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Guest Post: ‘Sup, Bitches?

Here at Skepchick, we talk a lot about language and particularly about negative words used towards women. I asked Eve Siebert to give us a little education about the great history of the word “bitch”:

_________

“Bitch” is a tricky word. Some women don’t mind it; some do; some women wear the label proudly. Some people use it with little intended offense, and some people intend it to be very offensive indeed. Life’s a bitch, as are other ordinarily non-gendered things. We can bitch about it all we want, but the bitch of it is that “bitch” has a bitchin’ history.

Originally, of course, “bitch” referred exclusively to female dogs, though later it could also refer to female wolves, foxes or other animals. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites an example from 1555 in which a male tiger is called a “dogge tyger,” the female a “bytche” and the cubs “whelpes.” The Dictionary of Old English (DOE) only records four uses of “bicce” (pronounced “bitch-eh”). All are translations from Latin. In two glossaries, “bicce” is used to translate “canicula,” and the Old English translation of the critter-centric medical manual Medicina de quadrupedibusrecommends bitch’s milk for teething problems and bitch’s urine for wart removal (I’m not recommending them, but if you try either remedy, good luck).

Courtesy: Offendall.com

“Bitch” only began to be applied to humans during the Middle English period. According to the Middle English Dictionary’s (MED) definition: “Used contemptuously or profanely: (a) of a woman: bitch.” The OED’s definition is more detailed: “Applied opprobriously to a woman; strictly, a lewd or sensual woman. Not now in decent use; but formerly common in literature. In mod. use, esp. a malicious or treacherous woman; of things: something outstandingly difficult or unpleasant.”

Many of the early examples in the MED and the OED come from Middle English drama: mystery plays, based on bible stories and morality plays, allegorical works in which abstract concepts are personified. In the fifteenth-century morality play, The Castle of Perseverance, World (one of the bad guys) says he will “bring with me the bitch’s bane; no virtues will dwell in my land.” The bitches in this case are the Seven Moral Virtues. Later, Wrath calls Dame Patience “you bitch black as coal.”

“Bitch’s daughter” and “bitch’s clout” were both used to refer to nightmares–not merely bad dreams, but what we would identify as sleep paralysis with hypnogogic/hypnopompic hallucinations. For many centuries, however, the phenomenon was blamed on a malicious female spirit who sat on a dreamer’s chest and caused the sensation of suffocation. One of the Middle English mystery plays in the cycle Ludus Coventriae includes the line, “Come forth, you whore and stinking bitch-clout! How long have you engaged in such harlotry?” Even though the word is not associated with a real woman, the link between the word “bitch” and female sexual lewdness is clear.

According to the OED, the earliest instance of “bitch” used as a derogatory term for women is from The Slaughter of the Innocents, from the Chester cycle of mystery plays. The Chester cycle is from the early fifteenth century, slightly earlier than The Castle of Perseverance or Ludus Coventriae. The line the OED cites is, “Who are you calling ‘quean,’ scabbed bitch?” The juxtaposition between “quean,” a lewd woman or prostitute, and “bitch” again would seem to suggest that “bitch” was used to question a woman’s sexual continence.

My bitch, Esme

The OED citation has been repeated all over the Internet in discussions of the etymology of “bitch.” Unfortunately, unless I’m reading it wrong, the OED is mistaken in identifying this use as an example of “bitch” as a derogatory term for a woman. If you look at the play, the Primuz Miles (first soldier) has called the women “queans.” The Primuz Mulier (first woman) replies by asking whom he is calling “quean.” Presumably, then, “scabbed bitch” refers to the soldier, not to a woman. The MED also identifies this usage as referring to a man.

If the MED and I are correct, “bitch” as a term of opprobrium was applied to men before it was applied to women. The past participle “bicched,” meaning “vile, wretched, wicked, accursed, damned” (MED) also predates “bitch” applied to women. Strangely, this past participle appears long before the verb “to bitch.” “Bitch-son” (son of a bitch) and “of bicches lines” (of the lineage of bitches) predate “bitch” as well. Of course, by implication, these terms, while applied to men, are identifying women as bitches.

“Bitch” is not the only explicitly feminine insult that has come to be applied to men. While “cunt” is still very offensive to Americans, in Britain and Australia, it is considered a much milder insult, sometimes even a friendly insult, and it is just as likely to be addressed to a man as to a woman. So a bloke can call his mate a “cunt” without getting punched and without either of them thinking of vaginas.

I suspect, however, that when such feminine words were originally applied to men, their very femaleness was part of the insult: calling a man a derogatory word for a woman questions his manhood. That may be the case in the Chester play: a woman who is called a “quean” retaliates by calling the man a “bitch.”

Some of “bitch’s” relatives have clearly been used to attack a man’s masculinity. The word “brach,” borrowed from French, originally meant a hunting hound but came to be used exclusively for female dogs. Eventually, it became largely synonymous with “bitch” both when applied to dogs and to people. Shakespeare uses the word in Troilus and Cressida2.1. The whole scene, involving Ajax and Thersites, “a deformed and scurrilous Greek,” is a masterpiece of insults, several of which are dog-related: Ajax calls Thersites “dog” (ll. 7, 50—line numbers will vary depending on edition), “bitch-wolf’s son” (10), “cur” (52) and “whoreson cur” (41); Thersites calls Ajax “thou mongrel beef-witted lord” (12-13) and compares him to Cerberus, the three-headed hound of hell (33-35).

Via XKCD

When Achilles and his companion Patroclus join them, Patroclus tells Thersites to be quiet. Thersites replies: “I will hold my peace when Achilles’ [brach] bids me, shall I?” (114-115). The overlap between misogyny and homophobia is clear: it is the passive partner in a same-sex relationship who is the target of particular contempt because he takes on the role of a woman. Later Thersites calls Patroclus Achilles’ “masculine whore” (5.1.17).

The use of the Old Norse “bikkja,” the equivalent of “bitch,” also suggests that the word was used to question a man’s masculinity. Old Norse is the only medieval Germanic language that has an apparent cognate of “bitch.” “Bikkja” usually refers to female dogs, but, according to An Icelandic-English Dictionary by Richard Cleasby and Gudbrand Vigfusson, it was also used “as an abusive term.” They don’t quote any examples, but based on the references they provide, “bikkja” was used exclusively to insult men.

In The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, the Swedish king Adils has a band of twelve berserkers, particularly ferocious warriors, but in this saga, a bunch of arrogant bullies. When the berserkers get their asses handed to them by a single warrior, Adils banishes them and ignores their threats of retaliation: “The king professed not to care about their threats and said there was no valor in those bitches” (Hrolfs saga, chapter 19).

Later, when the hero Bodvar Bjarki is on his way to King Hrolf’s hall in Denmark, he stays with a peasant couple whose son Hott has been taken to the court, placed on a bone-pit and used for bone-tossing target practice. The parents beg Bodvar to throw only small bones at Hott.

When Bodvar arrives at the hall, he removes Hott from the bone pit, cleans him off and places him on the bench. When the men begin throwing bones at the two, Bodvar grabs a large bone and throws it back at the original tosser, killing him. At Yule, when a monster attacks the hall, Bodvar sneaks out to face it, taking the screaming, crying, whining, whinging Hott with him. According to the saga, “Bodvar asked his bitch to be quiet and threw him down in the moss, and there he lay, not entirely without fear” (Hrolfs saga, chapter 35).

Hott is a mistreated, unfortunate youth, but he is also a pathetic coward. The use of “bikkja” specifically refers to his unmanly fear. Don’t feel too bad for Hott, though. After Bodvar makes him drink some of the monster’s blood, he becomes a brave champion, renamed Hjalti.

In The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal, Berg challenges the berserker Jokul to a duel. The two have had previous skirmishes. As Jokul says, “Berg, the bitch, stooped so low when I struck him that he fell down. You must come to the duel if you have a man’s heart rather than a mare’s” (Vatnsdæla saga, chapter 33). The implied relationship between femaleness and cowardice is emphasized by the reference to a second female animal. Jokul adds that if any man fails to turn up for the duel, a scorn-pole will be raised to indicate his cowardice. Berg doesn’t show up, and Jokul does make a scorn-pole, with a mare’s head placed on it.

Photo courtesy Melissa (Chebutykin) Kaercher

Standard translations of these works (listed below) tend to translate “bikkja” as “dog” or “she-dog,” but “bitch” seems more appropriate: the men called “bikkja” are viewed with contempt: they are cowardly; they are unmanly; they are not only dogs, but female dogs.

When I began researching this post, I didn’t expect to spend half my time writing about men; I was surprised to learn that “bitch” was applied to men as early as it was to women (if not earlier). However, the early use of “bitch’s son” in both English and Norse (and “bitch’s whelp” in Norse) indicates an association between women and sexual incontinence, even if we don’t find instances of “bitch” being applied directly to women until later. When applied to men, “bitch” still suggests an attitude toward women that is insulting, if not unexpected in the Middle Ages: femaleness implies weakness and cowardice, a lesser state of being.

*All translations are mine unless indicated otherwise.*

About the author:

Eve Siebert has a Ph.D. in English literature from Saint Louis University. Her primary concentration is in Old and Middle English literature, with secondary concentrations in Old Norse and Shakespeare. She blogs at skepticalhumanities.com.

References:

Byock, Jesse L., tr. The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki. London: Penguin, 1998. (Old Norse text available here).

The Dictionary of Old English: A to G Online. Ed. Angus Cameron, Ashley Crandell Amos, Antonette diPaolo Healey et al. (Toronto: Dictionary of Old English Project 2007). Subscription only.

An Icelandic-English Dictionary. Richard Cleasby and Gudbrand Vigfusson. 1874.

Middle English Dictionary Online. University of Michigan.

Oxford English Dictionary: OED Online. Oxford UP. Subscription only.

Wawn, Andrew, tr. The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal. The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection. Ed. Örnólfur Thorsson. New York: Viking-Penguin, 2000 [1997]. 189-269. (Old Norse text available here).

 

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Maria Walters (a.k.a. Masala Skeptic) has spent a lot of time in ‘furrin parts,’ including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Pittsburgh. Although her passport is from India, she’s spent most of her adult life in the United States. She currently lives in Atlanta and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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26 Comments

  1. Wow, there’s a lot of interesting information in this post!

    Personally, I think the word “asshole” is far more gendered in actual usage than the word “bitch”. Calling men “bitches” has substantial popular use, including in popular media, but when’s the last time you’ve heard a woman called an asshole, especially in popular media? :-) (I never have.)

    1. P.S. To avoid having to potentially reply to criticisms later, I’ll note that I haven’t missed the point that unlike “bitch”, the insult in “asshole” doesn’t potentially imply any particular attitude about a gender. I’m just sayin’! It’s interesting how some (most?) insults are applied to one gender more than another, and that the gender bias in application doesn’t have any clear relationship to the etymology or original meaning of the insult.

      1. I think you need to reconsider what it means to be “gendered.” The attitudes about gender implied in the word are precisely what is meant by “gendered insults.” Calling a man a bitch calls his masculinity into question. Calling a woman a bitch implies that her bad behavior is intrinsically related to her femaleness. Calling a woman an asshole insults her for her bad behavior but doesn’t make all other women collateral damage by associating femaleness with unpleasant behavior.

        You clearly didn’t think this one through.

        1. No, my point (and reason for saying that I was “just sayin'”) is precisely that I was not attempting to “think through” or make any comment about the implications of any particular insult, but was only commenting on the interestingness of how certain insults are applied preferentially or even entirely to particular genders and how contrary to what one might expect, you can’t really predict the bias in application based on the literal meaning or etymology of the insult itself.

          1. Except you were so fucking wrong. Seriously, stop “just sayin” and start thinking so you don’t make yourself look like such a fool. Holy crap.

          2. Wrong about what?? I stated two things. One, that in my experience, “asshole” is applied exclusively to one gender while “bitch” is not. And two, that I find it interesting that there’s no obvious correlation between the gender-related aspects of its its meaning and/or etymology (fascinatingly detailed in the post in the case of “bitch”), and the gender bias in an insult’s application.

            If anything is wrong with that, it’s the inadvisability of generalizing based on only the four particular insults I thought about in my head before writing the comment. But I suppose that’s not what you meant. Are you complaining that “gendered” is the wrong adjective to describe gender bias in the application of an insult?

            Why don’t you back up your statement? It’s not a real argument to say someone is “fucking wrong” and “a fool”. Holy crap.

      1. Alright. If not “gendered”, then what is the correct adjective to use to describe an insult that is preferentially applied to one gender? The dictionary only says “having gender-based distinctions”. That sounds applicable to me, but if there is a better adjective, then please say what it is.

        1. Well, I for one understand what you’re saying, john (I think). You’re merely pointing out that women aren’t referred to as assholes, yet men are referred to as bitches. That’s it. You’re not even trying to comment on the rightness/wrongness of that observation. You’re “just saying” it. So let me be the first to break down your observed paradigm by saying that I feel marilove and sallystrange are being real assholes toward you.

          1. Yeah, basically. The post just got me thinking about various insults and how gender-specific meanings don’t necessarily imply gender-specific applications and vice versa and I thought it was interesting. I’ve heard most insults applied to both genders, but “asshole” is one of very few — and the only one that came to mind at the time — that in my entire life I’ve only heard applied to one gender, with zero exceptions. So I mentioned it. Anyway, my comment was surely not useful in the sense of contributing any valuable information, but I don’t see how it can be so “fucking wrong”. :-)

    1. My understanding is that quean originally comes from a word for a young woman that later gained the negative connotation (much like wench). I don’t know where cats being called queens comes from but it’s probably later.

    2. Old English “cwene,” with a short “e,” (quean) just meant “woman” or “wife.” I see one use of it as “mistress, concubine” in the Dictionary of Old English, but it wasn’t generally used insultingly until the Middle English period. It could also mean “queen” or refer to the Virgin Mary.

      Old English “cwen,” with a long “e,” (queen) had significantly overlapping meanings. As the DOE says, “The morphological forms of cw?n and cwene cannot be clearly distinguished, nor is the sense division between them always certain. Cf. the sense confusion between the two in the later history of the word.”

      “Queen,” meaning a fertile female cat, doesn’t seem to be related to “quean,” except in the sense that the two words get confused. It’s all a bit confusing. I should mention that in the Middle English original of the passage I quoted, “quean” is actually spelled “queen,” (or similar). It’s only really clear from context that “female ruler” is not intended.

  2. I am wondering (and am, I admit, fairly ignorant on this bit of etymology) if “bitch’s son” was really meant as targeting female sexuality in the way the early uses of “bitch” itself were. It seems to me to be at least as probable that it was a semi-literal accusation–that the man in question was so low that he had an actual four-legged animal in his ancestry someplace. (I suppose that the lack of “cur’s son” as a parallel insult could be an argument for this still being a gendered insult. Sorry, thinking while typing.)

  3. OT, but “Who are you calling ‘quean,’ scabbed bitch?” is a pretty good comeback.

    It seems a lot of insults that are normally applied to men have at their core a suggestion that the man is female, and weak somehow. The only way, I can think of, that a woman is less than a man is in physical strength (although there are plenty of women who are much physically stronger then I). The same core is in hatred of homosexual men, which seems to be based on the thought that they are womanly.
    Can it be that regard for simple physical strength (and I assume the ability to commit violence) is the basis of misogyny and its related woes?

    1. I can think of some other implications in addition to being considered “weak”.

      Women may be considered less willing to fight and commit violence and “stand up for themselves” in violent situations, and therefore more “cowardly”. I think this is the primary implication behind being called a “pussy”, for instance. I guess cowardice is similar/related to weakness.

      For the word “bitch” applied to men, I’ve recognized two distinct meanings. One is submission or inferiority in skill (e.g. “so-and-so is my bitch”), and another is being overly emotional in a petty way (e.g. “he’s such a little bitch”).

      So I don’t think it’s only physical strength at the basis of it — I think our differing mindsets may play a part — but I suspect that having equal strength would have allowed women to avoid being stuck with the cultural and biological short ends of the stick in some ways.

      Disclaimer: I suppose I don’t know how many insults are used these days. I’m too old. :-(

    2. In the olden and not so olden days who your parent’s were held considerable weight as to your social position, honor and ability to prosper and function in society; so being called a SOB was an insult to you, your future, your mother, father and entire family by association which seems to me a bigger insult than simply calling a male a bitch. And I’m guessing calling someone a SOB in the olden whenever days was an invitation to a fight when said to someone’s face. Great post, word history is fun!

  4. Completely uninteresting extra fact. Today “bikkje” is completely ungendered in Norwegian (in my experience) and not used as an insult against either gender, although it can be used in an insulting manner about dogs.

    1. I’m Norwegian as well, and I’ve never heard “bikkje” being used insultingly about dogs. It’s just the oral version, with “hund” being the written version. You write “hund” when you wish to be formal, but you don’t SAY it.

      1. I call the dictionary to the witness stand: ;)

        bikkje f1 el. m1 (norr bikkja, eg ’tispe’) til dels neds: hund

        gneldreb- / min hund og andres b-r / den elendige bikkja / lufte bikkja

        Not insulting in and of itself, but more likely than the “default” hund to be used when speaking dismissively about dogs in general or a particular dog.

        Fillebikkje

  5. Excellent history lesson! I find the “B-word” a little harder to weed out of my vocabulary because its one of the few pejoratives that can be completely turned around. I wouldn’t call someone a bitch, or describe something as bitchy for the same reason I don’t use “retard” or “retarded” unless I’m referring to the properties of my fire extinguisher. I will admit to using “Son of a Bitch” as an expletive, for instance whenever I bang my (hopefully soon to be surgically repaired) bum elbow against something, SOB is one of my go to phrases. It just sounds really satisfying. Sometimes there’s a “motherfucking” sandwiched in there which I suppose has its own implications.

    On the other hand “bitchin'” means “awesome”, “extra cool” etc. The Dead Milkmen wouldn’t sound the same with an “awesome” Camaro.

    Then again… perhaps we should not look to the creators of “Takin Retards to the Zoo” as our moral compass…

  6. Or does the pejorative association go back even further, like about 2,500 years? The Roman term for a female prostitute was “she-wolf” (lupa), making it unclear if the legendary brother Romulus and Remus were raised by a motherly canine or a sympathetic madam. Perhaps our current use of the term has its roots there.

    Just as a side note, most female canines I have ever met have been friendly, patient, loving, and good-tempered, with the exception of one or two neglected watchdogs. I can’t imagine calling them the “B” word any more than I would a woman, which is never.

  7. more extra facts: polish also uses “bitch” (suka) and “sonofabitch” (sukinsyn) the same way english does, except “bitch” is a female-only insult, and “bitching” isn’t a word

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