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…