A Brief History of the Word “Bitch,” Necessitated by Benedict Cumberbitch

It’s been a good year for Benedict Cumberbatch. I’m not talking calendar year; I’m referring to the Hollywood year, the one that starts in October when all the potentially Oscar-nominated films start coming out, and ends in February after the awards are distributed. For the remaining months, all respected figures in cinema enter a deep, dark hibernation. That’s how I imagine it, at least.

This year, English actor Cumberbatch starred as the idiosyncratic genius Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. In addition to receiving an Oscar nod for his performance, Cumberbatch ascended to the highest level of fame last week by appearing on Ellen for the very first time.

On the show, Cumberbatch smiled that coy British smile, while he and his besuited host talked World War Two and red carpet vodka shots, but not before discussing the adorable nickname his fans have recently given themselves: Cumberbitches.

“What do they call themselves, your fans?” Ellen probes within thirty seconds of her new guest settling into his ivory arm chair.

The Brit responds sheepishly to a wave of audience giggles. “Uh, Cumberbitches,” he murmurs, “I kind of squirm a little bit about it.” And squirm he does.

Ellen clarifies that these fans came up with the term Cumberbitches all on their own — just as Justin Bieber followers named themselves Beliebers — and Cumberbatch confirms. He says he explicitly told these fans, “Ladies, I’m very flattered, but has [this name] not set feminism back a little bit?”

Ellen flashes a polite smile.

Apparently the Cumberbitches later responded to their deity’s statement, saying, “We didn’t mean any harm to feminism. We were just having a bit of fun with your name.”

There was a time in history when any nickname involving the word bitch would have scarcely made sense, much less endangered gender equality. The word has had a long and colorful past in the human lexicon, beginning with its suspected origins in Sanskrit. Linguists postulate that bitch started there with the ancient word bhagas, meaning “genitals,” and later found its way (in various forms) into Latin, French, and Old English, eventually coming to refer to a creature with exposed genitals, a.k.a, an animal. More specifically thereafter, 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 was not recorded until around 1400 AD. According to researcher Charles A. Collins from Southern Illinois University, here is where bitch first surfaced in writing to describe “a lewd, promiscuous woman … a prostitute.”

For me, this is where things stop making sense. How did we get from a delightful lady puppy to a woman who exchanges her vagina for money? Unfortunately, semantic nosedives like this are common.

The process of a neutral word for a female taking on negative, often sexual meaning is a pattern found throughout language. The phenomenon is called “pejoration.” In 1975, a language and gender superstar named Muriel Schulz put it like this: “Again and again in the history of language, one finds that a perfectly innocent term designating a girl or woman may begin with totally neutral or even positive connotations, but that gradually it acquires negative implications, at first perhaps only slightly disparaging, but after a period of time becoming abusive and ending as a sexual slur.”

There are a gazillion examples of this. Take the word, tart, for instance. Tart started out, of course, as the name of a dessert. Then according to a 1864 Oxford English dictionary definition, it morphed into “an affectionate term for a pleasant or attractive woman … absolutely interchangeable with ‘girl.’” Already here we’re associating women with inanimate, fruity dessert items. But what’s worse is that in later decades, the word began to take on increasingly sluttier connotations; and even though it’s not exactly the hippest slang term today, most of us recognize tart to mean a woman who dresses in a specific way to attract sexual attention from men.

Muriel Schulz found that pejorative terms for women like this are created by men in response to a sort of “sexual fear of women.” These words are then approved by dictionary makers, who, historically, are male, further perpetuating the ideas behind them through writing, commentary, and ultimately the culture at large. In a paper amazingly titled “Bitches and Skankly Hobags: The Place of Women in Contemporary Slang,” Laurel A. Sutton concludes that “the vast landscape of language seems to be a male construct in which women are talked about and talked to but do not themselves speak.” In other words, women become defined by their relationship to men.

This might sound extreme. So let’s look at the numbers. In the late 80s and early 90s, two groups of graduate students at UCLA and UC Berkeley went into the field to compile a list of slang terms used to refer to women and another list for men. They simply eavesdropped on conversations overheard in public and recorded any relevant terms. Once the data was in front of them, they found that almost 90% of the slang terms they recorded for women described them either as “objects, prostitutes, dumb, rude or evil,” as opposed to the slang terms for men, only 46% of which were at all negative. While some of these female terms we’ve heard many times (i.e., jailbait, slut, hobag), some were particularly innovative (hellpig is an example that sticks out… a domesticated animal and a devil all in one!).

Interestingly enough, however, the data presented just two slang words that women actually use among themselves as terms of affection: one of them was ho (“Whaddup hos?!” is, unfortunately, something I have indeed said once or twice upon entering a room of my friends); and the other was — you guessed it — bitch.

Obviously, the connotations of bitch have shifted since the year 1400 when it was used to describe a lewd, licentious women. I don’t know about you, but my intuition points to bitch having pruder, meaner, more stuck-up connotations than that. To figure this out, our linguist from Southern Illinois University conveniently outlined the timeline of bitch implications, starting with female dog, then moving onto prostitute, shifting then to a sort of servant (“Go fetch me my tea, bitch”), then onto an unpleasant person, and finally adopting the verbal form meaning “to complain” (“Sorry for bitching so much about my job”). He also surveyed a small population sample to find out the primary descriptors currently associated with the word, and ultimately determined those to be: “active, excitable, competitive, feminine and insensitive” (which personally don’t sound so bad to me).

In the past few years, a conclusively positive reappropriation of bitch has also risen, just as the UC studies found. This has been particularly noted in Valley Girl speak (can’t you just hear Paris Hilton in your mind saying, “Hey bitches, let’s go shopping”) and also in the gay community. It’s been theorized that this new meaning “may derive from that characteristic of flashiness, colorfulness, and glitter” associated with the lewd bitches of 1400AD.

All things considered, bitch probably isn’t going anywhere soon. Because, at the end of the day, like the Cumberbitches said, the word is simply fun to say. And believe it or not, there’s even a linguistic reason for that.

Listen close, and you’ll realize that some of our language’s favorite, most used, and often earliest words all have something in common. Take baby’s first meaningful utterances — “dada,” “mama” — and compare them to any of our most prevailing slang words, including “bitch” of course, but also “dick,” “tit,” “cunt,” “pimp,” and the treasured “fuck.” All these words feature plosive consonants (that’s “b,” “p,” “d,” “t,” “g,” “k”) and/or the nasal consonant “m.” It’s been proven that words with these sounds have a tendency to stick, not just in English, but in languages around the world (think of all the foreign curse words you know!). Plosives are systematically humans’ favorite consonants from birth. Thus, bitch, with its wonderfully uncumbersome single syllable and strong plosive opener, offers the very phonological recipe for remaining a beloved English word for the long haul.

And if Benedict Cumberbatch’s pun-loving fans are okay with that, and science doesn’t mind either, then I think there might room in feminism for bitch after all.

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