Following the final episode of "Sex in the City", the word slut
is in the air. Matt
Yglesias (quoting "
Sara Butler and
Nick Troester and
Sara Butler again and
Amy Lamboley"), Language
Baude, Paul Goyette,
and many others have been discussing its denotations, connotations and range
of appropriate usage if any. Technorati gives
8088 hits ("thits"?)
for slut, though a majority of these seem to be use rather than mention
of the term. (It would be nice to have a tool that would show the graph of blogospheric
commentary for a discussion like this -- or does one exist already? Technorati
will show who links to
a specific post, but that's only part of the picture.)
Much of the discussion deals with recent intellectual history -- for instance, Sara Butler's original post presupposes familiarity with three waves of feminism.
Looking at the same ideas in a longer historical span may also help to frame the discussion, and a dictionary constructed on historical principles can help sketch how the ideas behind the words it tracks have changed (or haven't changed)
over time. The OED's
entry for slut is a little exercise in lexicographic sociology, with
a surprising amount of conceptual continuity across the centuries: bad housekeeping,
loose sexuality, general uppitiness and terms of endearment have been all mixed
together since the middle of the 17th century. I was struck by how difficult
it often is to assign the citations clearly to one sense or another, even
more than in most cases of word-sense ambiguity.
In current usage, the sense of promiscuity predominates, along with what the OED calls "playful use, or without serious imputation of bad qualities". For some people, I guess the discussion now is about whether the "playful use" can become the main use, and for others, it's about whether the traditional
"loose character" sense has been or can be purged of its negative connotations.
The word slut itself clearly retains strong negative connotations, quite apart from one's opinions about sexual morality, but such things can change if enough people want them to. I wouldn't use the word myself, not so much because it's offensive as because it projects bad associations based on a framework of ideas that I don't endorse. Embracing the word is one way to confront the framework -- as has been done with some success in the cases of queer and geek -- but slut is a case where attitudes are less polarized and perhaps the underlying issues are also more nuanced.
Here's the whole OED entry:
1. a. A woman of dirty, slovenly, or untidy
habits or appearance; a foul slattern.
1402 HOCCLEVE Letter of
Cupid 237 The foulest slutte of al a tovne. c1440
Pallad. on Husb. IV. 273 Ful ferd is hit for touching of
vnclene Wymmenand slottes y suppose hit
mene. 1483 Cath. Angl. 345/2 A Slute, vbi
foule. 1530 PALSGR. 271/2
Slutte, souilliart, uilotiere.
Guazzo's Civ. Conv.
I haue noted often those dames which are so curious in their attire, to be verie
sluttes in their houses.
To Rdr. 24
Women are all day a dressing, to pleasure other men abroad, and go like sluts
(O.H.S.) V. 98
Nor was she a Woman of any Beauty, but was a nasty Slut.
Wks. (1765) 190
She's ugly, she's old,..And a slut, and a scold.
Almshouses For sluts whose husbands died.
S. C. HALL
She looked the part of a ragged, slatternly, dirty slut.
MARSTON Ant. & Mel. II. Wks. 1856
I. 26 Would'st thou have us sluts and never Shift the vestur of our thoughts?
1642 FULLER Holy & Prof. St.
II. xii, Did Rome herein look upon the dust behind her own doores,
she would have but little cause to call her neighbour slut.
b. A kitchen-maid; a drudge. rare.
Cuthbert (Surtees) 133 The quene her toke to make a slutte, And to vile
services her putt. 1855 J. D. BURN Autobiogr.
Beggar Boy (1859) 68, I lived with him..for nearly six months, and acted
the part of cook, slut, butler, page, footman, and valet de chambre.
c. A troublesome or awkward creature.
RUSSELL Bk. Nurture in Babees Bk. (1868) 158 Crabbe
is a slutt to kerve & a wrawd wight.
2. a. A woman of a low or loose character; a bold or impudent girl; a hussy, jade.
Cov. Myst. (Shaks. Soc.) 218
Com forth, thou sloveyn! com forthe, thou
Cocke Lorell's B. 11
Sluttes, drabbes, and counseyll
Flourish upon Fancie Wks. (Grosart)
I. 6/2 To haunt the Tauernes late,..And swap ech slut
vpon the lippes, that in the darke he meetes.
i. (1651) 143 A peevish drunken flurt, a waspish
Acc. E. India & P. 375
Disputes of their Religion, in which he found the
crafty Slut would involve him.
I never knew any of these forward sluts come to
Trip to Scarborough
These lords have a power of wealth indeed, yet, as I've
heard say, they give it all to their sluts and their
Nich. Nick. xviii,
Never let anybody who is a friend of mine speak to her;
a slut, a hussy.
Dombey xliv, Does that
bold-faced slut intend to take her warning, or does she
Chapl. of Fl.
My lord shall marry this extravagant
KYD Sp. Trag. III. xiia, Night is
a murderous slut, That would not haue her treasons to be seene.
b. In playful use, or without serious imputation
of bad qualities.
1664 PEPYS Diary 21
Feb., Our little girl Susan is a most admirable slut, and pleases us mightily.
1678 BUNYAN Pilgr. I.
112 As the Mother cries out against her Child in her lap, when she calleth it
Slut and naughty Girl, and then falls to hugging and kissing it. 1710-1
SWIFT Lett. (1767) III. 79 Ah! you're a wheedling slut,
you be so. 1740-2 RICHARDSON Pamela
III. 207 Well did the dear Slut describe the Passion I struggled with. 1846
LANDOR Imag. Conv. I. 233 Nanny, thou art a sweet slut.
1884 GORDON Jrnls. (1885) 115 Why
the black sluts would stone me if they thought I meditated such action.
THACKERAY Philip xiii, You see I gave my cousin this dog,..and
the little slut remembers me.
3. A female dog; a bitch. Also attrib.,
as slut-pup. ?orig. U.S.
1821 J. FOWLER
Jrnl. 13 Nov. (1898) 42 A large Slut Which belongs to the Party atacted
the Bare. 1845 G. LAW in Youatt's Dog
(ed. Lewis, 1858) iii. 88 The dog-pup..and the slut-pup. Ibid. 89 The
dog was of a dingy red colour, and the slut black. 1853
W. IRVING in Reader No. 57. 131/3 My little terrier slut
Ginger..having five little Gingers toddling at her heels. 1893
J. INGLIS Oor Ain Folk (1894) 10, Sluts were not so frequently
used for shepherding purposes as dogs, being less tractable.
4. a. A piece of rag dipped in lard or fat and used as a light.
1609 C. BUTLER Fem. Mon.
(1634) 151 Matches are made of linen rags and Brimstone, after the manner that
maids make Sluts. 1852 Blackw. Mag. Mar. 363 Writing
by the light of what Irish Jenny called slutstwisted rags, dipped in lard, and stuck in a bottle. 1886
L. M'LOUTH in Library Mag. Aug. (1887) 64 Sometimes..there
were for additional light, lard sluts, or tallow dips.
b. The guttering of a candle.
Coal, Petrol., etc. (1865) 92 The melted material overflows, and bears
with it the name of slut.
5. Special collocations, as slut's
corner, a corner left uncleaned by a sluttish person; also fig.;
slut-, slut's-hole, a place or receptacle for rubbish; also fig.;
slut's-pennies, hard pieces in a loaf due to imperfect kneading
of the dough; slut's wool, the fluff or dust left on the floor, etc.,
by a sluttish servant or person.
Husb. (1878) 167 Sluts
corners auoided shall further thy health.
Calvin on Deut. cxxxiii. 814
Our house shalbe swept, & we will good heed
yt no sluts corner be
Serpents (1658) 779
Rubbing, brushing, spunging, making clean
On a Broomstick Wks. 1755
II. I. 181
He sets up to be..a remover of grievances, rakes into
every slut's corner of nature [etc.]
Country Housew. Comp. 21
There is often what we call slutts-pennies among the
bread, that will appear and eat like kernels.
Sat. Rev. 15 Mar. 298
There are a good many slut-holes in London to rake
Edin. Rev. Apr. 410
Upstairs there is slut's wool under the
Westm. Rev. Jan. 17
She would also..see that floors were scrubbed, and
corners clear of slut's-wool, and spiders well kept
Posted by Mark Liberman at March 4, 2004 08:20 AM