Meet the New Bitch

The curious evolution of a slur

June Jullien/The Atlantic

In December, The Oxford English Dictionary added bitchingly to its pages, dating it to a 1923 letter from Ernest Hemingway: “I’m so … damned, bitchingly, sickeningly tired that anything I do will be of little value.” The citation feels appropriate: Hemingway adored the word bitch and its derivatives, applying them not just to women but also to bad editors, Spanish dictators, and enormous deer. His bitch could be a vicious slap in the face: of Gertrude Stein, he wrote, “If anyone was ever a bitch that woman was a bitch.” But he also used the word to exemplify prized qualities—ferocity, edginess, grit—as when he described a “bitch of a squall” blowing outside, or called himself a “son of a bitch sans peur.”

Bitch is, of course, one of the oldest ways to insult a woman in English: an 18th-century slang dictionary called it “the most offensive appellation that can be given to an English woman, even more provoking than that of whore.” And yet, the word has evolved in unexpected ways, ending up with some strangely positive connotations. See the contrast between the two OED definitions for bitchingly. The second definition has all the shrewishness implied by bitch: “in a resentful manner; complainingly.” But bitchingly’s primary definition—“as an intensifier: very, extremely”—is anything but demeaning. Today, bitch can even be an affirmation: “I’m a boss-ass bitch,” Nicki Minaj chants on a 2013 track. How did the word come to mean so many things?

The original meaning of bitch (female dog) dates to 1000 a.d.; as early as the 15th century, men were using it to refer to women, too. (See the Chester Mystery Plays: “Whom calleste thou queine, skabde biche?”) As time went on, the word became a magnet for the worst things men think about women (and gay men).

Yet bitch, even early on, and even out of the mouths of straight men, could occasionally have a perversely empowering effect. Though the insult originally implied a lewd woman, it could also refer to an aggressive or powerful woman—albeit powerful thanks to her sexual dominance and not, say, her skill at mathematics. Green’s Dictionary of Slang quotes the Earl of Rochester’s 1673 poem “A Ramble in St. James’s Park”: “So a proud Bitch does lead about / Of humble Currs the Am’rous Rout.” In Saul Bellow’s 1964 novel, Herzog, the narrator describes his ex-wife thusly: “A strong-minded bitch … Terrifically attractive. Loves to make up her mind.”

In the 1920s, gay men began remaking bitch into something friendlier still, spinning a mini-lexicon around the term—from bitchery (gay bar) to bitched up (dressed up)—and using bitch as a jocular greeting. The intensifying adjective bitching came into use around the same time. Although it began as a bitter negative, it went Malibu-sunny in the 1957 surf novel Gidget: “Bitchen surf coming up, Cass.” See also: “Choo Choo, you’re boss! Fab! Gear! Bitchin’!” from the 1967 novel The Sweet Ride. (It’s fairly common for slang words to make this shift: think wicked, bad, sick.)

Then, in 1970, the feminist writer Jo Freeman’s “Bitch Manifesto” kicked off a series of feminist efforts to reappropriate the insult. More recently, the campaign to lay claim to bitch has taken a pop-cultural swerve, from Tina Fey’s “Bitches get stuff done!” mantra to Madonna’s new song Unapologetic Bitch. In the past few years, the FCC has pretty much given up on censoring it, with the result that it’s now ubiquitous on television. (It was deployed so regularly on Breaking Bad that the actor Aaron Paul recently put out an app featuring himself saying “Yo, bitch!” in different tones of voice.)

Bitch hasn’t totally lost its bite, though. Terms like basic bitch may now be socially acceptable, but they are still insults. In December, just as bitchingly was making its OED debut, a woman sued the Baltimore Police Department after an officer called her a “dumb bitch” as he tased her. But the word’s lingering power as a slur isn’t necessarily all bad for women: in 2013, Adam Galinsky, a psychologist at Columbia Business School, published research suggesting that when individual members of a group self-label with derogatory terms like bitch and queer, others view those individuals as more powerful.