A lot of words are collectively agreed to be off-limits to feminists, including “bitch,” “cunt,” “slut,” and a myriad of other words that are said to be female-specific with no male equivalent. If there is no male equivalent for an insult used primarily against women, then it is rightly argued to be sexist. It’s not often that we find or discuss words or labels that work in the opposite direction (i.e., a word that insults men but for which there is no female equivalent), although some people have been doing so recently. What I’d like to talk about specifically, though, is the term “bitch.”

Wikipedia defines “bitch” as follows:

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.

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?”).

Modern usage of the term describes someone who is “belligerent, unreasonable, rudely intrusive or aggressive.” Of course, a man can easily be belligerent, unreasonable, rudely intrusive or aggressive, but when the term is applied to a man, it “is a derogatory term for a subordinate.”

So, let’s break this down. A female bitch is someone who acts in a traditionally masculine manner, and a male bitch is someone who acts in a traditionally feminine manner. While the history of the usage of the word clearly shows its female-specific and misogynist roots, it was later expanded as a way to apply to everyone who acted in a manner at odds with traditional gender roles.

Although I don’t use the word often (I usually only use it to jokingly decribe myself during PMS or in some other humorously self-deprecating way), I prefer the de-connotative usage, summarized (by me) to describe someone who is unnecessarily rude, hostile, or critical. But when I use it, I am much less likely to call a man a bitch for the same reason. I’m also not at all likely to call a man a “bitch” and mean it in the modern context of “subordinate.” In fact, I’m just wholly unlikely to ever call a man a bitch, for any reason. Why is that? I think it is because I don’t want anyone I’m talking to to misunderstand and think that I am calling a man a bitch to illustrate how I think he is acting in a traditionally feminine manner, because using a pejorative against someone for not adhering to traditional gender roles is pretty much against everything I stand for. For some reason, though, I assume people will understand that if I refer to a woman as a bitch, that I’m not calling her a canine in heat.

Another interesting phenomenon that I see happening (and that I use often, myself) is eliminating the female-specific insults from our collective vocabulary and replacing them with traditionally male insults, like “asshole,” or even the milder “jerk.” Since, in addition to not using gender-based insults, I also actively avoid genital-related insults like “pussy” or “dick,” I have been embracing “asshole” and “jerk” as general insults, as neither implies a gender and, although traditionally reserved for men, are perfectly descriptive of what I am trying to call out in the other person.

Something, though, makes me feel uncomfortable about taking a term reserved primarily for men and using it for women and men alike, and I’m not sure why. When describing a role that remains identical whether a male or female performs it that English has unnecessarily divided into genders, like actor and actress, for example, I try to default to the “male” word. So, I’m more likely to call Jennifer Connelly an actor rather than an actress, because I see no reason to differentiate. Who cares if Jennifer Connelly is male or female, when “actor” and “actress” mean exactly the same thing?

So, why eliminate “bitch” from my vocabulary? I’m not sure that I will. But in order to be consistent, it seems that I should. But… why not just call everyone who is acting like an asshole a “bitch,” instead? Whether they’re male or female? Maybe it seems easier to say “asshole” or other usually male-specific terms, because we all know that they mean the same thing whether applied to men or women, and even though “bitch” arguably means exactly the same thing as “asshole,” people are likely to be widely misunderstood about the intent of the insult when used against a man.

Again, though, there’s a certain level of discomfort in reverting to historically male-centric language that does not reconcile well with my preference for egalitarianism (with the exception of actor/actress, as can be seen in the Wikipedia link’s “terminology” section). I don’t like male-as-default language, at all, so treating words that originally conjured up an image of a man as if they are for all of us, while treating words that originally conjured up an image of a female as off-limits feels quite misogynist to me. Society already insults men by calling them women; it feels as though avoiding using traditionally feminine terms to describe men is perpetuating the widespread (if not subconscious) belief that the worst thing a man can do is be like a woman.

Do you use the word “bitch”? How do you feel about gender-specific insults or descriptors?

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24 Responses to Bitch

  1. Feyline says:

    I’ve been working lately to remove the two gendered insults I still use (bitch and dick) from my vocabulary. The latter is easy to justify: ‘dick’ is as bad as ‘pussy’ in that it takes negative traits stereotypically associated with a gender and equates a wonderful body part with something bad.

    But ‘bitch’ is a bit harder to explain. I guess it’s just because so many people see it as a gendered insult. I’ve always used it to describe someone tenacious (i.e: someone not letting something go would be bitching about it, someone who tended to really dig their teeth into an issue would be ‘a real bitch about it’) but I know that’s not how most people think of it. I guess it comes down to the same reason you spelled out: even if I’m not using it to shame someone for not squeezing into their gender role, there’s a pretty strong chance that someone will see it that way, and that’s not something I want to enforce as insult-worthy.

  2. Kissie Catastrophe says:

    Interesting post, April!

    I tend to use bitch infrequently and more often in the verb form than as a noun. I, too, am slightly uncomfortable using it for either gender for just the reasons you stated.

    I also have distaste for using male “default” terms, but definitely prefer them to traditionally female insults (stating the relatively obvious here). Since our language is so entrenched in gender difference, there doesn’t seem to be a simple in-between.
    For that reason, I often tend to defy or nullify gender when I speak, whether I’m insulting someone or just talking in general.

    For instance, I’ve noticed, particularly in the last year or so, that I often will accidentally mix up pronouns when referring to people I know and I commonly use “they”. This is rooted in the fact that I think “he” and “she” are relatively unimportant categories to put people into, but further, because I have a fair number of friends who don’t link their gender to their biological sex.

    So when it comes to insults, I tend to use the term that fits the situation but not the gender. However, I seem to have the same issue as you, that this ends up meaning I generally find myself using “male” insults. I also like to use “jerk” and “asshole” for men and women alike, and I’m particularly fond of using “dick” as an insult for myself or other women who are behaving badly. For some reason, I can’t get past the misogynistic level of using traditionally female slurs on men. Only in certain situations do I feel as though I don’t just come off as though I’m simply insulting a man by calling him a “girl”. These situations tend to be when I’m joking around and pointing the term at a man who I know to be pro-feminist and is easily able to see that my intent is more ironic and playful than anything else.

    Beyond that I like to try habitualize using terms that don’t really have gender connotations that I’m aware of. Things like “shithead”, “butthole” and “fuckface” etc, are far more removed from gender categorizations than many of the mean names we call each other commonly.

    Subverting gender in our language is a difficult task. I’ve thought about this for years and feel I’m hardly any closer to solutions than when I started pondering the subject.

    • Paul says:

      “I’m particularly fond of using “dick” as an insult for myself or other women who are behaving badly.”

      How is this better than calling a man a pussy?

      I mean, let’s at least be consistent about this.

    • Kissie Catastrophe says:

      Paul, I wasn’t making the point that using “dick” towards women is necessarily “better”. As I said, subverting gender is complicated, and I also mentioned that at times, I do use female oriented insults towards men (I just am less comfortable doing so for all the reasons that have been discussed).

      For me, using a male-oriented insult towards women is just an extension of the rebellious part of my use of language/desire to thwart gender classifications that I am subject to. I also tend to use phrases ending in “then I’m your guy!” and like to mix up “sir” and “madam”. These are all things I say in the company of friends who understand where I’m coming from and come from a similar place.

      I don’t feel that I need to justify what you see as an inconsistency, what this comes down to is a lack of context. I don’t use words like these to seriously insult anyone, I use them in casual, usually joking scenarios, again, with people who understand precisely why I choose my language the way I do.

      If I encountered you on the street and you pissed me off, I doubt I would call you either dick or bitch. I’d tell you to fuck right off, because I don’t know you. Now, if you were my best friend…different story, because we speak with friends differently when we have context and comfort with each other.

    • Jim says:

      Whatever the objections, I still like your approach. Notice also how terms like “asshole” are also gendered; here’s the test – a look of surprise or confusion when you aim it at a woman. That confusion is the reaction to a lexical (as in this case) or grammatical error.

      Try calling a woman a prick and observe the reaction.

    • Paul says:

      Okay. I misunderstood you. I can’t articulate how I misunderstood you, because I can’t explain it right. But suffice it to say, I get where you’re coming from better now.

    • Kissie Catastrophe says:

      Jim- and it’s funny, while “prick” is obviously gendered”, “asshole” is less obvious, considering we all have assholes (this is a safe assumption, right?)

      Paul- Cool 🙂

  3. Danny says:

    A lot of words are collectively agreed to be off-limits to feminists, including “bitch,” “cunt,” “slut,” and a myriad of other words that are said to be female-specific with no male equivalent.
    Okay maybe I’m thinking this because of how I interpret the words bitch and cunt but it seems to me that those two words are often used to describe a woman who is acting in some unsavory, undesireable, unlikable, or otherwise jerk like behavior. Isn’t that pretty much what people mean when they call guys dicks?

    And on a slight tangent I saw a post over at Shakesville today that looks like they finally figured out a way to talk about how “man up” is not a nice thing to say (and by way I mean a way that centers around women and pretty much tries to come off sounding that the sole point of the phrase is to insult women…).

    • Mr Daisy has this word, “shitbird”–which is very useful! Some people really do deserve that label. (Howard Stern is one he applies it to, for example.) It stands in for “dick” very handily.

  4. David K says:

    A memory comes back to me: at my middle school “bitch” and “bastard” were considered to be 1) strictly gendered (you couldn’t call a woman a bastard ect) 2) equal in abusiveness – not sure what to make of it that retrospect :-/

    I’m uneasy about using dictionary definitions of swear words to analyse how sexist they are, since they tend to get used more on the basis of how angry you are / offensive you want to be, rather than what they are supposed to mean. Sexism in swearing to me is more about one gender getting slapped with a word, but not the other.
    “Bitch” for me is strongly sexist because it’s used against women, and especially as a slap down for women who get to “uppity” (this often seems clearest when people euphamise it, like saying “someone put a muzzle on her”.)
    I don’t use it myself, my insult of choice is usually “fucking idiot.” I don’t think I use any gendered insults much, at least I apply the same words to abuse men and women. I suppose I wouldn’t use “wanker” against a woman – again it’s a pattern from when I learned to swear at school.

    My two favourite swearing-related links, for your enjoyment… < Hoggart on the word "Fuck"
    ^ comment thread contains long discussion on trans-atlantic differences in swearing, including eminent philosophers.

    • April says:

      at my middle school “bitch” and “bastard” were considered to be 1) strictly gendered (you couldn’t call a woman a bastard ect) 2) equal in abusiveness – not sure what to make of it that retrospect :-/

      Aha! I remember that from my elementary/middle school days as well. What’s funny about it is that I had no idea what the word “bastard” even meant, other than, yeah, it was really only used against boys. It did seem to be more of a “grown up” word, though. Funny, because “whore” was the same back then. For whatever reason, kids were calling each other “ho”s, indiscriminately, without the sexual connotation (or, I was very naive and just didn’t know it was sexually related, which is definitely a possibility). But one day, some girl at recess was like “so-and-so isn’t a ho, she’s a whore.” We still didn’t know what a “whore” was, but it just seemed like a more sophisticated version of “ho,” so we started using it. And I suppose all of that is actually true, but all we were looking for was the swear word or insult that seemed to be the most bad, or the one that would piss off our parents the most of all. We didn’t really care so much about the actual meaning of the word. For all we knew, there wasn’t an actual meaning.

  5. Chris says:

    So I was watching The Fantastic Mr. Fox and they kept saying the word “cuss” in the middle of sentences. The first couple of times, I assumed that’s what was meant to be said, then of course it dawned on me they were substituting actually swear words. That somehow bugged me. I’m not sure if that means that swearing has become so pervasive that I consider it abnormal not to hear the swear word or if I think that language shouldn’t be censored no matter the environment.

    Regarding the gender specificity of cuss words? Well, I’ll just paraphrase George Carlin:
    Some people say shoot, but they can’t fool me. Shoot is just shit with two O’s.

    It’s all about the intent of the user, regardless of the exact words it’s what they’re intended to convey.

  6. Cessen says:

    I generally avoid using “bitch”. I have no problem with calling women “assholes”.

    I think taking traditionally male insults like “asshole” and applying them to women (only when warranted!) can jolt people a bit. Partly because people aren’t used to it, but also partly because it slaps an accountability on the person that most people aren’t used to seeing applied to women.

    I think even people that aren’t up on gender issues are aware on some level that “bitch” involves stepping outside of ‘acceptable’ gendered behavior. e.g. “uppity” women. So its power in terms of real accountability for genuinely not okay actions is limited, even if it’s a more powerful insult than “asshole” in other ways.

    If I call a woman an asshole, there is nothing about gender roles in there. It’s just pure “this is not okay, and the badness of your behavior has nothing to do with you being a woman, and I’m holding you 100% accountable for it”. And I think people aren’t used to that.

    For similar reasons I also call abusive behavior from women abuse, rather than calling them “crazy bitches” as is the norm. It’s a strange sort of thing. In a sense “crazy bitch” is a worse thing to say, but it simultaneously lets them off the hook to a degree. Like, “yeah, but they’re just women…”

    • April says:

      It’s just pure “this is not okay, and the badness of your behavior has nothing to do with you being a woman, and I’m holding you 100% accountable for it”. And I think people aren’t used to that.

      I think you just gave a name to a very distinct feeling I have when I refer to a female as an asshole, or when I first started intentionally using that word universally. It definitely adds accountability. I didn’t think of it that way at first, but now it makes perfect sense. “Bitch,” and especially “crazy bitch,” like you noted, are sort of apologetic in their differentiation.

    • Kissie Catastrophe says:

      To you both: Exactly. It’s a deeply gendered insult wrapped in a sexist dismissal…

  7. JutGory says:

    I agree about gendered nouns. I usually use actor, author (only pretentious people say “authoress”), but waiter/waitress is one I do use. And there does not seem to be a male equivalent for “temptress.” And, executor of an estate is preferable to executrix (although sometimes the feminine form is more interesting to say).
    As for “bitch,” I use it, but generally as a verb (e.g. “quit yer bitchin’,” which I say to my cat on almost a daily basis; he does not seem phased by the gendered canine insult, and he does not stop). I try not to insult people generally (except while driving).
    But, as far as male insults go, “creep” may be gender-specific. “Prick” is. “Short man’s disease” or Napoleon Complex are generally directed toward men. “Cad” was probably one, but is not used much. Gigolo is, but is not as commonly used as whore, probably because there were fewer male prostitutes to begin with.
    I have no problem with “cunt.” Mind you, I never call people that, and I think it is an ugly sounding word, but, I believe, etymologically, it is related cunnilingus, which i think is kind of interesting.
    “Baldy” is probably mainly a male insult, but is more of a physical descriptor than these other insults, which are more metaphorical.
    Do you think “crybaby” is gendered? You might say it to kids, but more to men than women, I would think. Whiner?
    And, there is my favorite male-gendered insult: Jackwagon! 🙂

    • Jim says:

      “And, there is my favorite male-gendered insult: Jackwagon!”

      As far as I know it only appears in that Geico commercial, so that makes it a hapax legomenon (Bonus bogus $10 word of the day). It obviously derives from “jack off.” And that opens another discussion of gendered double standards, why masturbation is so derided in males in popular cultural while it is tolerated or even celebrated in females, either as a political statement or a porn performance. There is no female equivalent for that particular insult, and it is very dismissive. It’s applied by extension to any pointless or worthless effort.

    • Danny says:

      And that opens another discussion of gendered double standards, why masturbation is so derided in males in popular cultural while it is tolerated or even celebrated in females, either as a political statement or a porn performance.
      I’ve <a href=" wondered that one myself Jim.

      And while talking about masturbatory insults what about the wank/wanker/wank stain line of insults?

    • I’ve become very conscious of the word “creep” and which men get tagged with it. I notice its the nerdy, geeky guys, and well… I like nerdy, geeky guys. 🙂

      Thus, I’ve pretty much consigned it to the dustbin…

    • April says:

      Ever since working at Red Lobster years ago, I say “server.” It’s not like waiter and waitress are necessarily offensive, but “server” is so nice and to the point.

  8. Catullus says:

    I only use insulting epithets when I mean to insult someone.

  9. Aside: Interesting that I still say “actress” (just old habit), probably because of the Academy Awards; the words are an ‘institution’ … but DH Lawrence referred to someone as a “sculptress” and Harlan Ellison used to say “poetess” and I guess those were standard once, but I would never use those words. It’s a good sign that those words are basically obsolete now.

    I do say “bitch” (often about myself and my own behavior, come to think of it) and tend to reserve the c-word for women who are viciously competitive w/other women and harm them to suck up to men (that was my mother’s usage of the word, too). I never use it on my blog or when writing though. I don’t use slut or whore or that stuff.

    Love the picture!

  10. typhonblue says:

    I don’t use ‘bitch’. And I think it’s for exactly the same reason Cessen outlined. I use the word asshole because it does imply not only a sense of violating other’s boundaries but that the person in question should be held accountable for it. Bitch does have the connotation of ‘wimmins can’t help themselves.’

    I also don’t use ‘cunt’ or ‘pussy’. Although I do sometimes say something a woman does is a ‘dick move’. Maybe I should stop that.

    (BTW, Cessen, I haven’t seen you for awhile? How’s things?)

  11. IlllllllllllllI says:

    Toward something this complex, I have only a few sketches of a coherent position.

    There are two circumstances when it makes sense, to me, to use historically problematic terms like bitch, either in a consciously feminist or at least anti-misogynist sense that April describes above, or its radical opposite, to use it when it feels most inappropriate. Not toward hyper-masculine behavior or persons, that would be too consciously inverse perhaps, but in those situations when we would feel confused by its use. I think of the example of the British “cunt”, where its use to indicate the femininity of males has become so constant and it has (very nearly) lost both its feminine and “unspeakable” connotations through use. The word traverses first a non-metaphorical meanings toward gendered and genitalled meanings as women are identified with their vagina, but as the word carries meaning into an era when that identification is no longer plausible, it shifts to something else. It carries a trace of this history, but in use no more than a trace; the dual move away from the conscious identification and against using language to reinforce it or invert it has “turned” the word.

    Some combination of these modes, where the existing connotation can be consciously resisted while a new or confused use enters into common practice, interests me. I remember, vividly, during the Marriage Equality march in Minneapolis after the passage of Prop. 8, a gay activist exclaiming, “we won’t be the faggots anymore, from now on, the christians are the faggots!” The turns in that sentence, using it in both the colloquial recaptured sense allowed by his subject-position, both as a gay man who suffers the word faggot and as a political protestor currently engaged in a gay rights protest, while also ironically returning the violent and subjugating version still in use against him, not in the words of the anti-equality political forces but in their actions, legislation as slur. His implication was radical, “those who would deny political rights should be threatened with their own loss of rights, those who would subjugate and demean should prepare to be subjugated and demeaned”, but the important part of the statement was the style, using the problematic word in, by my count, four different ways in only two iterations. When the widespread prejudices that undergird a slur are no longer operative, or are no longer operative in those who still may find themselves using those words, it seems to me that the ability to use and misuse them is crucial for the destabilization and corruption of their meaning.

    Against this is the use of the masculine-identified terms, asshole, bastard, etc., I think there’s a danger that we repeat the traditional linguistic mistake of allowing masculinity to be the normalized base from which other gender attributes flow. It makes more sense to me not to consciously turn in this direction, if that conscious turn indeed carries this mistake, and make more instinctive and less “proper” use of insults and slurs. My intuition here is that the instinctive use is somehow less deforming than a mistaken intentional use, but I’m not sure why that should be. Maybe it’s the entire category of slurs, words manipulating affective categories, sore spots, in order to cause pain. There seem to be two sorts of these words, those that are offensive in connotation and those that are offensive because they are known as offensive words, bitch or cunt or cocksucker in the first place, fuck, shit, motherfucker in the second. Motherfucker is the exemplary word for my line of thought, where it doesn’t denote anything of mothers or fucking, but is almost recursive, defined as “someone you dislike so much that you would call them a motherfucker.” I’ve never been convinced by the notion that language content forms our world unconsciously (though very sympathetic to the claim that linguistic form reinscribes domination repeatedly), so it seems plausible that this second, formal definition of motherfucker can be valid. Using the term “thoughtfully” or intentionally or according to a literal interpretation removes this instinctive, gender-dodging sense, even if this interpretation means it is no longer used as its absence is equally capable of connoting.

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