A Cultural History of Feminine Nouns Turned Into Insults
‘Slut’ and ‘hussy’ used to have tame meanings. Then, like so many other feminine nouns, they came to mean ‘prostitute’
If you want to insult a woman, call her a prostitute. If you want to insult a man, call him a woman.
Nearly every word the English language offers to describe a woman has, at some point during its lifespan, been colored some shade of obscene. The main piece of evidence for this tendency toward women’s linguistic disparagement appears when you examine certain matched pairs of gendered words. Compare, for example, “sir” and “madam”: 300 years ago, both were used as formal terms of address. But with time, madam evolved to mean a conceited or precocious girl, then a kept mistress or prostitute, and then, finally, a woman who manages a brothel. All that excitement while the meaning of sir just stuck where it was.
A similar thing happened with “master” and “mistress”: These terms came to English by way of Old French, and initially, both words indicated a person in a position of authority. Only the feminine term was contaminated over the decades to mean a sexually promiscuous woman with whom a married man, as linguist Muriel Schulz puts it, “habitually fornicates.” Meanwhile, master continues to describe a dude in charge of something, like a household or an animal (or a sexual submissive, if we’re talking BDSM). Master can also indicate a person who has conquered a difficult skill, like karate or cooking. Tell me: Is there a wildly entertaining television competition show called MistressChef? No, there is not. (I would definitely watch that, though.)
Two types of semantic change can alter a word’s meaning over time: Pejoration is where a word starts out with a neutral or positive meaning and eventually devolves to mean something negative. The opposite is called amelioration. Feminine works usually go down the former route, while masculine works often go down the latter.
In some instances, the process of pejoration rebrands a feminine word as an insult—not for women, but for men. Take the words “buddy” and “sissy”: Today, we might use sissy to describe a weak or overly effeminate man, while buddy is a synonym for a close pal. We don’t think of these words as being related, but in the beginning, buddy and sissy were abbreviations of the words “brother” and “sister.” Over the years, the masculine term ameliorated, while the feminine term went the other way, flushing down the semantic toilet until it plunked onto its current meaning: a man who is weak and pathetic, just like a woman. Linguists have actually determined that the majority of insults for men sprout from references to femininity, either from allusions to women themselves or to stereotypically feminine men: wimp, candy-ass, motherfucker.
The word “pussy” is analogous to sissy, in that it’s a feminine word that was gradually reduced to an insult—not for women, but for men. Scholars aren’t 100% sure of pussy’s beginnings, but one theory is that it comes from an Old Norse word meaning “pouch” or “pocket.” There’s also an Oxford English Dictionary entry from the 16th century that defines the term as a girl or woman who bears similar qualities to a cat, like affability and coyness. By the 1600s, the word had surfaced as a metaphor for both a cat and a vagina. It wasn’t used to describe men until the early 20th century, when writers began associating it with tame, unaggressive males.
Few traditionally masculine terms have undergone pejoration like sissy, pussy, madam, or mistress. “Dick” is really the only prominent example — this word started as an innocent nickname for men named Richard; by Shakespeare’s time, it was extended to mean a generalized everyman (like a “Joe Shmoe”); in the late 19th century, it evolved to describe a penis (which we can likely attribute to British military slang — those dirty boys); and in the 1960s, it grew to refer to a thoughtless or contemptible person. Dick, however, is an outlier. Lad, fellow, prince, squire, and butler are just a handful of other pejoration-worthy masculine words that have been spared.
Do feminine terms ever ameliorate? They do, but it’s often because women actively reclaim them. But finding more instances like buddy, wherein a masculine term gains a more positive status over time, is an easier task. An Old English version of the word “knight,” for example, simply meant young boy or servant before ameliorating to describe a gallant nobleman. The word “stud” graduated from a term for a male breeding animal to a slang phrase for a hot, manly dude. Even the word “dude” itself has elevated in status since the late 19th century, when it was used as an insult to describe an affected, foppish man. Today, dude is one of the most beloved words in the English language.
The word is so contentious now that you’d never guess it came from the comparatively wholesome Middle English term slutte, which meant merely an “untidy” woman.
But back to all those wacky insults for women. Because it’s so fun to talk about and such charming fodder for cocktail party conversation, I want to talk about the history of a few more of the many insults for or about women that used to mean something neutral or positive — a term of endearment, even — but at some point transitioned to mean something unflattering (and usually sexual).
Let’s start with the word “hussy.” Originally, this term was nothing but a shorter, sweeter version of the Old English husewif, which meant female head of household and is an early cognate of the modern word “housewife.” Around the 17th century, the word came to describe a rude, “rustic” woman; then it became a general insult for women of any kind. Eventually, it narrowed to mean a lewd, brazen woman or prostitute.
The word “tart” went down a similar road. Once used to describe a small pie or pastry, the term soon became an innocent term of endearment for women, then specified to mean a sexually desirable woman, and by the late 19th century, it had descended to a female of immoral character or prostitute (which, of course, despite common rationale, are not the same thing).
Even the word “slut” used to mean something relatively innocent. The word is so contentious now that you’d never guess it came from the comparatively wholesome Middle English term slutte, which meant merely an “untidy” woman. The word was sometimes even used for men. (In 1386, Chaucer labeled one slovenly male character as “sluttish.”) Soon enough, though, the word extended to mean an immoral, sexually loose woman or prostitute.
Cruder still, we have “bitch.” Linguists postulate that this word derived from the ancient Sanskrit word bhagas, meaning “genitals,” then later found its way (in various forms) into Latin, French, and Old English, eventually coming to refer to a creature with exposed genitals, aka an animal. After that, the word narrowed to female animal, and within a few centuries, we landed on female dog. The first shift in meaning from beast to human wasn’t recorded until around 1400 AD, when bitch surfaced in writing to describe a promiscuous woman or prostitute (still one of its primary meanings in British English). From there, the word evolved to describe a sort of weakling or servant (“Go fetch me my tea, bitch”); a stuck-up, mean, unpleasant woman; and, finally, a verb meaning “to complain.” (“There are so many English words to bitch about, aren’t there?”)
And yet, out of all these etymological allegories, my favorite has to be the story of “cunt.” What is largely considered the English language’s most offensive term for women didn’t actually start as an insult at all. Cunt’s roots are also up for debate, but most sources agree they can be traced back to the Proto-Indo-European word sound “cu,” which indicated femininity. (This same “cu” is also related to the modern words “cow” and “queen.”) The Latin term cuneus, meaning “wedge,” is also connected to cunt, as is the Old Dutch word kunte, which gives the word its dramatic final T. For centuries, cunt was used to refer to women’s external genitalia without any negative nuances whatsoever, but like so many other terms referencing femaleness, it didn’t stay that way.
Spiritually, reading all about these words’ pejoration is a bit of a bummer, but empirically, the patterns say something important about our culture’s gender standards at large. When English speakers want to insult a woman, they compare her to one of a few things: a food (tart), an animal (bitch), or a sex worker (slut). That we have used language to systematically reduce women to edible, nonhuman, and sexual entities for so many years is no coincidence. In English, our negative terms for women necessarily mirror the status of women in Western society at large.