] In the film The Women (1939), Joan Crawford could only allude to the word: "And by the way, there's a name for you ladies, but it isn't used in high society - outside of a kennel." At the time, use of the actual word would have been censored by the Hays Office. By 1974, Elton John had a hit single (#4 in the U.S. and #14 in the U.K.) with "The Bitch Is Back", in which he says "bitch" repeatedly. It was, however, censored by some radio stations.[15] On late night U.S. television, the character Emily Litella (1976-1978) on Saturday Night Live (portrayed by Gilda Radner) would frequently refer to Jane Curtin under her breath at the end of their Weekend Update routine in this way: "Oh! Never mind...! Bitch!"

Bitchin' arose in the 1950s to describe something found to be cool or rad.[16]

Modern use can include self-description, often as an unfairly difficult person. For example, in The New York Times bestseller The Bitch in the House, a woman describes her marriage: "I'm fine all day at work, but as soon as I get home, I'm a horror....I'm the bitch in the house."[17] Boy George admitted "I was being a bitch" in a falling out with Elton John.[18]

Generally, the term bitch is still considered offensive, and not accepted in formal situations. According to linguist Deborah Tannen, "Bitch is the most contemptible thing you can say about a woman. Save perhaps the four-letter C word."[19] It's common for the word to be censored on Prime time TV, often rendered as "the b-word". During the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, a John McCain supporter referred to Hillary Clinton by asking, "How do we beat the bitch?" The event was reported in censored format:[20]

On CNN's "The Situation Room," Washington Post media critic and CNN "Reliable Sources" host Howard Kurtz observed that "Senator McCain did not embrace the 'b' word that this woman in the audience used." ABC reporter Kate Snow adopted the same locution. On CNN's "Out in the Open," Rick Sanchez characterized the word without using it by saying, "Last night, we showed you a clip of one of his supporters calling Hillary Clinton the b-word that rhymes with witch." A local Fox 25 news reporter made the same move when he rhymed the unspoken word with rich.

Rick Sanchez of CNN went on to comment: "...a horrible word that is used to do nothing but demean women... Obviously, the word that's used here is very offensive."[21]

Reappropriation

 
Two women protesting the pejorative 'bitch' and slut-shaming at New York City's SlutWalk in October 2011[22]

In the context of modern feminism, bitch has varied reappropriated meanings that may connote a strong female (anti-stereotype of weak submissive woman), cunning (equal to males in mental guile), or else it may be used as a tongue-in cheek backhanded compliment for someone who has excelled in an achievement.[23][24][25] For example, Bitch magazine describes itself as a "feminist response to pop culture".[26]

Feminist attorney Jo Freeman (Joreen) authored "The BITCH Manifesto" in 1968:[27][28]

A Bitch takes shit from no one. You may not like her, but you cannot ignore her....[Bitches] have loud voices and often use them. Bitches are not pretty....Bitches seek their identity strictly thru themselves and what they do. They are subjects, not objects...Often they do dominate other people when roles are not available to them which more creatively sublimate their energies and utilize their capabilities. More often they are accused of domineering when doing what would be considered natural by a man.

Bitch has also been reappropriated by hip-hop culture, rappers use the adjective "bad bitch" to refer to an independent, confident, attractive woman. The term is used in a complimentary way, meaning the woman is desirable. One of the first instances of "bitch" being used in this way is in the song "Da Baddest Bitch" by Trina, released in 1999.[29] This can also be seen throughout multiple different songs from Rihanna's song entitled "Bad Bitch" featuring Beyoncé which reiterates the line "I'm a bad bitch"[30] multiple times. Nicki Minaj is another female rap icon who uses the term in her song "Starships" where she says “bad bitches like me is hard to come by”.[31] This use of the word bitch shows women reappropriating the meaning to be a more positive and empowering word for women.

Pop culture

In pop culture, the use of the term bitch has increased through media such as television, movies, magazines, social media, etc. The use of the word "bitch" on television shows tripled between 1998 and 2007, which had much to do with the word's feminist facelift in the previous decade.[29]

In a 2006 interview titled "Pop Goes the Feminist", Bitch magazine co-founder Andi Zeisler explained the naming of the magazine:[23]

When we chose the name, we were thinking, well, it would be great to reclaim the word "bitch" for strong, outspoken women, much the same way that "queer" has been reclaimed by the gay community. That was very much on our minds, the positive power of language reclamation.

 
The band 7 Year Bitch in concert.

Pop culture contains a number of slogans of self-identification based on bitch. For example,

  • "You call me 'Bitch' like it's a bad thing."
  • "I go zero to bitch in 3.5 seconds."

There are several backronyms. Heartless Bitches International is a club with the slogan "Because we know BITCH means: Being In Total Control, Honey!" Other imagined acronyms include

  • "Beautiful Intelligent Talented Creative Honest"
  • "Beautiful Individual That Causes Hardons"[32]
  • "Babe In Total Control of Herself".[33]

As stated in Scallen’s Bitch Thesis, "As Asim demonstrates with his discussion of the appropriation of the N word by black communities, the term bitch is deployed in pop culture in multiple ways (with multiple meanings) at the same time."[34] Derogatory terms are constantly appropriated. Many women, such as Nicki Minaj, refer to themselves as bitches. By calling oneself a bitch in today’s culture, these women are referencing their success, money, sexuality, and power. Asha Layne’s article Now That’s a Bad Bitch!: The State of Women in Hip-Hop, "The change in the meaning of the word thus subverts the tools of oppression used to dominate women to now empower them."[35]

Hip hop culture

One early rapper to use the word bitch on record was Duke Bootee on his classic 1983 song with Grandmaster Flash, "New York New York". ("He says he ain't gonna pay no child support / because the bitch left him without a second thought.") However, it is sometimes claimed that Slick Rick's "La Di Da Di" (1985) was the first rap song to use the term.[36] Since the late 1980s, the word bitch has been frequently used among hip-hop artists and followers of the culture, which can be said as "bee-otch", spelled like Biotch, Beyotch, Beotch, etc.[37] One of the first artists to popularize the pronunciation as beeatch or biatch as a refrain in the late 1980s was Oakland-based rapper Too $hort.

Reaching back to the dozens and dirty blues, early rappers like Slick Rick established the bitch as a character: a woman, often treacherous, but sometimes simply déclassé.[38] Adams and Fuller (2006) state that, in misogynistic rap, a bitch is a "money-hungry, scandalous, manipulating, and demanding woman".[37] However, the word bitch is also frequently used (by male rappers) towards other men in rap lyrics, usually to describe a man who is a subordinate or homosexual, or a man who is supposedly unmanly or inferior in some way.[39]

Some female hip hop artists have challenged male rappers' use of the word bitch to refer to women, with Queen Latifah asking in her 1993 song "U.N.I.T.Y.": "Who you callin' a bitch?"[40][41] Other female rappers from the same era frequently used the term to refer to themselves and/or others, notably Roxanne Shante (who even made a 1992 album entitled The Bitch Is Back) and MC Lyte. Popular culture has inspired women to redefine the word bitch as a euphemism for "Strong black woman".

In reference to men

When used to describe a male, bitch may also confer the meaning of subordinate, especially to another male, as in prison. Generally, this term is used to indicate that the person is acting outside the confines of their gender roles, such as when women are assertive or aggressive, or when men are passive or servile. According to James Coyne from the Department of Psychology at the University of California, "'Bitch' serves the social function of isolating and discrediting a class of people who do not conform to the socially accepted patterns of behavior."[42]

In the context of prison sexuality, a bitch is a lower-hierarchy prisoner, typically physically weak or vulnerable, who is dominated by more senior prisoners and forced to adopt a servile role. According to convention, these inmates are used as sexual slaves or traded as personal property.[43]

A "prison bitch" can also refer to any subservient entity, as in the Douglas Rushkoff description of a Microsoft - Yahoo partnership: "Yahoo is merely hooking up with the most alpha male company it can still find in order to survive. Microsoft will soon turn Yahoo into its prison bitch, and this won’t be pretty."[44]

In Russian criminal slang, by contrast, a bitch (suka, pl. suki in Russian) is a person from the criminal world who has cooperated with law enforcement or the government. Suki were placed on the bottom of the prisoner hierarchy. As the definition of "cooperation" was not confined to snitching, but included any form of collaboration, World War II veterans returning to prison were declared suki, leading to the post-WWII Bitch Wars.

Idioms

Son of a bitch

The term son of a bitch is a form of profanity usually used to refer to a man who is nasty, rude or otherwise offensive. In Shakespeare's King Lear (1603), the Earl of Kent refers to Oswald as:[45] "...nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch..." In Act II Scene I of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, Ajax strikes Thersites, yelling "Thou bitch-wolf's son, canst thou not hear?"[46]

Its use as an insult is as old as that of bitch. Euphemistic terms are often substituted, such as gun in the phrase "son of a gun" as opposed to "son of a bitch", or "s.o.b." for the same phrase. Like bitch, the severity of the insult has diminished. Roy Blount, Jr. recently[when?] extolled the virtues of "son of a bitch" (particularly in comparison to "asshole") in common speech and deed.[47] Son of a bitch can also be used as a "how about that" reaction.

In politics the phrase "Yes, he is a son of a bitch, but he is our son of a bitch" has been attributed, probably apocryphally, to various U.S. presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Richard Nixon.[48] Immediately after the detonation of the first atomic bomb in Alamogordo, New Mexico, in July 1945 (the device codenamed Gadget), the Manhattan Project scientist who served as the director of the test, Kenneth Tompkins Bainbridge, exclaimed to Robert Oppenheimer "Now we're all sons-of-bitches."[49]

The 19th-century British racehorse Filho da Puta took its name from 'Son of a bitch' in Portuguese.

Bitch slap

The term bitch slap is derived from American slang. In the original sense, a bitch slap is a powerful, full-swing slap in the face with the front of the hand, evoking the way an angry pimp might slap a defiant prostitute (not to be confused with a pimp slap which uses the back of the hand). However, the term is now frequently used figuratively to describe a humiliating defeat or punishment.

In cards

To have the "bitch end" of a hand in poker is to have the weaker version of the same hand as another player. This situation occurs especially in poker games with community cards. For example, to have a lower straight than one's opponent is to have the bitch end.[citation needed]

The bitch is slang for the queen of spades.[50]

Other forms

When used as a verb, to bitch means to complain. Usage in this context is almost always pejorative in intent.[51]

As an adjective, the term sometimes has a meaning opposite to its usual connotations. Something that is bitching or bitchin' is really great. For example, an admired motorcycle may be praised as a "bitchin' bike".[52]

Equivalent words in other languages

A number of other languages, such as Swedish, Hungarian, and Slavic languages like Russian use their word for female dog in the same vulgar manner (Swedish: 'hynda', Russian: 'сука' súka, Hungarian: 'szuka'), although they are not used as often as other words generally referring to prostitutes.

See also

References

  1. ^ Jay, Timothy (Mar 2009). "The Utility and Ubiquity of Taboo Words". Perspectives on Psychological Science. 4: 153–161. doi:10.1111/j.1745-6924.2009.01115.x.
  2. ^ a b "bitch, n. 1", Oxford English Dictionary Online, Oxford University Press, retrieved 10 August 2017
  3. ^ a b c Grynbaum, Michael M. (August 7, 2007). "It's a Female Dog, or Worse. Or Endearing. And Illegal?". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-10-01.
  4. ^ a b Franco, Cristiana (2014). Shameless: The Canine and the Feminine in Ancient Greece. University of California Press. ISBN 9780520273405. OCLC 886107785.
  5. ^ Bayley, Clare. "The Evolution of Bitch in the English Language". Bitch a History. Retrieved October 20, 2015.
  6. ^ Higginson, Thomas. The Greek Goddesses. Middlebury College. p. 197.
  7. ^ a b Hughes, Geoffrey. Encyclopedia of Swearing : The Social History of Oaths, Profanity, Foul Language, and Ethnic Slurs in the English-Speaking World. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 2006.
  8. ^ Grose, Francis. 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. Hosted at Project Gutenberg. Retrieved on January 9, 2007.
  9. ^ Gross, Beverly (1994). "Bitch". Salmagundi.
  10. ^ Kleinman, Sherryl; Ezzel, Matthew; Frost, A. Corey (Spring 2009). "The Social Harms of "Bitch"". Sociological Analysis.
  11. ^ "Google Ngram Viewer". books.google.com. Retrieved 2015-10-23.
  12. ^ "Meet the New Bitch". The Atlantic. Retrieved 2015-10-23.
  13. ^ "19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Women%27s Right to Vote". www.archives.gov. Retrieved 2015-10-20.
  14. ^ Triska, Zoë (January 23, 2013). "You Say 'Bitch' Like It's A Bad Thing: Examining the Implications of the Notorious Word". The Huffington Post. The Huffington Post. Retrieved October 18, 2015.
  15. ^ "The Bitch Is Back by Elton John Songfacts". Songfacts.com. Retrieved 2012-05-03.
  16. ^ "bitchin' | very good or appealing". www.merriam-webster.com. Retrieved 2015-10-23.
  17. ^ The Bitch in the House, ed. Cathi Hanaeur
  18. ^ Elton John and Boy George End Feuf Archived June 16, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
  19. ^ Carlson, Margaret (1995-01-16). "Muzzle the B word". Time. Vol. 145 no. 2. p. 36. ISSN 0040-781X. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost AN 9501107624 (accessed October 1, 2009).
  20. ^ Hall, Kathleen. "Nieman Reports | The 'B' Word in Traditional News and on the Web". Nieman.harvard.edu. Retrieved 2012-05-03.
  21. ^ Jamieson, Kathleen Hall; Jacqueline Dunn (n.d.). "The 'B' Word in Traditional News and on the Web". Nieman Harvard. Retrieved 2009-09-27.
  22. ^ SlutWalk Rally Against Sexual Violence Draws Huge Crowd of Feminists Archived 2012-05-04 at the Wayback Machine., Rebecca Nathanson, Village Voice, October 2, 2011
  23. ^ a b Pop Goes the Feminist, Deborah Solomon interviews Andi Zeisler, New York Times, August 6, 2006.
  24. ^ Third Wave Feminism, by Tamara Straus, MetroActive, December 6, 2000.
  25. ^ You've Really Got Some Minerva, Veronica Mars Archived 2007-04-23 at the Wayback Machine., 2006-11-21.
  26. ^ "Bitch Media". Bitchmagazine.org. 2012-04-25. Retrieved 2012-05-03.
  27. ^ "The Bitch Manifesto - Documents from the Women's Liberation Movement". Scriptorium.lib.duke.edu. Retrieved 2012-05-03.
  28. ^ "The BITCH Manifesto". Jofreeman.com. Retrieved 2012-05-03.
  29. ^ a b "The Evolution of the Bitch | VICE | United States". VICE. Retrieved 2015-10-23.
  30. ^ "Rihanna (Ft. Beyoncé) – Bad Bitch (Demo)". Genius. Retrieved 2015-10-23.
  31. ^ "Starships - Nicki Minaj". Retrieved 2015-10-23.
  32. ^ "BITCH - Beautiful Individual That Causes Hardons". Abbreviations.com. Retrieved 2012-05-03.
  33. ^ "Beautiful Intelligent Talented Creative Honest - What does BITCH stand for? Acronyms and abbreviations by the Free Online Dictionary". Acronyms.thefreedictionary.com. Retrieved 2012-05-03.
  34. ^ Scallen. "Bitch Thesis." 2010. Department of American Studies. Paper. 17 October 2015.
  35. ^ Layne, Asha. Now That's a Bad Bitch!: The State of Women in Hip-Hop. 24 April 2014. Article. 19 October 2015.
  36. ^ Aldave, Cherryl (2003-01-29). "Forgotten Elements: A Bitch Iz A Bitch | Rappers Talk Hip Hop Beef & Old School Hip Hop". HipHop DX. Retrieved 2013-02-24.
  37. ^ a b Adams, Terri M.; Fuller, Douglas B. (2006). "The Words Have Changed but the Ideology Remains the Same: Misogynistic Lyrics in Rap Music" (PDF). Journal of Black Studies. 36 (6): 938–957. doi:10.1177/0021934704274072. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-03-28.
  38. ^ "Who You Calling A B----?". NPR.org. Retrieved 2015-10-23.
  39. ^ "Dr. Dre – Bitches Ain't Shit Lyrics". Rap Genius. Retrieved 2013-02-24.
  40. ^ Neal, Mark Anthony and Murray Forman. That’s the Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 2004, p. 315, ISBN 978-0-415-96918-5.
  41. ^ Dyson, Miachel Eric. Know What I Mean?: Reflections on Hip-Hop. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2007, p. 124, ISBN 978-0-465-01716-4.
  42. ^ Coyne, James C.; Sherman, Richard C.; O'Brien, Karen (1978). "Expletives and Woman's Place". Sex Roles. 4 (6): 827–35. doi:10.1007/bf00287702.
  43. ^ "Prison Bitch » Counterpunch: Tells the Facts, Names the Names". Counterpunch. 2003-08-02. Archived from the original on 2011-08-05. Retrieved 2012-05-03.
  44. ^ Rushkoff, Douglas (29 July 2009). "Microsoft's Prison Yard Conquest". The Daily Beast. The Newsweek/Daily Beast Company LLC. Retrieved 27 February 2012.
  45. ^ "King Lear". It.usyd.edu.au. Archived from the original on 2010-05-18. Retrieved 2012-05-03.
  46. ^ Shakespeare, William (1602). Troilus and Cressida. Yale University Press. p. 35. |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  47. ^ "The Word Son of a Bitch - Epithets". Esquire. 2008-06-18. Retrieved 2012-05-03.
  48. ^ "Our Son of a Bitch".
  49. ^ "Science Quotes by Kenneth Bainbridge".
  50. ^ New Jersey Free Poker. "Poker Glossary Poker Terms and Poker Definitions and Poker Meanings". Worldfreepoker.com. Retrieved 2012-05-03.
  51. ^ "Bitch Definition, www.dictionary.com". Retrieved 2008-10-10.
  52. ^ Shachtman, Noah (2009-01-14). "Northrop Unveils Bitchin' Bomber-Cycle". Wired.

Further reading