Hi. The word 'slut' is, to say the least, loaded with meaning, context, and emotion. In today's installment of MTA, we are going to examine this word to some degree of detail and see if we can learn something new.
Let's begin with definitions 1a and 2a for the noun slut in the Oxford English Dictionary:
- Definition 1a: "A woman of dirty, slovenly, or untidy habits or appearance; a foul slattern."
- Definition 2a: "A woman of a low or loose character; a bold or impudent girl; a hussy, jade."
These definitions, I think, square with what most Americans would consider to be the mainstream meanings for slut. Pretty typical stuff so far.
As far as the etymological origin of the word slut, Douglas Harper's Online Etymology Dictionary contains the following entry for this word (minor editing performed by me for the sake of clarity):
1402, "a dirty, slovenly, or untidy woman," probably cognate with dialectal German Schlutt "slovenly woman," dialectal Swedish slata "idle woman, slut," and Dutch slodder "slut," but the ultimate origin is doubtful. Chaucer uses sluttish (c.1386) in reference to the appearance of an untidy man. Also "a kitchen maid, a drudge" (c.1450; hard pieces in a bread loaf from imperfect kneading were called slut's pennies, 18th century). Meaning "woman of loose character, bold hussy" is attested from c.1450; playful use of the word, without implication of loose morals, is attested from 1664.
The foulest slutte in al a town refuse
Okay. Now that we have the technical descriptivist stuff out of the way, let's get down to some analysis.
Gnaw on the following bit o' wisdom from Mark Liberman at Language Log and let me know what you think:
In current usage, the sense of promiscuity predominates, along with what the OED calls "playful use, or without serious imputation of bad qualities". For some people, I guess the discussion now is about whether the "playful use" can become the main use, and for others, it's about whether the traditional "loose character" sense has been or can be purged of its negative connotations.
The word slut itself clearly retains strong negative connotations, quite apart from one's opinions about sexual morality, but such things can change if enough people want them to. I wouldn't use the word myself, not so much because it's offensive as because it projects bad associations based on a framework of ideas that I don't endorse. Embracing the word is one way to confront the framework—as has been done with some success in the cases of queer and geek—but slut is a case where attitudes are less polarized and perhaps the underlying issues are also more nuanced.
Dr. Liberman strikes to the heart of the matter here. In the contemporary United States, we have two practical usages of slut: the invective usage and the playful usage. The double standard, to my mind, anyway, is that the invective usage of slut appears to be acceptable for use by either gender, while the playful usage of slut is typically reserved for use by ladies only. Why is this the case?
That having been said, I am in full agreement with Dr. Liberman inasmuch that I myself do not use the word slut because I do not support this word's negative and insulting associations.
I myself would not often have occasion to use "slut" (mainly because I feel uncomfortable, as a man, using a word that's a gender-specific insult taking aim at behavior that I feel should not be socially stigmatized for one sex only), but I know women who use it cheerfully and often, and that's fine with me. And on the general issue of "bad language," as an eager consumer of books that use the worst their language has to offer (say, Henry Miller in English, Venedikt Erofeev in Russian), I believe strongly in its effectiveness in the right hands—and, needless to say, in the iniquity of any attempts to restrain it by means of legislation.
Do you agree with Language Hat that the word slut is "socially stigmatized for one sex only"? After all, what do we call a man of "low or loose character"? A male slut? A man-whore? I have heard both of those terms used in contemporary English, but somehow they don't have quite the same jarring effect as a man calling a woman a slut in all seriousness.
With the male gender there is, let's be honest, the biological/genetic imperative. He who impregnates the most females (and therefore passes along his genes and theoretically produces the largest number of offspring) is considered to be the most "reproductively fit," and therefore the...what? Most successful amongst his fellow males? Is sexual virility the real secret to success in life? Maybe all of those late-night infomercials have it right after all!
Just joking. Until next time.