Bitch: A History
This past semester at MIT I took a really wonderful class called “Feminist Political Thought” which had a very open ended essay assignment. I wrote a history of the word “Bitch,” and several of my classmates requested to read the whole paper so I thought I’d post it here. It’s actually quite interesting, if-I-do-say-so-myself.
Bitch is one of the most complicated insults in the English language. A bitch typically means a lewd, malicious, irritating woman (the comparison being to a dog in heat), but some women self-identify asbitches to indicate they are strong, assertive and independent. A son of a bitch is generally a despicable or otherwise hateful man, but can also mean a dear friend who has done something impressive or clever. If something is bitchin’ it is deemed to be particularly cool or in-style, but if a person is bitching they are complaining or whining. To be someone’s bitch is to be his or her servant or slave, to sit in the bitch seat is to sit in the under-sized seat in the middle of a car, to bitch slap is to strike with an open palm. Bitch might have originally meant a female dog, but now it can indicate anything from slapstick humor to scathing insult.
The rise of bitch through history can be traced to 4 distinct periods: The Definition, The Rise, the Reclamation, and the Popularization. The last 3 can be tied to specific events in American feminism.
[Author’s note: All of the data regarding the popularity of words through time come from Google’s Ngram viewer, which displays the prevalence of a word or words in Google’s Book Database. Neither Google nor I claim this database to be complete, but as it has over 15 million titles it is sufficiently representative of English publications for this analysis]
I: The Definition
Insulting a woman by calling her a female dog pre-dates the existence of the word bitch itself. The English language historian Geoffrey Hughes suggests the connection came about because of the Greek goddess of the hunt, Artemis (Diana in the Roman pantheon) who was often portrayed with a pack of hunting dogs and sometimes transformed into an animal herself. In Ancient Greece and Rome the comparison was a sexist slur equating women to dogs in heat, sexually depraved beasts who grovel and beg for men1.
The modern word bitch comes from the Old English bicce, which probably developed from the Norse bikkje, all meaning ‘female dog’. Its use as an insult was propagated into Old English by the Christian rulers of the Dark Age to suppress the idea of femininity as sacred. The insult “son of a bitch” (biche sone in Old English) originated to ridicule spiritual pagans, who worshipped the bitch goddess Diana1. The phrase evolved to mean a generally despicable or otherwise hateful man. Shakespeare, that master of verbal barbs, uses the insult twice in his plays. Once in Troilus and Cressida (1602), in the opening of Act II as Ajax comes upon Thersites2.
Thou bitch-wolf’s son, canst thou not hear?
And again in King Lear (1606), when the Earl of Kent is greeting Oswald2:
…[thou] art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pander, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch.
Interestingly, nowhere in his collected works does Shakespeare ever use the word to insult a woman. At first, one might think this reveals a chivalrous objection to insulting women – but a similar search forwhore reveals five pages of results. As a playwright known for his imaginative (and numerous) insults, his omission of bitch as a female insult indicates something about the common usage of the word in his time. In fact, much of the documented usage of the word from the 16th and 17th centuries is in reference to a man, not a woman. In Henry Brinklow’s 1524 Complaynt of Roderyck Mor, he calls out the hypocrisy of the clergy for valuing un-wed chastity by describing the bishops “as chast as a sawt bytch.”3 In modern English: “as pure as a randy bitch.” An early 16th century manuscript known only as “The Porkington Manuscript” includes a re-telling of a humorous story about a Friar and a cheeky Boy. The Friar, complaining of the Boy’s antics, says “Be God, he ys a schrewd byche, In fayth, y trow, he be a wyche.” In modern English: “By god, he is a shrewd bitch. In faith, I know, he is a witch.”4
It seems the Dark Age Christian attempt to re-purpose the insult worked. While the word by itself may have described a female entity, its abusive power at the end of the Middle Ages lied in its application to a man – not only putting him down by calling him a woman, but further dehumanizing by equating him with a dirty female animal.
The 18th century saw a return to the original insulting meaning of bitch. Indeed, use of the insult grew so dominant that it finally forced the literal meaning of the word, that of female dog, out of common circulation. While science publications and dog enthusiast communities retained the word bitch, various euphemisms such as doggess, lady dog, she dog, and puppy’s mother were more commonly used1. The usage of bitch held steady for the next 200 years. At the cusp of the 20th century, Slang and its Analogues gave a succinct definition and partial history of the term5.
An opprobrious term for a woman, generally containing an implication of lewdness and ‘fastness.’ Not now in literary use, though formerly so. [From its primary sense of a female dog] It is the most offensive appellation that can be given to an English woman, even more provoking than that of whore.
(old) Applied, opprobriously, as in sense 1, to a man. It has long since passed out of decent usage.
II: The Rise
The first serious rise in the usage of bitch begins at 1920 – exactly the same year as another feminist milestone in the United States: suffrage. The 19th amendment to the US constitution was ratified on August 18th, 1920. After decades of struggle, women finally received the right to vote. But as women became more public, so too did their critics. Now that women were appearing more and more on the American stage, the insult bitch began to slip slowly into popular discourse.
Of the books published in 1915 that contain the word “bitch,” all are journals of dogs or veterinary medicine, law books explaining cases involving dogs, and the occasional court case in which the transcript includes some man calling another a “son of a bitch.”
Within the books published in 1925, merely 10 years later but on the other side of the 19th amendment, there is fiction, magazine articles, and even some quotes from news sources that use bitch to insult a woman. Through the years this trend continues – in fact, by 1930 references to the word as an insult to a woman outnumber the references to a female dog.
So what changed?
The answer lies in the connotation of the insult itself. Of the publications from this period, the uses ofbitch can be grouped into three categories of meaning:
Malicious or consciously attempting to harm
Difficult, annoying, or interfering
Sexually brazen or overly vulgar
These three traits combined form a perfect picture of the angry 1st wave feminist that many suffragist opponents feared, a kind of anti-lady. The dystopia predicted by those opponents, both men and women, is summed up well in remarks made by a Representative from Alabama in 19186:
There will be no more domestic tranquility in this nation. No more “Home Sweet Home,” no more lullabies to the baby. Suffrage will destroy the best thing in our lives and leave in our hearts an aching void that the world can never fill.
Angry, dangerous, and independent, these suffragists had stomped in and broken up the status quo, interfering in the lives of ordinary folk and harming the “domestic tranquility” that had been the pinnacle of American happiness. This was a new type of woman, one America hadn’t been forced to seriously consider before. There had to be a name for these women. They found one: these new feminists were a bunch of uppity, interfering bitches.
III: The Reclamation
The popularity of bitch dipped slightly around the late 30s and early 40s, possibly due to an increase of chivalry and respect towards the women who played an important part in the war effort (or just because everyone had better things to write about). After the war, use of the word popped back up and continued steadily until around 1965 when it experienced a sudden rise in use.
Again we see a correlation with a significant change in the feminist movement. 1963 saw both the publication of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, and the release of the final report of the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women7 8. Both bemoaned the poor status of women in an apparently free and equal society, both brought forth the startling notion that women who lived the life of a perfect housewife might have many good reasons to not be happy. These ideas sparked the 2nd wave of feminism which, after the success of the 1st wave in removing many legal barriers to equality, moved on to addressing women’s issues in the home, the workplace, the family, and in their own reproductive rights.
The 1960’s found women gaining a sense of pride in many of the things their opponents criticized them for: assertiveness, strength, independence, and a willingness to fight for their own definition of happiness. In 1968, Jo Freeman (Joreen) published The BITCH Manifesto, a document that defines the bitches of 2ndwave feminism9.
Our society has defined humanity as male, and female as something other than male. In this way, females could be human only by living vicariously thru a male. To be able to live, a woman has to agree to serve, honor, and obey a man and what she gets in exchange is at best a shadow life. Bitches refuse to serve, honor or obey anyone. They demand to be fully functioning human beings, not just shadows. They want to be both female and human.
Suddenly, the ideal qualities of a feminist and the definition of a bitch matched up. Feminists began to self-identify as bitches, and use it in their writings. The insult became a rallying cry, a signal to women that these things that have hurt us can be changed for the better. All these things women used to be insulted for now became a goal.
We must be strong, we must be militant, we must be dangerous. We must realize that Bitch is Beautiful and that we have nothing to lose. Nothing whatsoever. (close of the BITCH Manifesto)9
IV: The Popularization
By the time Feminism began its 3rd wave, reclaiming bitch was an official part of many feminist’s agenda. 1996 saw the first publication of Bitch Magazine, a periodical giving a “feminist response to pop culture.”10 One of the magazine’s founders, Andi Zeisler, explained in a 2006 interview that they chose the name explicitly because they wished to reclaim the word11.
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.
Due to the efforts of Zeisler and many others, bitch began appearing everywhere – on bookshelves, on clothing, on food labels, and in the words of popular media. Being a bitch wasn’t just for feminists anymore. Shirts with “You Messed with the Wrong Bitch!” on them started selling in children’s sizes. Buttons saying “The Birthday Bitch” appeared in novelty shops. In 1999 best selling author Elizabeth Wurtzel published Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women12. In it, she lays out a view of bitch that was a bit different from Joreen’s BITCH Manifesto.
I intend to scream, shout, race the engine, call when I feel like it, throw tantrums in Bloomingdale’s if I feel like it and confess intimate details about my life to complete strangers. I intend to do what I want to do and be whom I want to be and answer only to myself: that is, quite simply, the bitch philosophy.
The idea of self-reliance and a freedom to chase their own desires remained, but now bitches weren’t outcasts. Bitches shopped at Bloomingdales, bitches socialized with other women, telling intimate details to strangers. Bitches had become public.
It wasn’t just feminists that started popularizing the word. The 1990’s saw the rise of “Gangsta rap,” a style of hip hop that often contained profanity and descriptions of violence towards women. A 1991 album by “Bust Down” was titled Nasty Bitch, and featured an anthropomorphized dog stomping a woman’s head into the ground on the cover13. Along with the continuing reclamation of the word came a backlash that increased the use of bitch as a violent insult.
V: Modern Day
Nowadays people can read a diet book titled Skinny Bitch, drink many varietals of Sassy Bitch Wine, make new friends at a “Stitch ‘n Bitch” knitting club, listen to Meredith Brooks sing “I’m a bitch, I’m a lover, I’m a child, I’m a mother” or dance to Ludacris’ stirring lyrics “Move bitch, get out the way, get out the way bitch, get out the way.”
Bitch has come a far way from the “most offensive appellation” to women it was at the end of the 20thcentury. The 1st wave feminists of the 1920’s gave it an identity, the 2nd wave feminists grabbed it from the voices of their critics and reclaimed it as theirs, and the 3rd wave brought it forth, polished it up, and presented it to the world. From biche sone to bitch, please, the word has had a long and busy history, making it now one of the most common, and most complicated, swear words in America.
1 Hughes, Geoffrey. An Encyclopedia of Swearing: The Social History of Oaths, Profanity, Foul Language and Ethnic Slurs in the English-Speaking World. M.E Sharpe Inc., 2006. The definition of “Bitch” appears on pages 23 and 24.
2 Shakespeare, William. Complete Works. Available online at www.opensourceshakespeare.org
3 Brinkelow, Henry. Henry Brinklow’s Complaynt of Roderick Mors. London, N. Trubner & Co., 1876.
4 Haliwell, Esq., J. O. English Miscellanies in Prose and Verse, selected form an inedited manuscript of the fifteenth century. Printed in London for the Warton Club, 1804.
5 Farmer, John S. Slang and its Analogues, past and present. Vol. 1 – A to Byz. 1790.