Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Attempt to Rehabilitate a Four-Letter Word

(The following article appeared in the September edition of Lexpert under the title "Can Bad Words Be Saved?")

The attempt to rehabilitate a four-letter word


Howard Richler

Little did police constable Michael Sanguinetti realize that his not very common name would one day elicit over one million hits following his ill-advised use of a four letter word while addressing a group of students at Osgoode Law School on matters of health and safety. In case you haven't heard, Sanguinetti advised women to “avoid dressing like sluts” in order to mitigate the risk of sexual assault.

Feeling that Sanguinetti's comments were implying that victims were responsible for being attacked, a “SlutWalk” took place in Toronto in April attracting over 3,000 angry demonstrators. Before long this type of march went viral and as I write over fifty slutwalks have been held in various North American cities, such as the Montreal, Chicago and Los Angeles as well as similar events in Melbourne, Amsterdam and London.

Slutwalktoronto.com states :“Historically, the term ‘slut’ has carried a predominantly negative connotation. Aimed at those who are sexually promiscuous, be it for work or pleasure, it has primarily been women who have suffered under the burden of this label. And whether dished out as a serious indictment of one’s character or merely as a flippant insult, the intent behind the word is always to wound, so we’re taking it back. “Slut' is being re-appropriated.”

This raises the following question: Can the meaning of slut be rehabilitated?

Before answering this question, it might be instructive to look at the etymology of “slut.”

The OED offers two main definitions of slut: a) “A woman of dirty, slovenly, or untidy habits or appearance; a foul slattern.” (This sense is still quite common in England, particularly among older people.) b) “A woman of low or loose character; a bold or impudent girl; a hussy, jade.”

Notwithstanding that the “loose” rather than the “slovenly” sense is the dominant one, the latter is listed first because its first usage in the 15th century preceded the second by fifty years. It should be noted that under definition b), the OED mentions that slut can be employed “In playful use, or without serious imputation of bad qualities.”

For example, in in 1664 diarist Samuel Pepys referred to his servant girl Susan as a

most admirable slut who pleases us mightily.” One should note, however, that the last recorded “playful” sense of slut was in 1884 by C.G. Gordon and when Charles Dickens uses the word in Nicholas Nickleby as well as in Dombey & Son decades earlier it carries a strong licentious connotation.

So there can be no doubt that nowadays when both men and women direct the word towards women it is invariably a term of opprobrium. The sense of disdain can range from the relatively mild to the almost vitriolic; seeing a slut as a woman with low self-esteem who dresses provocatively in order to make herself more desirable, to seeing a slut as someone with low moral character who is not selective with whom she copulates. Men are generally not called “sluts” and probably most men would not be concerned if similarly labelled. As a result of the double standard in society, men are more likely to be referred to positively as “studs” or by the somewhat archaic term “ladies' man.”

So to answer the question on whether the term “slut” can be re-appropriated the answer is largely a resounding “NO!.” The reality is that only the people whose attitude towards equality of the genders is not problematic will use “slut” in a non-derogatory manner. In any case, the English words people choose to use is not controllable because no person, or force owns them. For example, while some francophones may be unhappy with all the “anyways” and “randoms” found in their vernacular, as language use is a democratic process nothing can be done about it.

Even if eventually by some process the meaning of the word ameliorated, unless societal attitudes change, before long there would be another pernicious word employed to debase women.

Howard Richler's latest book is Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words.