words : Bitch

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The Independent Online
IT MUST have been the loudest confidential whisper ever heard on television. Poor Kathleen Gingrich never meant the American nation to hear her say what her son Newtthought of Hillary Clinton ("She's a bitch"). A gunshot of a word, not easy to say inaudibly, and unfair both to women and to dogs.

Why is "bitch" always insulting? There is no respectable answer to this question. "Dog" is much more ambivalent; though often used in the past of infidels, traitors and other contemptibles, it can also be congratulatory. A lucky dog is an altogether nicer person than a lucky bitch. But four-legged bitches are said to be gentler and more affectionate than dogs. Since the labels have nothing to do with the animals themselves, they can only be about what men think of women. Politically, Mrs G's whisper wasnot merely injudicious: it was also dreadfully Incorrect.

It would be nice to find some etymological excuse for this state of affairs. Perhaps "bitch" was origin-ally a corruption of an Old Norse word for "devil", say, and only later got confused with the furry pet? No such luck. A bitch has always been a female dog; what's more, its first use as an insult, recorded in the OED, dates back to 1400, when it seems to have meant a lewd woman. By the early 19th century it was being used of things as well: "a bitch of a problem". We never say "a dog of a problem", though "a dog" can mean a no-ho per, a bad investment, or a poor play.

But if anything, it gets worse. Our own century coined "to bitch" meaning to complain, to be spiteful and "bitchy", which, in the United States can mean to be sexually provocative, as well as what the OED defines, confusingly, as "catty". "Catty" is alsosexist in origin, because cats were once always "she".

Although Mrs Gingrich was only quoting a man, I guess women nowadays use "bitch" as often as men do. Whatever the PC movement may think of it, there's no stopping it now.

Nicholas Bagnall