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 as bitches 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?

[beating him]

Feel, then.

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 for whore 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.

Bitch:

  1. 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.
  2. (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 of bitch can be grouped into three categories of meaning:

  1. Malicious or consciously attempting to harm
  2. Difficult, annoying, or interfering
  3. 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 2nd wave 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 20th century. 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.

 

Bibliography:

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.

6 http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/database/article_display.cfm?HHID=258

7 Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. W. W. Norton & Co., 1963.

8 Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. The Presidential Report on American Women. October 1963.

9 Freeman, Jo. The BITCH Manifesto. 1968. Available online www.jofreeman.com/joreen/bitch.htm

10 Bitch Magazine’s “about us” page. http://bitchmagazine.org/about-us

11 Solomon, Deborah. Pop Goes the Feminist, and interview with Andi Zeisler. The New York Times, August 6th, 2006.

12 Wurtzel, Elizabeth. Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women. Anchor, 1999.

13 Bustdown. Nasty Bitch [Explicit]. Lil’ Joe Records, 1991.

134 Replies to “Bitch: A History”

  1. Excellent post. I used to be checking continuously this blog and I’m impressed! Extremely useful info specifically the closing part :) I deal with such info a lot. I was looking for this certain info for a very long time. Thanks and best of luck.

  2. Hello! I loved this article but I was just wondering where you got your sources on the origin of the word Bitch. I am doing a paper in my linguistics class on the origin of swear words, how they came to be, original meanings, etc. etc. So if you could help me out with finding the sources you used I would appreciate it greatly!

  3. This reminds me of a SNL skit about naming a snack food N*gg*r. What ever fanciful reclamation may be imagined, the fact remains that b*tch is a slur referring to Woman. No matter who uses the N word, it is intended to remind the receiver that whatever else may be true, they are no better than that. In the same manner, the B word may be applied to the weather, a job, traffic, ill fitting shoes — in effect, everything in the entire universe — but it still intends to mean the same thing: no better than a woman … and the meaning of that still goes without saying.

  4. liz keyser youd best understand say from a man like me what the real problem is “feminism put women sure at the same level as man for the first time just as they had dreaat was mans already known position MAN THE HUMAN NO BETTER THAN THE GUTTERS OF LIFE MOST IN MY OPINION WOULD LEAVE WOMEN TO DIE LOOK AT RAPE WARS FAMINE THE REAL SUFFERER WOMEN so till the modern bitch resovles her issue with man its going to be dog eat dog between the sexes and thats a truth maybe gillard was right just put in wrong. women in early mithology held the golden ORB but lost it in her allowing the male to get power over her offspring. had she killed all male transgressors man would maybe now be respectifull of women. i dont see muchof it now and women reject it i.e open door for a lady etc. the women of to day see it as a putdown of female strenght and maybe (when viewed from THE ORB POSITION) then thats correct in fact
    with great difficulty the sexes roll on through society i only hope that men can one day see they themselves hold the key to reopen THE ORBS LOCK that is in one word as to how they treat women to be “NICE”

  5. great work much imput i see there was a clear aspect on modern to call the dog bitch as she sat down in heat thus disallowing dog to have penetration it had to do with genetics that the bitch knew exact days of ovulation and so when wife denied sex in cycle she was referred to man on man “that bitch wife of mine”strictly pub talk im advised but sounds true as men are basically hatefull of women when denied what they perceive a” sex right”.the roman church in all its perversion often quoted “keep her (the bitch”barefoot pregnate and in the kitchen) prooven in very large 5-11 child families post 1945 wartime erayou could say the labour parties recent denial of allowing a female to run in the leaders race was a “bitch of an affair

  6. We’re a group of volunteers and opening a brand new scheme in our community. Your web site provided us with helpful info to work on. You’ve done a formidable job and our entire community will probably be thankful to you.

  7. very nice description given by you on the small word “Bitch”. I really surprised on your research. Thank you.

  8. I think you wrote a very intelligent paper. Quite Chomsky in a way,and not surprising that you are at MIT. I have sent it along to some acting and playwriting studendts in Chicago.
    Actually it is my son who I have discussed ideas like this. “BITCH ” just so came up today.
    Thank you very much,
    Jeffrey Toplin

  9. Great and interesting thought provoking and bitchin essay !

    If Shakespear used the word whore but not bitch that still could mean he stood against oppression of women.
    And it might also mean he stood against prostitution. Seeing as he wrote romantic stories containing virtuous women aswell. I’m not a shakespear connoisseur though.

    PEACE

  10. Its time to end this name calling of bitch its not cute i myself hate it dont get me wrong ive used it just as much as the next but ive became a women and my understanding is has change and im not going off on the next that use it or dont understand the meaing or no how it hurt the soul to use it call it ext… But know every one will come to reality one day and those who dont will be left in the dust and will not do right by their selfs with in

  11. Thats awsome… I never knew that maybe the people who use the words knew more about the words orgone will not use it just for fun words like that can really hurt people.

  12. I was called a bitch by a boy at my school. The next day he called me and my friend a bitch. Since he used the word so freely, it made me wonder if he knew the real meaning of the word. So, to gain more knowledge of it myself, I looked it up. I’m so happy I found this article. I loved how the suffragists actually claimed themselves bitches to show how assertive and independant they were.(Totally bad ass!) This article was very helpful in telling me the meaning and even (which I did not expect) the history of the the word bitch. Next time someone calls me bitch, I’ll have information to share. Thank you for writing this!!!!

  13. Wow…you put entirely too much throught into this. Trying to piece together social dynamics like this…no wonder “BITCHES” be pissed these days. Jeezus get a life

  14. This is great! I run a foster home, in which cursing is allowed, but offense words for groups of people are not (I don’t allow “bitch”, the “n” word, etc.) It’s really difficult for my boys to understand why this word is so offensive in the context in which they use it. Next time one of them mouths off, I’m going to have them read this and write a response as a consequence :)

      1. Dear Clare,

        I love this article, and just like yourself, I am fascinated with the historical origins and social implications of the word “bitch”. Equally as interesting, are the polar responses to the word, as read above.
        Several months ago, I established an apparel line, Pretty Bitch Apparel. Inspired by the many women I admire, “pretty bitch” first refers to a woman with attitude, with strength and self-assurance. Pretty is the polish, and almost a sort of mockery of how women were perceived for so many years.
        Regardless, the foremost reason why I am writing is to say thank you for the article, and to ask for your permission to share it on my website. http://www.prettybitchapparel.com

        Best Regards,

        Carrie
        pretty bitch apparel.

      2. i read ALL the way through your outstanding essay, rare for me! your unique topic, intelligently, brilliantly written, thorough, wide-referenced [shakespeare, joreen, AL rep…] assures me that you disclaim the deplorable comments by some who illustrate a lack of cultural improvement. enjoyed, learned, will pass on. very best regards!

  15. Awesome history of the word “bitch.” Your whole blog is interesting and you seem like a really talented person…

    I wonder if you are interested in being part of a start-up in Boston that deals with woman’s issues. I am working with doctors affiliated with Harvard and Tufts, and a seasoned entrepreneur from DC to create a social search engine (collaborative filter) that will enable women to find the right obstetric care on the factors they care about because better patient-physician relationships equal better patient outcomes. We have several VCs who are “very interested” and we need a tech co-founder to round out our team. Someone who is skilled in web development, algorithm creation, and gathering and managing data. We are in pre-funding and can offer co-founder equity when it does launch. I was wondering if you fit the bill/were interested or knew of someone who might.

    Alright the pitch is over! I look forward to hearing from you.

    Warmly,
    Liz

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