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An Alphabet of Feminism #2: B is for Bitch

2010 October 11
by Hodge


(n. and v. )

Four Legs Good

The four-letter word that isn’t a four letter word, at least properly a bitch has four legs. As anyone who’s ever tittered at Cruft’s will be only too aware, the glory of bitch is that, like gay, it has a meaning unrelated to human sexuality in many circles. Hence its first meaning, ‘the female of the dog’, originating in Middle English and Old Norse. The dictionary extends its potential out a bit: you can, it insists, have other types of bitch creature (e.g., ‘bitch fox’) as long as you specify. Bitch aardvark; bitch turtle (I hope).

You say 'bitch' like it's a bad thing.

But, with typical ingratitude to Man’s Best Friend, the human race quickly (well, by the fourteenth century) started using dog to mean all the juicy olde worlde insults – ‘worthless fellow’, ‘traitor’, ‘low cur’, ‘coward’, etc. – with the implication being that a four-legged dog only thinks of its survival and has no interest in Elevated Human Ideals like honour, dignity, nobility, etc. Bitch is the female of the species in every sense, so, while dog is connected with male inadequacy and primitivism, bitch attacks women on that most unoriginal of plains, sexuality.

Enter the second, and probably most commonly understood use of the term: its opprobrious application to women. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED to you and me) initially sticks to the rather conservative definition ‘a lewd or sensual woman’, adding sternly ‘Not now in decent use’, although it then extends the term to mean ‘a malicious or treacherous woman’ or, more generally, an ‘outstandingly difficult or unpleasant’ thing, this last surely an allusion to the proverbial aggression of mothering animals. But why do these sexual meanings keep cropping up? The answer lies in the Dim And Distant Past.

A Diversion Back In Time

When these terms begin to be bandied about in the 1300s, the crucial point is that that much-touted Man On The Street would probably have said that men were spiritual, closer-to-God beings, while their wives were, well, Closer To God in the Trent Reznorian sense. There was a very simple reason for this: physically speaking, women can, er, last longer than men. ‘What is this?’ their husbands cry, ‘I’ve had enough – That’s all anyone should need! Womankind is dangerously lecherous!’ Moreover, since Man had been created first (and in God’s image) he was some way towards divinity already, but the daughters of Eve were far from such exalted regions. They were really just a higher kind of animal: Adam had, after all, been given dominion over his wife along with the birds and beasts.

So female lechery could quickly become perceived as a primitive, animalistic trait that the forces of humanity – and the superior self-restraint of men – were always trying to overcome. And bitch emerges as evidence of such a view, since just as dog suggests that primitive man is, in essence, cowardly, bitch implies that all women (as the female of the species) are basically dogs in heat, driven by their genitals, and consequently liable to stray towards adultery and sexual deception just as, today, men supposedly ‘think with their pricks’ (more on how this shift occurred to come!).

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’.
Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1811

Wait, What About Me?

The sub-definition of bitch‘s opprobrious sense relates to its application to a man. Here, the dictionary argues, it ‘has the modern sense of “dog”‘, although its use is, bizarrely, ‘less opprobrious, and somewhat whimsical’. So a male bitch is essentially a dog, a coward, a whiner, a weakling: all terms which, handily, reflect back on the gender the man in question is borrowing. But, you know, whimsically.

The plot thickens! If, linguistically, (lewd) women are essentially the same as dogs in heat, the verbal senses of bitch (I bitch, you bitch, she/he/it bitches) take on a whole new inevitability. Denigrating people behind their backs becomes behaviour to be expected from any female animal, and, consequently, natural and normal. Moreover, it becomes an explicitly feminine activity: men do not ‘bitch’ about each other, or rather, if they do, they are upsetting a perceived gender role in the process. Son of a Bitch (supposedly Old Norse in origin) is a useful comparison here: men who are treacherous, it implies, are their mothers’ sons.

Bitcho Ergo Sum, or whatever.

So then, interactivity time: is there an equivalent word for men, that, if appropriated by women, has a censorious reflection on ‘natural’ male behaviour? The only ones I can think of generally reflect badly on the woman, and have little impact on the man – ‘sharking’, ‘pimping’ – or hardly change at all, as with the pleasingly unisex ‘fucking’.

‘You Say “Bitch” Like It’s A Bad Thing!’

Finally, a word on bitch in the twenty-first century. Since the purpose of this Alphabet is to work through linguistic history via the Oxford English Dictionary (which is in so many ways the pater familias of conventional English), I find myself ill-equipped to discuss the many nuances the word has acquired in modern day slang (‘a crocodile will stone cold eat a bitch’, etc.), which, however, is an area I hope readers will be able to bring something to themselves in the comments.

However, what is really confusing me is the question what to make of the increasing tendency nowadays for certain women (or, at least, greetings card companies aimed at women) to reclaim bitch as a Fun Ironic Term: hence all those novelty cards about how one would be ill-advised to disturb ‘the bitch’ when she’s sleeping / shopping / eating chocolate / gossiping / menstruating, for LO, SHE IS A BITCH. This seems to translate as something along the lines of ‘Hey, I’m the female of the species! I have, like, moodswings and stuff! I’m deeply unreasonable!’ These women do not, however, seem to be particularly concerned with sexual activity, which, the dictionary insists, is bitch‘s primary definition in its application to women. Ironically, they are in fact using the term in something much closer to its secondary meaning, ‘an outstandingly difficult or unpleasant thing‘.


Further reading

NEXT WEEK: C is for … Crinoline. No, really, it’s an awesome word! And we thought we’d dodge the obvious.

7 Responses leave one →
  1. October 11, 2010

    Interesting Renaissance medicine detail – much like in the way of the four humours, people were described by clerics in elemental terms – men being more made up of fire and air (passion/strength, clear-mindedness) and women earth and water (earthly, emotional) – men were therefore closer to God (or at least had a headstart) because they were elementally lighter and closer to heaven, whereas women were weighed down by their tendancy to be full of fluid and busy doing dirty work down in the mud with the devil…

    Just something I picked up amongst information about witch-hunts…

    • Hodge permalink
      October 13, 2010

      Ah yes. I find the whole issue of how gender differences have been presented completely fascinating: one of the implications for what you’re saying (and, indeed, for ‘bitch’ as a word) is that the Victorian idea of the Angel in the House was a complete reversal of everything that had gone before. I suppose it’s quite an obvious point, that, but it’s something that I, at any rate, never really thought to connect with the Medieval idea of women as dangerous sex-obsessed maniacs. The flip side is what happened to men, too – they stopped being fire and air and became penis-driven bundles of testosterone. Why?

      • Pet Jeffery permalink
        October 18, 2010

        Moving on to a further remove from the word “bitch”, the elements of earth, water, air and fire are part of the astrologers’ conceptual framework. (Three zodiac signs are assigned to each element.) In this context, I have seen the feminine elements (water and earth) described as “negative” and the masculine ones (fire and air) as “positive”. Furthermore, the symbols for water and earth involve a downward pointing triangle, those for air and fire an upwards pointing one. Perhaps there’s no need for me to draw out the possible implications of this.

  2. Jenni permalink
    October 14, 2010

    Oh, I wish I could comment anonymously. Interesting fact about the word bitch – if a man calls you it a lot and then you turn it around start calling HIM it, it makes him reallyfuckingangry.

    Probably to do with both a) the ‘prison’ meaning of the word and b) being a woman/feminised is one thing men don’t like to be called…

  3. Simon permalink
    October 14, 2010

    Enjoyed this post a lot.

    Does anyone else remember the bit in South Park the movie where the Mr Garrison sings the kids a song instructing them how to remedy their swearing? It has the line ‘Step 3 with bitch drop the t, because bich is latin for generosity’.

  4. Pet Jeffery permalink
    October 19, 2010

    You allude to the idea that women are more physical, men more spiritual. This curious idea, I suppose, still plays out in all the fuss about women bishops. (There was a recent news story about an entire Church of England parish going over the Church of Rome because the C of E isn’t sufficiently misogynist for their taste.)

    But I think it’s well worth questioning the associated idea that the spiritual is in some way better than the physical. This assumption is eloquently questioned in Dory Previn’s song “Mythical Kings and Iguanas”.

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