"slang" (1746); favorable insults

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Sat Jul 25 19:18:11 UTC 2009

At 5:01 AM -0400 7/25/09, Jocelyn Limpert wrote:
>As a white woman moving to Washington, DC, in the late '60s I was very
>surprised at how offended a black male friend of mine was when I called him
>a "son of a bitch," almost taking it literally that I was calling him a
>bastard and also calling his mother a bitch -- whereas, I was just saying
>what white people always said to refer to anyone. I would have thought then
>that "motherfucker," which I had never heard until living in DC would have
>been much more offensive, rather than part of the common vernacular among
>blacks, who seemed to think nothing of it and certainly didn't think that
>using it meant one was really fucking one's mother. Now, almost 50 years
>later, I still say "son of a bitch," and am not comfortable saying
>"motherfucker," but I am conscious of not using it around black people
>because of the sensitivity many have to it. Also, I think nothing of
>referring to a woman as "bitch," but try not to refer to black women as
>bitches as they seem to find it very offensive, whereas white women do not
>interpret it the same way.

I'm in between on this.  I've always taken "son of a bitch" to be
essentially negative (ignoring reclamation and fixed contexts, e.g.
"The poor son-of-a-bitch"), but not compositional, any more than
"bastard" really evokes illegitimacy for me.  "Son of a bitch" never
evokes any reference to the referent's mother for me--and while I
never use "bitch" to refer to a woman (as opposed to using "bitch" as
a verb), calling a man "a (real) son of a bitch" (when he's out of
earshot) never strikes me as either generally misogynistic or
specifically insulting to the man's mother.  I'm not sure my
experience is that "white women" as a class don't interpret "bitch"
(as a noun) as "very offensive" or as a strong slur, at least not if
we're to go by many women's claimed reactions to the word; feminist
women in particular have sometimes suggested that "bitch" has
somewhat the same function as a sexist insult (albeit being less
potent) that the n-word does as a racist one, and hence to be
available in a similar way to in-group reclamation.  For younger,
"post-feminist" women, the response may be quite different.


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