Bitch, literally meaning a female dog, is a slang pejorative for a person, commonly a woman, who is belligerent, unreasonable, malicious, a control freak, rudely intrusive or aggressive. When applied to a man, bitch is a derogatory term for a subordinate. Its original use as a vulgarism, documented to the fourteenth century, suggested high sexual desire in a woman, comparable to a dog in heat. The range of meanings has expanded in modern usage. In a feminist context, it can indicate a strong or assertive woman.
- Modern use
- Pop culture
- Hip hop culture
- Son of a bitch
- Bitch slap
- In cards
- Other forms
- Equivalent words in other languages
The word bitch is one of the most common curse words in the English language. According to Dr. Timothy Jay, there are "over 70 different taboo words" but 80 percent of the time only ten words are used, and the word bitch is included in this set of ten.
The term bitch comes from the 1150 word bicche, which was developed from the Old English word bicce. It also may have been derived from the Old Norse word bikkja for "female dog". The Oxford English Dictionary dates the term meaning "female dog" to around 1000 A.D.
It is believed that the definition of a female dog for the term bitch derived from the Greek goddess Artemis. As she is the goddess of the hunt, she was often portrayed with a pack of hunting dogs and sometimes transformed into an animal herself. She is free, vigorous, cold, impetuous, unsympathetic, beautiful.
As a derogatory term for women, it has been in use since the fourteenth or fifteenth century. Its earliest slang meaning mainly referred to sexual behavior, according to the English language historian Geoffrey Hughes:
The early applications were to a promiscuous or sensual woman, a metaphorical extension of the behavior of a bitch in heat. Herein lies the original point of the powerful insult son of a bitch, found as biche sone ca. 1330 in Arthur and Merlin ... while in a spirited exchange in the Chester Play (ca. 1400) a character demands: "Whom callest thou queine, skabde bitch?" ("Who are you calling a whore, you miserable bitch?").
Bitch remained a strong insult through the nineteenth century. The entry in Francis Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) reads :
A she dog, or doggess; the most offensive appellation that can be given to an English woman, even more provoking than that of whore, as may be gathered from the regular Billinsgate or St Giles answer--"I may be a whore, but can't be a bitch."
Throughout the word’s evolution into the nineteenth century, it lessened from Grose’s claim. The Oxford English Dictionary within the nineteenth century described the insult as “strictly a lewd or sensual woman”. The word went through many similar phases throughout history. It was not until the 20th century that feminism began to reevaluate the term and its appropriation.
The next resurgence of the word bitch as an insult to women occurred during the 1920s. The term bitch became more popular in common language during this era. Between 1915 and 1930, the use of "bitch" in newspapers and literature more than doubled. Ernest Hemingway was a strong proponent of the term during this time. He was known to expand the meaning of "bitch" to a more modern definition. He used it to represent favorable qualities such as ferocity, edginess, and grit. It was during this time that women began gaining more freedom (such as the right to vote through the Nineteenth Amendment). This new found freedom women possessed upset the male-dominated society making anti feminist men of the time feel threatened, possibly leading to retaliation through name-calling. The word "bitch" during the twenties meant "malicious or consciously attempting to harm," "difficult, annoying, or interfering," and "sexually brazen or overly vulgar".
In modern usage, the slang term bitch has different meanings depending largely on social context and may vary from very offensive to endearing, and as with many slang terms its meaning and nuances can vary depending on the region in which it is used.
The term bitch can refer to a person or thing that is very difficult, as in "Life's a bitch". It is common for insults to lose intensity as their meaning broadens ("bastard" is another example). In the film The Women (1939), Joan Crawford could only allude to the word: "And by the way, there's a name for you ladies, but it isn't used in high society - outside of a kennel." At the time, use of the actual word would have been censored by the Hays Office. By 1974, Elton John had a hit single (#4 in the U.S. and #14 in the U.K.) with "The Bitch Is Back", in which he says "bitch" repeatedly. It was, however, censored by some radio stations. On late night U.S. television, the character Emily Litella (1976-1978) on Saturday Night Live (portrayed by Gilda Radner) would frequently refer to Jane Curtin under her breath at the end of their Weekend Update routine in this way: "Oh! Never mind...! Bitch!"
Bitchin' arose in the 1950s to describe something found to be cool or rad. In the film Accepted the character Glen satirically states "This kitchen is bitchin" when he finds the kitchen to be less than stellar. Bitchn' is also used as a self-description in the film Bring It On. During a cheer the cheerleaders describe themseleves as "I'm bitchin', great hair, the boys all love to stare."
Modern use can include self-description, often as an unfairly difficult person. For example, in the New York Times bestseller The Bitch in the House, a woman describes her marriage: "I'm fine all day at work, but as soon as I get home, I'm a horror....I'm the bitch in the house." Boy George admitted "I was being a bitch" in a falling out with Elton John.
Generally, the term bitch is still considered offensive, and not accepted in formal situations. According to linguist Deborah Tannen, "Bitch is the most contemptible thing you can say about a woman. Save perhaps the four-letter C word." It's common for the word to be censored on Prime time TV, often rendered as "the b-word". During the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, a John McCain supporter referred to Hillary Clinton by asking, "How do we beat the bitch?" The event was reported in censored format:
On CNN's "The Situation Room," Washington Post media critic and CNN "Reliable Sources" host Howard Kurtz observed that "Senator McCain did not embrace the 'b' word that this woman in the audience used." ABC reporter Kate Snow adopted the same locution. On CNN's "Out in the Open," Rick Sanchez characterized the word without using it by saying, "Last night, we showed you a clip of one of his supporters calling Hillary Clinton the b-word that rhymes with witch." A local Fox 25 news reporter made the same move when he rhymed the unspoken word with rich.
Rick Sanchez of CNN went on to comment: "...a horrible word that is used to do nothing but demean women... Obviously, the word that's used here is very offensive."
In the context of modern feminism, bitch has varied reappropriated meanings that may connote a strong female (anti-stereotype of weak submissive woman), cunning (equal to males in mental guile), or else it may be used as a tongue-in cheek backhanded compliment for someone who has excelled in an achievement. For example, Bitch magazine describes itself as a "feminist response to pop culture".
Feminist attorney Jo Freeman (Joreen) authored "The BITCH Manifesto" in 1968:
A Bitch takes shit from no one. You may not like her, but you cannot ignore her....[Bitches] have loud voices and often use them. Bitches are not pretty....Bitches seek their identity strictly thru themselves and what they do. They are subjects, not objects...Often they do dominate other people when roles are not available to them which more creatively sublimate their energies and utilize their capabilities. More often they are accused of domineering when doing what would be considered natural by a man.
Bitch has also been reappropriated by hip-hop culture, rappers use the adjective "bad bitch" to refer to an independent, confident, attractive woman. The term is used in a complimentary way, meaning the woman is desirable. One of the first instances of "bitch" being used in this way is in the song "Da Baddest Bitch" by Trina, released in 1999. This can also be seen throughout multiple different songs from Rihanna's song entitled "Bad Bitch" featuring Beyoncé which reiterates the line "I'm a bad bitch" multiple times. Nicki Minaj is another female rap icon who uses the term in her song "Starships" where she says “bad bitches like me is hard to come by”. This use of the word bitch shows women reappropriating the meaning to be a more positive and empowering word for women.
In pop culture, the use of the term bitch has increased through media such as television, movies, magazines, social media, etc. The use of the word "bitch" on television shows tripled between 1998 and 2007, which had much to do with the word's feminist facelift in the previous decade.
In a 2006 interview titled "Pop Goes the Feminist", Bitch magazine co-founder Andi Zeisler explained the naming of the magazine:
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.
Pop culture contains a number of slogans of self-identification based on bitch. For example,
There are several backronyms. Heartless Bitches International is a club with the slogan "Because we know BITCH means: Being In Total Control, Honey!" Other imagined acronyms include
As stated in Scallen’s Bitch Thesis, "As Asim demonstrates with his discussion of the appropriation of the N word by black communities, the term bitch is deployed in pop culture in multiple ways (with multiple meanings) at the same time." Derogatory terms are constantly appropriated. Many women, such as Nicki Minaj, refer to themselves as bitches. By calling oneself a bitch in today’s culture, these women are referencing their success, money, sexuality, and power. Asha Layne’s article Now That’s a Bad Bitch!: The State of Women in Hip-Hop, "The change in the meaning of the word thus subverts the tools of oppression used to dominate women to now empower them."
Hip hop culture
One early rapper to use the word bitch on record was Duke Bootee on his classic 1983 song with Grandmaster Flash, "New York New York". ("He says he ain't gonna pay no child support / because the bitch left him without a second thought.") However, it is sometimes claimed that Slick Rick's "La Di Da Di" (1985) was the first rap song to use the term. Since the late 1980s, the word bitch has been frequently used among hip-hop artists and followers of the culture, which can be said as "bee-otch", spelled like Biotch, Beyotch, Beotch, etc. One of the first artists to popularize the pronunciation as beeatch or biatch as a refrain in the late 1980s was Oakland-based rapper Too $hort.
Reaching back to the dozens and dirty blues, early rappers like Slick Rick established the bitch as a character: a woman, often treacherous, but sometimes simply déclassé. Adams and Fuller (2006) state that, in misogynistic rap, a bitch is a "money-hungry, scandalous, manipulating, and demanding woman". However, the word bitch is also frequently used (by male rappers) towards other men in rap lyrics, usually to describe a man who is a subordinate or homosexual, or a man who is supposedly unmanly or inferior in some way.
Some female hip hop artists have challenged male rappers' use of the word bitch to refer to women, with Queen Latifah asking in her 1993 song "U.N.I.T.Y.": "Who you callin' a bitch?" Other female rappers from the same era frequently used the term to refer to themselves and/or others, notably Roxanne Shante (who even made a 1992 album entitled The Bitch Is Back) and MC Lyte.
Son of a bitch
The term son of a bitch is a form of profanity usually used to refer to a man who is nasty, rude or otherwise offensive. In Shakespeare's King Lear (1603), the Earl of Kent refers to Oswald as: "...nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch..." In Act II Scene I of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, Ajax strikes Thersites, yelling "Thou bitch-wolf's son, canst thou not hear?"
Its use as an insult is as old as that of bitch. Euphemistic terms are often substituted, such as gun in the phrase "son of a gun" as opposed to "son of a bitch", or "s.o.b." for the same phrase. Like bitch, the severity of the insult has diminished. Roy Blount, Jr. recently extolled the virtues of "son of a bitch" (particularly in comparison to "asshole") in common speech and deed. Son of a bitch can also be used as a "how about that" reaction.
In politics the phrase “Yes, he is a son of a bitch, but he is our son of a bitch” has been attributed, probably apocryphally, to various U.S. presidents from FDR to Nixon. Immediately after the detonation of the first atomic bomb in Alamogordo, New Mexico, in July 1945 (the device codenamed Gadget), the Manhattan Project scientist who served as the director of the test Kenneth Tompkins Bainbridge exclaimed to Robert Oppenheimer "Now we're all sons-of-bitches."
The 19th-century British racehorse Filho da Puta took its name from 'Son of a bitch' in Portuguese.
The term bitch slap is derived from American slang. In the original sense, a bitch slap is a powerful, full-swing slap in the face with the front of the hand, evoking the way an angry pimp might slap a defiant prostitute (not to be confused with a pimp slap which uses the back of the hand). However, the term is now frequently used figuratively to describe a humiliating defeat or punishment.
To have the "bitch end" of a hand in poker is to have the weaker version of the same hand as another player. This situation occurs especially in poker games with community cards. For example, to have a lower straight than one's opponent is to have the bitch end.
The bitch is slang for the queen of spades.
When used as a verb, to bitch means to complain. Usage in this context is almost always pejorative in intent.
As an adjective, the term sometimes has a meaning opposite to its usual connotations. Something that is bitching or bitchin' is really great. For example, an admired motorcycle may be praised as a "bitchin' bike".
Equivalent words in other languages
A number of other languages, such as Swedish, Hungarian, and Slavic languages like Russian use their word for female dog in the same vulgar manner (Swedish: 'hynda', Russian: 'сука' súka, Hungarian: 'szuka'), although they are not used as often as other words generally referring to prostitutes (in Slovak, Czech and Hungarian it is 'kurva', and in Polish it is 'kurwa').