Sunday, June 6, 2010

When Did "Bitch" Become a Bad Word?

I came across this website about cuss words in Hebrew which had me laughing. In looking over the list, several of the words had to do with females.  For instance, #shar-moota - slutty slut.  Er, just how does one be more of a slut than a slut is already?  Is a slutty slut like the Queen of Sluts?  What determines what makes one particular slut more slutty than another slut?  Is it the number of sexual encounters she has?  Something else (the mind pales at the thought of what that "something else" might be...) What makes a slutty slut?  Is there a name for a male slut - you know, the dudes who brag about those "marks on the bedpost" or "notches on the belt."  Is it something related to  gunk or the like???

There are two words on that list of Hebrew cuss words for bitch:  zonna - whore, bitch; and kelba - bitch. While my linguistics are rusty, I believe that kelba is from a Semitic root word (klb -- kalb or kelb) for dog and the addition of the "a" at the end denotes a female = bitch, the classic definition that exists yet today in English and used in dog-breeding circles to designate a "female dog." 

That got me to wondering - has BITCH always been a derogatory term for a female?  Or was it corrupted somewhere along the line?  Why would the ancient Semitic peoples use the term "female dog" in a derogatory sense as applied to human females, and when did this come about? 

According to my trusty "The Woman's Eycyclopedia of Myths and Secrets" by Barbara Walker:

[Bitch] became a naughty word in Christian Europe because it was one of the most sacred titles of the Goddess, Artemis-Diana, leader of the Scythian alani or "hunting dogs."  The Bitch-goddess of antiquity was known in all Indo-European cultures, beginning with the Great Bitch Sarama who led the Vedic dogs of death.  The Old English word for a hunting dog, bawd, also became a naughty word because it applied to the divine Huntress's promiscuous prietesses as well as her dogs.(1)

Harlots and "bitches" were identified in the ancient Roman cult of the Goddess Lupa, the Wolf Bitch, whose priestesses the lupae gave their name to prostitutes in general.(2)  Earthly representatives of the Wolf Bitch ruled the Roman town of Ira Flavia in Spain, as a queen or series of queens named Lupa.(3)

In Christian terms, "son of a bitch" was considered insulting not because it meant a dog, but because it meant a devil - that is, a spiritual son of the pagan Goddess.


(1) Potter & Sargent, 208.
(2) Murstein, 76.
(3) Hartley, 237.
Hmmmm, well, I don't think the term became an insult just during the advent of Christianity, although I think Walker raises some key points.

I won't pretend I've studied this - and I've got to get outside and prune some more hedges while the sun is shining so this is going to be conveniently short :) - but I think it is more a cultural thing.  The speakers of semitic languages (such as the cultures stemming from Mesopotamia, including the Hebrews) seemed to hold dogs in little regard while speakers of hamitic languages (such as the ancient Egyptians) and pre-Christian speakers of Indo-European languages seemed to hold dogs in higher regard.


Anonymous said...

Very helpful an good learning

bitchAboutIt said...

I think the time of "bitch" being a bad word has already come and gone. It's used as a placeholder for so many things in our culture, that I think it is silly to be offended by it. I did a video on its use in pop culture -

Raven said...

The Greek goddess of witchcraft, Hecate, venerated by the fearsome Thessalian witches who could draw down the Moon, and often depicted in a trinity of Queens of the Underworld with Persephone and Demeter, was associated with dogs, especially female dogs, and dogs were even sacrificed to her; sometimes she was depicted with a dog’s head (or three); thus she was the original Bitch-Goddess. To be called a bitch or son-of-a-bitch thus was not only to be called an animal, but by that famed association to have imputed an accusation of witchcraft.

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