Saturday, 27 July 2013

Bitch - A Dogged History

Dogs, Canines, Insults, Slurs, Sexism, Misogyny


Noun & adjective.
[Old English bicce related to Old Norse bikkja.]

1A. A female dog. OE

1B. A female fox, otter, wolf, or (occasionally) similar animal. LME

2A. A man. Latterly derogatory. Now rare. ME

2B. A woman, especially a lewd, malicious, or treacherous one. Derogatory. LME

2C. Something difficult or unpleasant. Colloquial. E19

3. A simple lamp made by by placing a wick in some bacon fat. Alaska & Canada. E20

B. Attributive or as adjective. (Of an animal) female; like a bitch. LME

Also: bitch goddess (material or worldly) success. bitchery noun bitchy behaviour. M16


Verb. Late 17th century.
[from the noun.]

1. Verb trans. Frequent the company of whores; call someone 'bitch'. L17-E18

2. Verb trans. Spoil, botch. Frequently followed by up. Colloquial. E19

3. Verb trans. Complain, grumble. Colloquial. M20

Also: bitching adjective (slang, chiefly US) (a) expressive of contempt, derision, dislike, or anger; (b) great, excellent, wonderful. E20


Adjective. Early 20th century.
[from BITCH noun + Y.]

1. Sexually provocative; malicious, catty. E20

2. Of a male dog: resembling a bitch. M20

Also: bitchily adverb M20 bitchiness noun M20

A bitch, first and foremost, is a female dog. This definition isn't offensive, improper or even colloquial. If the Book of the Bitch raises a smirk, however, its subtitle A Complete Guide to Understanding and Caring for Bitches raises an outright snigger, irrespective of the fact that it's a completely fitting title considering the book's subject matter. And yes, it did make me laugh - a childish, guilty, I-thought-my-humour-was-better-than-this type of laugh, but a laugh all the same. It's an undeniably eye-catching and provocative cover, something one suspects the authors were fully aware of when they thoughtfully named their guide to bitches. 

Beyond canine gender and old-fashioned Alaskan lamps, however, bitch is an insult, and a particularly nasty insult at that. As far as English epithets go, it's one of the oldest, most complex and contradictory insults we have, with evidence of its use as a slur going back to 1400. Originally it may have specifically referred to a woman's sexual behaviour, comparing her to 'a bitch in heat' (thus, if you call someone 'a son of a bitch', you're calling him the son of a whore, rather than the son of a dog). The modern meaning of bitch has become diluted, however, and it can mean radically different things depend on who is saying it, to whom it is being said, and the context within which it is spoken.

For example, when a man calls a woman a bitch, it's likely because she is seen as obnoxious, domineering, scheming, uncooperative or malicious. When a man calls a man a bitch, however, he could be calling him effeminate, weak, submissive, subordinate or disloyal. In both applications, perceived gender roles and qualities are at the core of the insult - women should not display stereotypical masculine qualities such as assertiveness, and men should not display feminine qualities such as being submissive. It's of note that the use of bitch as a slur against women rose sharply in the 1920s - a time that some researchers have noted corresponds with the age of women's suffrage (or, depending on how you look at it, the age of inappropriately assertive females pushing for rights that they had no right to push for).

Bitch, Sexism, Prejudice

Even when bitch is not directed against a person, it's still steeped in misogyny and sexism. If you're sick of all the bitching at work, for example, you're sick of all the catty gossip and malicious backbiting - favourite pastimes of women no less. And if your kitchen sink was an absolute bitch to fix, it was difficult, unyielding and uncooperative - typical qualities of a woman who's getting a little too big for her boots. 

Interestingly, some women have chosen to 'reclaim' the word bitch, self-identifying as bitches and readily embracing the various qualities and attributes that being a bitch entails. This approach obviously has its detractors. After all, why would anyone choose to identify with such negative characteristics as being obnoxious, pushy, domineering or spiteful? If, however, a woman is confident, assertive, strong-willed and determined, why does she need to identify as anything? If a woman with such admirable qualities did self-identify as a bitch, could it be that it only serves to reinforce the stereotype that these qualities are somehow threatening and abnormal in a woman and thus require a gender-specific appellation?  

Arguments can be made for calling a spade a spade, or course: if a woman behaves like a bitch and has the qualities of a bitch, what's wrong with calling her a bitch? This argument makes little sense. After all, if your issue really is with a woman's behaviour, why are you implicitly referencing her gender? True, it might not be as emphatic to say "Don't be so obnoxious!" rather than "Don't be such a bitch!" but there are plenty of non-gender-specific slurs out there if you really must use one. However, the fact that gender needs to be referenced with a word like bitch suggests that, yes, somewhere, at some level, gender is an issue, much the same as if, in an argument with a black man, I called him a stupid black moron. Yes, he may be stupid, he may be a moron, but somewhere along the line his skin colour has become a bit of an issue for me, and the fact that I mentioned it (even if inadvertently) says more about me and my attitudes than it does about him. The use of the word bitch, steeped as it is in prejudice, sexism and misogyny, is no less telling.

Do you have any thoughts on bitch?

Is it ever acceptable for a man to call a woman a bitch?

Is it more acceptable for a woman to call another woman a bitch?

Is there even a difference between who calls who a bitch and where they do it?

Have you read Book of the Bitch and did it tell you all you needed to know about caring for them?

Do please leave your comments below
(while remembering to be awfully polite about it please!)


  1. I understand that Benedict Cumberbatch's fans call themselves the Cumberbitches...yes, this means that bitch is already losing its power to shock. I expect that in five year's time the newer usages, and the sentiments behind them, will be toe-curlingly out-of-date.

    1. Yes, and Chris Pine's fans calls themselves Pine Nuts. It's not quite as memorable, is it?

    2. Pine Nuts is cute! Cumberbitches is sad. Especially considering a lot of these female fans are adolescents and even children, who aren't being taught they're worthy of respect.

  2. I like those bitches. The ones in the top picture, I mean. They're cute. It would be fun to have such a bitch.

    This is such a weird comment XD

    1. Well, the one at the very top is presumably a bitch, but there's no reason to just assume all the others are bitches, is there? And as they're all so cute, maybe we should call them bishes ... ?

      Yes this is weird. You big weirdo, you!

  3. As a lover of canines, (have 3 big ones), I view the derogatory use of 'bitch' for human females as an insult to canine females! :)

    I've never heard of the lamp definition before. Interesting!

    1. Yes, although I could see it leading to some horrible, horrible misunderstandings ("The bitch has got too much fat / Where's my bitch? / Ow! That bitch is hot!" etc etc). One reader kindly put up a picture of a bitch lamp on the Lex Facebook page (link at the top of the page), although there it's unimaginatively called a Bacon Powered Lamp.

      That does seem like a waste of good bacon to me.

  4. Wow..didn't realise all the different meaning's behind the word Bitch. Took me back a bit to my school era in which bitch was freely used in a "Oh she's a Bitch" cheeky sort of way with no real malice behind it.

    Also, just read a book recently called "Run Fat Bitch Run", the title caught my attention as I thought that's a bit naughty for a title and my curiosity lead me to buy it. Anyway it was right up my street as it is a book on running and it encourages you to get it touch with your inner Bitch in a motivational way to achieve! It works!!

    Also proud to be a Cumberbitch!!

    1. It does seem that having the word 'bitch' in the title of a book is a keen marketing strategy!

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