Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Bitch: A History

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Bitch: (n)

1 a female dog, wolf, fox, or otter.

2 informal a spiteful or unpleasant woman.

There’s something sensational about cursing. That thinning of the lips before we launch our invective, the pleasing reduction in stress from each obscenity and the bonding with others by transgressing normal social rules.

But our curses all have unique markers that leave indentations through history, little smudge marks that show how they formed into the words we loved today. Some, like c*nt, have become more offensive while others have muted and diluted with usage.

Like bitch.

Man’s best friend is also man’s go-to insult. In English, however, the masculine and feminine versions have very different meaning.

Taken from the Old English bicce, the first recorded instance of bitch (as a female dog) was noted around 1000 CE*. Around 400 years later, it started appearing in literature as a specifically female pejorative, depicting them as indiscriminate and promiscuous cock-chasers. Not unlike actual bitches in heat.

Fabulously, bitch’s first dramatic appearance was in the Chester Mystery Plays (taken from biblical stories) in the 15th Century, cementing itself as the ultimate medieval smackdown, or potential lyrical diss from Morrissey’s greatest hits:

Whom callest thou queine, skabde bitch?
(Who are you calling a whore, you miserable bitch?)

Francis Grose, the accidental lexicographer, has three entries in his 1795 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. According to his definitions, bitch was one of the worst insults to ever sledge against a woman. A curious notion, given he couldn’t even spell out c*nt in the same book, preferring instead to refer to it as “a nasty name for a nasty thing”.

Grose insisted bitch was worse than whore or any other vulgarity contained in his book. As evidence, he quoted the sex workers from Billinsgate or St. Giles's who would apparently say to any who would listen “I may be a whore, but can't be a bitch.”

Though Grose considered bitch to be “the most offensive appellation that can be given to an English woman”, he helpfully listed doggess, dog’s wife and puppy’s mama as “jocular ways of calling a woman a bitch”.

Interestingly, Grose also listed two additions for bitch. “Bitch Booby”, a military term for country wenches and, incidentally, the name of my team at the at the upcoming Country Women Association’s trivia night.

Grose further clarified that if one were “to bitch”, he would “give up an attempt through fear” or someone “performing a female part: bitch there standing for women”.

Those unsure how to work bitch into your next high tea service should note Grose further defines “to bitch” as “to stand bitch; to make tea, or do the honours of the tea-table, performing a female part: bitch there standing for woman”. Proving that the Brits don’t have a Madonna/Whore complex, “to bitch” when it comes to tea drinking is now an incredibly pleasing “I’ll be mother”.

It’s interesting that, although calling a woman a bitch was an unforgivable slur, feminising men with this taboo insult was perfectly fine, if a touch base. It was (still is) used to reduce a man to the level of woman or female animal, which was demeaning, not as objectionable as reducing women to such a level.

The word’s popularity dropped slightly through the eighteenth century, although it did quietly continue as the primarily male insult ‘son of a bitch’. While not directly applied towards women, the term’s subtext contended that a low woman had created an inferior or frustrating man or task.

But just like many other words that cling to our pages of meaning, bitch rebounded into use with a new target: women.

Bitch came back into popular usage just in time to apply to women getting the vote in the US. There is an interesting correlation here; for moments where women make advances, so too does the popularity of the word bitch.

Women get the right to vote? Bitch!

A review of literature from 1915 and 1930 shows the use of bitch meaning a female dog shrank in comparison to the skyrocketing rise of the use of bitch as an insult for women, categorising them as vulgar, painful and malicious.

Second wave of feminism and sexual revolution? Bitch!

Yes, between Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, the rise of second wave feminism and sexual revolution, bitch rose higher in popularity, but this time it was getting claimed by the very targets it was supposed to diminish. In her book The BITCH Manifesto, Jo Freeman gives a rousing call to arms:

Bitches refuse to serve, honour or obey anyone. They demand to be fully functioning human beings, not just shadows….. We must realize that Bitch is Beautiful and that we have nothing to lose. Nothing whatsoever.

Strange Bitchfellows

Towards the late 1990s, bitch trifurcated along some curious lines. It devolved into a term to describe a gossipy, petty and unpleasant, it featured in nearly every rap song released for decades and was also claimed by the Queer community - only to be overused by every HBO screenwriter looking for sassy gay dialogue.

But something even more interesting had happened: bitch softened into a term with a sting in its tail but – more importantly - earnestly discussed in public. Yet for every ideological reclamation (Bitch magazine was released), still others bristled against the term. But they did so publicly in editorial, TV and conversation – bitches went public!

Today, women like Tavi Gevinson remind themselves they’re a “bad bitch” when they feel shy or overwhelmed and need to perk up. Britney’s latest ventriloquism act is singing Work Bitch and people are past clamouring for Skinny Bitch diet products (weight loss advice from a trusted girlfriends’ who’s sick of your shit perspective). It can still be used as an insult, but the word has been thoroughly reclaimed by women who refuse to cower helplessly in the face of female-specific invective.

Bitch’s usage, while obviously an area for feminist inquiry, is also a fascinating example of how a word can tumble through history, bobbing and sinking in popularity depending on cultural need.

Context, as always, will be key, but bitch is far from the “offensive appellation” that so horrified Grose.

* CE - Common Era

(I don't like the coy practice of using asterisks instead of letters in particular words to make them more palatable. If the word isn't being used correctly it should be edited, otherwise it should be there in full. However, we have found that many email clients will reject emails containing certain words, so we are forced to use the asterisk, with apologies to the writers and people who are irritated by false niceties. - Ed.)


Amy Gray

Amy Gray is a writer and broadcaster from Melbourne, Australia.

Follow her on Twitter @_AmyGray_