Dialectal “Bitch” (circa 1898)

dog tea time

In Victorian uni slang, one word referred to both the above animal and caffeinated beverage.

I doubt one could pinpoint the moment English-speakers started using the derogatory sense of “bitch” (meaning, roughly, “ill-tempered woman”). Given our awful tendency toward misogynistic coinages, people probably called female humans “bitches” all of five minutes after they started using the word to reference female dogs. 

I’m being slightly facetious. But turning female animal words into pejorative slurs is an unfortunate universal throughout English’s history: just look at such contemptuous and/or overtly sexual reworkings as “sow,” “cow,” “dam” (quite the insult in Shakespeare), and “vixen.”

And yet “bitch” has often been used in curiously non-misogynistic ways. In my own lifetime, I’ve heard of “to bitch” (meaning to complain), “bitchin’” (surfer-ish term meaning “awesome”), and inanimate “bitch” (as in “up in this bitch,” meaning “in this club/bar etc.”).

Such creative disarmaments are nothing new. Note how varied the definitions were in Joseph Wright’s The English Dialect Dictionary (published in 1898; format slightly altered for clarity):

BITCHsb.1 Scottish, Northumberland, Yorkshire, Somerset. [bɪtʃ]

1. A term applied, with no disrespectful meaning, to a woman or female animal.
north Yorkshire: That lass ez a soci bitch. That od bitch, shəs oləs breckin thru t’hedge. (W.H.)

2. A term of contempt applied to a man.
Scotland: Ay, Davie, we’re a queer character, … a queer bitch after a’, STEVENSON Catriona (1892) xi. Somerset: I can tell you, landlord is a vast comical bitch, FIELDING, Tom Jones (1749) Bk. xvii. iii; Allworthy is a queer b___ch (Squire Western loq.) ib. Bk. vi, ii.3.

Compounds: (i) Bitch-daughter, nightmare; (2) bitch-fox, a vixen; (3) bitch-nail, a holding-down nail for tram-plates, &c., having the point faced in the same line as the head, as distinguished from the dog-nail or dog (q. v.); (4) bitch-and-pups, a mason’s hammer, having on chisel inserted at each end of its face.
(i) w. Yorkshire: We connate shoe’s ridden by the bitch-doughter, ii, 291. (a) w. Somerset: We always say dog-fox and bitch-fox.

BITCH, and sb.2 Ireland, Northumberland, Cheshire, Nottingham. [bɪtʃ]

1. v. To spoil a piece of work.
Northumberland: Ye’ve bitched the hyel job. Cheshire: He was that stoopid he bitched the whole thing.

2. sb. Anything spoiled.
Northumberland: Ye’ve myed a bitch on’t.

BITCHsb. University slang. [bɪtʃ]

1. sb. Tea.
Cambridge: Make me some bitch directly. (Footnote: ‘The word “tea” is never used at Cambridge. It is always called “bitch”.’), Confessions of a Cantab in Blackw. Mag. (1824) XVI. 575.

2. Compound: Bitch-party, tea-party.
Oxford: The studious freshman goeth to a small bitch-party, WHIBLEY Cap and Gown (1889) 176 (FARMER).

I can only imagine the absurdity of an effete young man asking his tea-time companion to “kindly pour us a spot of bitch.”

Joking aside, the first definition is particularly startling in that it implied “no disrespectful meaning.” Is it really possible that in certain rural English dialects a hundred years ago a man could call his wife a “bitch” the same way he might term her “kitten” or “pet?”

Now, obviously, some of the above terms are still derogatory in nature (I doubt Victorian Scotsmen took kindly to being called “bitch” in the local pub). But I can think of few other insults or curse words that have accrued so many diverse meanings. What is it about this particular slur that seems so especially versatile?

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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13 Responses to Dialectal “Bitch” (circa 1898)

  1. Eric Armstrong says:

    Why no reference to the contemporary usage of hip-hop pimp language for whores, as in “my bitches”?

    • The aforementioned “up in this bitch” is definitely hip-hop slang (perhaps a bit misleading; I’m really just referring to a tendency toward using “bitch” to refer to an indefinite “thing”) . It seems an interesting case in which the word started with the misogynistic connotation you mentioned, then somehow shifted.

  2. A few things come to mind with this. One being that I do not believe that your “unrelated” usages are in fact non-misogynistic.

    “he was bitching about it” – “bitch” is turned into a verb, and when nouns are turned into verbs, usually the verb means doing something associated with the noun. So “bitching” is doing something that bitches do, which is complain. More specifically, it’s whiny, unjustifiable complaining, and it’s never used by somebody who is sympathetic to the person in question’s complaints.

    “that was a bitchin’ kickflip” – Again, “bitching” turned into a verb, still associated with bitches, this time being associated with what a virile male does to a group of bitches.

    “up in this bitch” – I’ve never heard this, but the sexual meaning is fairly clear. Again, using a word that is associated with women to represent an inanimate object which is having something done to it.

    The Yorkshire definitions were printed in 1898, when using the same words for women and female animals wouldn’t have been considered a problem. Likewise, the use of them as a slur towards men implies that “bitch” did have it’s full derogatory meaning. Likewise, I don’t think that any use of “bitched” as in having “bitched” a thing can be deemed non-misogynistic, since again, it carries an implication that screwing up is a thing that women do. Again, I don’t think it’s an accident that a “bitch-party” is a name given to fancy tea parties by young college men.

    So, what is it about “bitch” that makes it such a versatile word? I think a lot of people who don’t think carefully about what they are saying have a lot of use for a word which loosely refers to something which has things done to it not of its own will, or which is held in less esteem. It’s the same reason kids say “that’s gay”. They use words linked to something they value less in order to disparage other things and also assert their own power. That said, I don’t think that when kids say “that’s bitchin'” or “stop bitching” they are being misogynistic, in the same way that they will assert that saying “that’s gay” is not inherently homophobic, though many people will recognize the obvious problems with something that has a primary meaning of “homosexual” also being used for “stupid” or “lame”. It’s the unconscious associations.

    • sdp says:

      Is “bitch” in the sense of to spoil/cock up not more likely just to be a variant of “botch”?

      • That did occur to me. I really don’t know. Or “botched” came from “bitched”?

      • @The Musicompsci,

        Although many of these terms may have had misogynistic origins, I would argue those origins are more obscure than the homophobic origins of “that’s gay,” since that phrase doesn’t so radically strip “gay” of its semantic and grammatical properties. By contrast, “up in this bitch,” removes the word’s animacy; while for both “to bitch” and “bitching,” the word is denominalized (and made into a participle in the latter case).

        @sdp,

        Very good point! In fact, Wright mentions another variant of “bitch” which refers to a type of mining tool. BUT he notes that this is actually a corruption of another word, “beche.” So it’s likewise very possible “bitch” is a variant of “botch” (or similar words).

  3. Jack Trawick says:

    One summer during my college years, I worked in a factory here in Kentucky with a colleague who frequently used a form of “bitch” within his daily lunchtime soliloquies. In this case, however, my colleague was referencing the colloquialism – presumably derived from the anthropomorphic “bitch” – referring instead to the male offspring of said bitch; that being, “son of a bitch.” However, my colleague contracted this larger expression via the filter of a local vernacular , so that his own coinage became part of his typically rapid-fire delivery of a tale. Sometimes his “sumbitch” – spoken with neither syllable accented, and with only perhaps the “b” slightly more pronounced – would refer to a person to suggest some special but otherwise ambiguous quality of character. However, sumbitch was more often used as a pronoun – where “he” would have seemed insufficient and otherwise colorless. In cases where my colleague wished to be more emphatic in his antecedent-less reference, the modifier “that” would precede, i.e. “that sumbitch,” although there was no malice in either his regular usage, or even in the emphatic.

    More recently, following the victory by our local university in the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball tournament, I encountered a young woman wearing a particularly expressive t-shirt that read, “If You Don’t Love My Cards, I’m Gonna Kick Your Bitchin’ Ass.” I would seek your comment on the approximate meaning, in this case, of the adjective form of “bitch,” although I sense within the context that the use is of a disparaging or condescending nature, somewhat akin to the meaning implied by the 1898 coinage, referenced above.

    • Good question! Although I’m not sure about this type of “bitchin’,” a quick search of Google Books reveals the occasional use of “son-of-a-bitching” from around 1920’s onward. Intriguingly, quite a few of these appear in works detailing the Southern Midland/Inland South–Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, southern Illinois, etc–although I have no idea if there’s a real connection to that region.

      Still, I must admit I’m puzzled by that one. I have heard “bitch ass” where the first word is an adjective and the second is a noun; “I’m gonna kick your bitch ass” would actually not sound strange to me. “Bitchin ass” strikes me as a peculiar variation.

      • Joseph L. Weatherby says:

        The colloquial structure, “Your (adjective or present participle) ass” is associated with African American Vernacular English and Southern American Vernacular English. It is a more colorful way of saying the pronoun “you”. When the present participle is used, the speaker is noting a habitual act in which the object, who in this case is the listener, engages.

        Consider this hypothetical case of a telephone conversation between two old friends. [Friend A] has a regular job in a city and [Friend B] is a musician on tour.

        [Friend A] says to [Friend B] “When you comin’ home? I miss your singin’ ass!”

        Other versions of this structure are common as well-
        “Tell her sexy ass to come to the party!”
        (Tell her to come to the party)
        “I’m gonna take my sleepy ass to bed.”
        (I’m going to take myself to bed)

        I think in the case of “If you don’t love my cards, I’m going to kick your bitchin’ ass”, the word “bitchin'” is used to describe the person as someone who complains.

  4. Ed says:

    One problem with the English Dialect Dictionary is that it doesn’t indicate whether the words were still in common use at the time of writing. The title says that the dictionary includes all dialect words “known to have been in use during the last two hundred years”. Some of these uses of “bitch” might be very old.

    There’s also the case of the word “wench”, seen on this page of the English Dialect Dictionary. I believe that this word is used to mean a prostitute in some parts of North America as well as in parts of Britain. This is the third entry for the word given here, but the first entry says that it could be an endearing term or the female equivalent of “lad”.

    Most of Joseph Wright’s informants were men. We might’ve had a different perspective on some of these words had there been more female informants.

    • @Ed,

      I think it’s fair to say that the EDD wouldn’t entirely pass muster by the standards of 21st-Century sociolinguistics; as you mention, Wright participated in the bizarre practice of female subject exclusion that marred many great older dialect studies.

      That being said, that first definition listed was from one of the Wright’s “correspondents” (indicated by the initial), so it was presumably more contemporary than some of the others. Of course, many entries in Wright’s work seem based on the attestation of a single speaker, so it’s difficult to say just how widespread many of them were.

  5. oneblankspace says:

    From Shakespeare, King Lear, Act II, scene 2, emphasis added :

    Oswald. What dost thou know me for?

    Earl of Kent. A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking knave, a whoreson, glass-gazing, superserviceable, fincial rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd, in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch; one whom I will beat into clamorous whining, if thou deniest the least syllable of thy addition.

    The question arises here as to whether a simple ‘son of a bitch’ was a sufficient insult.

  6. Christopher Williams says:

    Is it really possible that in certain rural English dialects a hundred years ago a man could call his wife a “bitch” the same way he might term her “kitten” or “pet?”

    Why not? It’s currently used that way by both males and females when speaking endearingly to close friends. “Hey bitch!” is a common greeting between friends. “These are my bitches!” is also another way of using bitch endearingly to signify that they are very close friends.