The Grammarphobia Blog

A “bitch” of a word

Q: I take my beagle puppy, Lucy, to obedience class, but it makes me uncomfortable whenever the instructor refers to her as a bitch. I can’t help thinking about the word’s other meaning. Did it always have a negative connotation?

A. The word “bitch” is quite old and was around for centuries before it took on its negative meanings. It comes from an Old English word, “bicce,” which dates back to the year 1000 or so and means a female dog.

The Old English word, in turn, may have come from Old Icelandic or Old Danish. Hugh Rawson, in his book Wicked Words, suggests that it may also be related to “bestia,” the Latin word for beast.

“Bitch” didn’t become a derogatory term for a woman until the early 15th century. The first published negative reference in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from about 1400 and apparently refers to a lewd woman.

Interestingly, the word was used for men as well as women from about 1500 to the early 20th century, according to the OED, but the meaning was more humorous than disparaging when applied to men. It meant something akin to the word “dog” in the contemporary expression “you old dog.”

The noun “bitch,” which has taken on additional meanings over the years, is now used for a female dog, a nasty woman, a complaint, a difficult task, or a tough problem, among other things.

By the way, the next time you’re in obedience class, remember that “bitch” has been used for a nice puppy a lot longer than it’s been used to mean a nasty woman.

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