Good Fun With Bad Words: Five Familiar Woman-Specific Slang Terms And Their Lesser-Known Historical Origins

INCLUDING: what "bitching" once had to do with pouring tea, and some unexpectedly amazing English origins of the c-word. This is not a place for delicate sensibilities.

Jul 3, 2013 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

If you're like me, and I obviously am, you probably find yourself occasionally using words that you just haven't thought that hard about.
 
Thinking about language can be difficult and annoying, and breaking the habit of using certain words (like, for example, saying that you got "raped" if you were generally violated in a non-sexual way, or calling every jerk a "cocksucker" because you've been watching too much "Deadwood") can be really challenging, but I think it's important to know the provenance and background of culturally and socially loaded words -- even if you're not going to stop using them. 
 
Although the exact degree of influence is debatable, to some extent the language that we use to describe our world also creates and reinforces the culture of that world. For example, an unexamined use of "pussy" as a perjorative against men contributes to the idea that having a pussy is a negative and even shameful thing.
 
That said, the context of the language is also key -- though the level of profanity of the words below varies dramatically, they have all been reclaimed and reframed by some as positive or empowering terms, and that's valid too. My personal, dilettante interest in language is less about telling people what words they are "allowed" to use, and more about starting a conversation about what they mean and how we use them.
 
And so, let's start with something soft and nonthreatening.
 
Pussy
 
Ah, pussy. Good old reliable pussy. Like many of the words on this list, "pussy" has layers of meaning and connotation. In a concrete sense, "pussy" refers to a vulva and vagina. In a slang sense, it’s often used against men as a term of derision, usually to indicate that the dude in question is an ineffectual wimp.
 
Because supposedly nothing is more offensive to men than being told they are like women in any way whatsoever. 
 
Pussy’s precise origins are unclear; what we do know is that it’s a very old word. It has evidently been used as an affectionate term for women (and possibly “effeminate” men) since the 1580s, and is thought to be originally connected to “puss” as a call-word for cats.
 
Most etymology sources seem to agree that the connection with genitalia specifically, rather than women in general, came later. Once upon a time, you might call a sweet girl a "pussy" like you would call her a doll today. (Alternatively, some argue it may have stemmed from the Old Norse word for “pocket,” which apparently provides the origins for the Low German word for vulva, “puse.”)
 
Pussy is an interesting example because its use as an insult is men-specific. While you can certainly call a woman a pussy, it doesn’t have the same sting, because, well, she IS a pussy, insofar as we are all meant to assume she HAS a pussy, so calling her a pussy is kind of like saying she has a head. And meaning it to sound like an insult. 
 
Another problem with “pussy” is that it draws a straight line between genitalia and gender, which may be easy shorthand in everyday life for many people, but for trans folks or people who know and love trans folks, it’s actually really upsetting and hurtful.
 
This is reason enough not to use it, but there’s also the simple fact that wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t make negative associations based on assumed genitalia, in general? Like wouldn’t it be cool if genitalia was not a factor in how masculine or feminine or androgynous you are thought to be?
 
Pussy-whipped/Henpecked
 
Both pussy-whipped and henpecked have similar connotations, with some distinctive differences. Both terms refer to a man who is dominated by a woman with whom he is romantically engaged. “Henpecked” usually specifies a married man -- or at least a man who is in a long-term relationship -- who quietly obeys his partner/wife, often with a component of having been worn down into docile submission over time. 
 
“Pussy-whipped” has more of a sexual component, and usually refers to a man who is so stupefied by the sex he’s having that he will do whatever his wife/girlfriend says. 
 
Both of these terms are considered generally negative, the point being that it is unmasculine for a man to let his woman boss him around. “Henpecked,” deriving from the metaphor of a hen pecking away at her poor husband, is the far older of the two, dating at least to its use in 1671 by English poet and satirist Samuel Butler:
 
The henpect [henpecked] man rides behind his wife and lets her wear the spurs and govern the reins... He is subordinate and ministerial to his wife, who commands in chief, and he dares do nothing without her order... He changed sexes with his wife, and put off the old man to put on the new woman. She sits at the helm, and he does but tug like a slave at the oar.
 
It goes on like that, but you get the idea. (I wonder if they had men’s rights activists in the 17th century?)
 
Pussy-whipped, on the other hand, has really only been around since the 1950s, but the association is the same. Both terms rely on the idea that it is deeply shameful for a man to allow himself to be pushed around, and even worse that the person doing the pushing is a LADY.
 
This is not only because women are supposedly weak and pathetic and an inability to stand up to one would make a dude even weaker and more pathetic than a woman, but also because the man in question has committed to a woman who is intrinsically unfeminine, because she takes on masculine traits as a decision-maker. 
 
There is no winning here! Nobody wins.
 
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Oh hey guys, I'm just standing bitch. Care to join?

 
Bitch
 
Bitch is a fascinating old word, and obviously one that has been reclaimed by many people as a positive affirmation. When used as an insult today, “bitch” usually refers to a woman who is inappropriately strong-willed or rude -- essentially, a woman who does not know her place -- but strangely, when applied to men, “bitch” can also be used to indicate weakness or ineptitude, as in, “He was crying like a little bitch.”
 
So in women, bitch is an insult because it notes a woman’s forcefulness and refusal to be cowed, and in men, it’s an insult because it means being like an ineffectual useless woman. Figure that shit out.
 
"Bitch" goes back to the Old English term for a female dog (for which purpose it is still used today amongst people who raise and work with dogs), and first began to be employed contemptously against women in the 15th century, although its original intention was to describe a woman’s sexual promiscuity, as a bitch in heat. Francis Grose’s 1785 “Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue” defines the term:
 
BITCH. 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's answer--"I may be whore, but can't be a bitch."
 
TO BITCH. To yield, or give up an attempt through fear. To stand bitch; to make tea, or do the honours of the tea-table, performing a female part: bitch there standing for woman, species for genius.
 
I’m including the verb form above because it is such a divergence from how we think of what it means "to bitch" today. Also, I sort of want to start saying “I’M GOING TO STAND BITCH” every time I make a pot of tea. RECLAIMING WORDS IS FUN.
 
Slut
 
“Slut” is another misogynist term that has since enjoyed reclamation in some quarters, by women who choose to use the label in a self-affirming way, to confront cultural assumptions that suggest women’s sexuality must be controlled, and to subvert the notion that promiscuity in women is immoral and gross. This is where SlutWalk -- with all its complicated issues -- began in 2011, as an organized movement against the widespread acceptance of slut-shaming and victim-blaming, although lots of women have been taking "slut" back for many years in less media-friendly ways. 
 
Slut as a denigration tends to only be used against women -- you can use it against dudes, but generally in that context it’s more amusing than vicious.
 
Slut’s origins were not sexual at all, but sanitary: first finding use around 1400, it is believed to come from the German “Schlutt” or the Swedish “slata,” meaning a slovenly or untidy woman -- or man, as it turns up in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, “Why is thy lord so sluttish?” It could also simply refer to a kitchen maid.
 
When exactly “slut” came to be more specifically associated with sexual promiscuity and “loose morals” is unclear, although there is evidence that it was being used to denote a sexually-available woman as early as 1450 -- that said, it was also employed as an affectionate term through the 1500s and 1600s. There's a line in Samuel Pepys' diaries that refers to a household servant as "a most admirable slut."
 
By 1890 it would seem that word’s investment as an insult was well entrenched, since in Farmer’s “Slang and its Analogues Past and Present,” “slut” was defined as a “dirty housewife,” a “wench,” or a “bitch.” At minimum it referred to a woman who is inappropriate on some level, whether because she is literally dirty, or just figuratively so.
 
Cunt 
 
For many people, most of them Americans, the “c-word” is a word they refuse to say, placing it on a level with abbreviated racial slurs like the n-word. Reclamation efforts on cunt have not been as successful as other once-unthinkable terms -- remember that once upon a time, "bitch" was apparently the worst name you could call a woman -- and who knows why, especially given its origins and use have not been any more outrageous than any of the other words on this list.
 
I am personally quite fond of “cunt” as a variant term for the vulva (although not as an insult, for obvious reasons). Most alternate terms for vulva/vagina gentilatia tend to be sort of soft and floppy, like “pussy,” but “cunt” actually sounds kind of terrifying. Although part of that may be the strong taboo still associated with it.
 
Cunt’s taboo is so strong that many 18th and 19th century writers only referred to it as “the monosyllable.” The origins of cunt are disputed, but it is also a very old word, with likely roots in a Germanic word that came to Old Norse as "kunta," which astonishingly shares the same exact meaning as the cunt we know today. 
 
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A page from "Slang and Its Analogues, Past and Present," published circa 1890. Mostly included for definitions of "cunt-struck," "cock-smitten," "cunny-haunted," and "cunt-pensioner."

 
Cunt's initial English use evidently had origins in a compound phrase: starting as early as 1230, English cities and towns would identify their prostitution centers with the street name Gropecunt Lane.
 
I am totally not making this up. This is actual real-life history. They even printed it on maps. A large urban metropolis like London had several Gropecunt Lanes, sometimes with variant spellings, and traces of which may still exist in some areas.
 
There is honestly little about “cunt” -- possibly excepting its early association with prostitution -- that distinguishes it from other terms for vulva/vagina. Certainly there is nothing that makes it intrinsically worse than the less offensive “pussy” or “snatch” or any other similar slang. Indeed, it was not always considered a terrible slur, this sense only evolving sometime around the 1700s. Why it remains unspeakable in polite company when other words with similar meanings have lost their ability to shock is a mystery, but such is the way with ever-changing, always-unpredictable language.
 
But what do you think about these words? Do you use them in your daily life? As insults or affirmations? Do you consider any of them totally untouchable? Let's hear it in comments.