Etymology Usage

Is “bimbo” a naughty word?

Q: I enjoyed the wordplay in Woe Is I, but I was offended by this example in the chapter on plurals: “Romeos who wear tattoos and invite bimbos to their studios to see their portfolios are likely to be gigolos.” I’m not a prude, but I found the word “bimbo” to be inappropriate in a book professing to teach better English. I most likely will not let my 10-year-old daughter use this book as a reference.

A: We’re sorry that you were offended by the word “bimbo” in the “Plurals Before Swine” chapter of Pat’s grammar and usage book Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English.

But we’re surprised by your objection to “bimbo.” We looked it up in eight standard dictionaries and none of them label it offensive. It’s usually listed as slang but some dictionaries consider it standard English.

Although most of the dictionaries say a “bimbo” can be a man or a woman, it’s generally defined as an attractive, empty-headed woman. A couple of references add that the woman is loose or sexy.

Pat thought “bimbo” to be a mild, rather quaint term. It comes from the Italian word for “baby” (bimbo), and in its sexiest sense is roughly analogous to masculine terms like “Romeo” and “gigolo,” which are also used in the example that bothers you.

Interestingly, the word was originally applied to men, not women, when it entered English in the early 20th century.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word in its original sense this way: “A fellow, chap; usu. contemptuous.”

The earliest citation in the OED for this sense is from the November 1919 issue of the American Magazine: “Nothing but the most heroic measures will save the poor bimbo.”

Here’s a more recent masculine example, from Full Moon (1947), one of the few P. G. Wodehouse novels we haven’t read: “Bimbos who went about the place making passes at innocent girls after discarding their wives.”

Although the word “bimbo” has sometimes been used to mean a prostitute, the OED says it’s usually used now as a derogatory term for “a young woman considered to be sexually attractive but of limited intelligence.”

Here’s an example from The Whore of Mensa, a short story in Woody Allen’s 1976 collection Without Feathers: “Sure, a guy can meet all the bimbos he wants. But the really brainy women—they’re not so easy to find.”

By the way, the “whore” in that title is actually a grad student who charges to discuss Milton and Melville, not to have sex. If a client wants something kinkier, she’ll talk about Noam Chomsky and get him a picture of Dwight Macdonald.

Again, we’re sorry you found that example in Woe Is I offensive. As for your 10-year-old daughter, do you know that Pat has written a version of Woe Is I for children? It’s called Woe Is I Jr. No, it doesn’t mention Chomsky, but you can find a few boogers in it.

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