2 December 2011


Slang is language with its sleeves rolled up or its tie loosened and its most pungent forms are those connected with pleasure and contempt.
In English there is an especially lavish slang to do with sex, the sex organs and gender.  And, in part because before the second half of the 20th Century men were so socially politically dominant, there are - or have been - an extraordinary number of slang words for women. 
Fashions change with the times, in language as in all things.  
Yet some of the slang words for women have a remarkably long history.
One example is bird, which has been a term for a young woman for more than 700 years, and has been used for woman of all ages since the 19th Century.  By contrast, its obvious relative chick is a 20th Century import from America, a perennial source of modish new usage.
Some of the everyday terms we take for granted turn out to have an intriguing history. In Old English the words wer and wif denoted, respectively, male and female, whilst man simply meant 'a human being'.  
Wer has not survived to the present, except in werewolf, which has the literal meaning 'man wolf'. Wif has of course become wife - and woman, formed from wif and man, has replaced it.  

Perhaps more remarkably, girl originally meant a young person of either sex.  Only in the early part of the 16th Century did it come to mean 'young female*.
Slang has tended to prove far less durable.  Take quean, for instance.  The word, which originally seems just to have meant woman', was by the 13th Century a term of abuse.  Initially it conveyed the idea of a bold or impudent woman but from the 16th Century it was used chiefly of prostitutes.  
As if to confuse matters, Scottish speakers of English since that time have used it to mean little more than 'young woman' - occasionally with added implications not of lax morals but of good health.
Many words of this variety now appear laughably antique.  In the 17th Century quaedam was a disparaging term for a woman.  In the 15th Century she might have been called a motyhole or even a faggot.  Surprisingly, before the time of Shakespeare faggot was an unpleasant term for a woman and it survived into the 20th Century in Lancashire dialect.

One word which has only recently faded from view is spinster which for many years was the official term for an unmarried woman.  First recorded in the 14th Century, meaning 'wool-spinner' (a job usually performed by women), it was adopted as official language in the 17th Century.  It has lately been dropped from government parlance, though, along with bachelor, the preferred term for unmarried people, of either sex and any orientation, is now a neutral one: single.
Spinster is an example of the way women have often been represented as homely and maternal but there is also a long tradition of portraying females as edible (think of words like dish, honey and crumpet), as animals (bat, crow, shrew, pet pussy) and as witch-like figures (crone, vamp, siren, hag).
Some words of this type persist only among older users.  I'm pretty sure I heard my grandmother, who was born in 1909, use trollop and jezebel.  Whilst I'm not convinced she ever uttered the words baggage or floozy, I certainly heard her refer to a woman as a hussy - a word that has enjoyed several different applications.  
It was once a slang term for a housewife, and was used of thrifty homemakers.  It has also, in rural areas especially, been a fairly neutral term for a young woman, perhaps the equivalent of lass.

Initially, for the word to take on negative overtones it had to be paired with an adjective like brazen or bold. Yet increasingly, and certainly by the 18th Century, it could stand alone as a term of disrespect.
Other words have always been terms of abuse.  Slut, which appears to be German in origin, dates back to the early 15th Century, whilst the Biblical-sounding strumpet can be found as early as the 1320s (one of its first recorded users is Chaucer).  
The less sexually charged slattern seems to have entered the language about 250 years later, meaning from the outset 'a rude, ill-bred woman'.  As for bitch, it has been a form of abuse for some 600 years but until the 17th Century it was as often used of men as of women and wasn't considered especially offensive.

Many of the most disrespectful terms are comparatively recent coinages.  For instance, bint was adopted from Arabic (where is means 'daughter') by British servicemen in Egypt during the First World War.  
Slag is recorded in the second edition of Francis Grows's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1788; but, surprisingly, its meaning is given as 'a slack-mettled fellow, one not ready to resent an affront'.  The sense we most often encounter now, confined to women, and specifically criticising loose sexual behaviour, seems to be not much more than 50 years old.
The equally popular slapper has been current for barely 20 years.  It may derive from the Yiddish word schlepper, a fairly general term of abuse for a rackety women, although my mother for one thinks it has to do with the thick make-up slapped on by slatternly girls.

It's interesting how many of these words begin with an s and another consonant.  This sound is one of language's least wholesome: you have only to think of other words of this flavour - slimy, slither, sneaky, spittle, slang,  slug.  It's also worth noticing that the reproof most commonly aimed at women is that they are promiscuous, not much better than prostitutes.
Slang terms for prostitutes have long been used of women who, although clearly not prostitutes, are reckoned to be too liberal with their favours.  The word whore, which has existed in English for almost a millennium, has for centuries been used of women who are simply unpopular, and for most of its life it has been used by women as often as by men.
Yet, as more liberal attitudes to women's sexuality have developed over the past generation or two, terms of this kind have dropped out of favour. 
Words like trollop, doxey, hoyden and strumpet - all once widely used - are barely heard now and unlikely to be revived.
Even so, a few new words of this type have crept into the language: today many young men, who have grown up absorbing the sexist swagger of urban music, use the African-American ho (an altered form of whore) to refer to their conquests - or to snipe at women who have rejected them.

One of the most intriguing phenomena is the way slang words for the female genitalia become more general terms of abuse.  This pattern of usage should remind us that a lot of men are scared not just of women but of their sex organs too.  The language of abuse usually betrays deep-rooted fears, and the more abusive slang that has historically been used of women - mainly by men - reveals a galaxy of male insecurities.

Strong stuff from August 2006 WI Home & Country Magazine, which has since become WI Life)

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