"slang" (1746); favorable insults

Alice Faber faber at HASKINS.YALE.EDU
Sat Jul 25 19:29:52 UTC 2009

Laurence Horn wrote:
> 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.

"Bitch" is definitely available for reclamation, and is so used in some
of the on-line communities I participate in. It would be totally
unexceptional for a forum thread to start: "so, bitches, I have this
awesome lace-weight yarn; what should I knit with it?"

While I'm not the oldest participant by any means (though I'm definitely
above the median in age), this usage made me very uncomfortable at
first, but I've gotten used to it.

Alice Faber                                       faber at haskins.yale.edu
Haskins Laboratories                            tel: (203) 865-6163 x258
New Haven, CT 06511 USA                               fax (203) 865-8963

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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