March 04, 2004


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 Hat, Semantic Compositions, Will 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 Wymmen{em}and slottes y suppose hit mene. 1483 Cath. Angl. 345/2 A Slute, vbi foule. 1530 PALSGR. 271/2 Slutte, souilliart, uilotiere. 1581 G. PETTIE Guazzo's Civ. Conv. III. (1586) 137b, I haue noted often those dames which are so curious in their attire, to be verie sluttes in their houses. 1621 BURTON Anat. Mel. To Rdr. 24 Women are all day a dressing, to pleasure other men abroad, and go like sluts at home. 1715 HEARNE Collect. (O.H.S.) V. 98 Nor was she a Woman of any Beauty, but was a nasty Slut. a1763 SHENSTONE Odes Wks. (1765) 190 She's ugly, she's old,..And a slut, and a scold. 1848 KINGSLEY Saint's Trag. II. viii, Almshouses For sluts whose husbands died. 1883 S. C. HALL Retrospect II. 249 She looked the part of a ragged, slatternly, dirty slut.
  fig. 1602 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.
  c1450 St. 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. Obs.
  c1460 J. 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.
  c1450 Cov. Myst. (Shaks. Soc.) 218 Com forth, thou sloveyn! com forthe, thou slutte! c1515 Cocke Lorell's B. 11 Sluttes, drabbes, and counseyll whystelers. 1577-82 BRETON 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. 1621 BURTON Anat. Mel. I. ii. IV. i. (1651) 143 A peevish drunken flurt, a waspish cholerick slut. 1698 FRYER Acc. E. India & P. 375 Disputes of their Religion, in which he found the crafty Slut would involve him. 1742 FIELDING J. Andrews II. iv, I never knew any of these forward sluts come to good. 1777 SHERIDAN Trip to Scarborough IV. i, These lords have a power of wealth indeed, yet, as I've heard say, they give it all to their sluts and their trulls. 1839 DICKENS Nich. Nick. xviii, Never let anybody who is a friend of mine speak to her; a slut, a hussy. 1848 {emem} Dombey xliv, Does that bold-faced slut intend to take her warning, or does she not? 1881 BESANT & RICE Chapl. of Fl. I. xii, My lord shall marry this extravagant slut.
  fig. 1602 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.
  transf. 1862 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 ‘sluts’{em}twisted 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.
  a1864 GESNER 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.
  1573 TUSSER Husb. (1878) 167 Sluts corners auoided shall further thy health. 1583 GOLDING Calvin on Deut. cxxxiii. 814 Our house shalbe swept, & we will good heed yt no sluts corner be left. 1608 TOPSELL Serpents (1658) 779 Rubbing, brushing, spunging, making clean sluts-corners. 1710 SWIFT 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.] 1750 W. ELLIS Country Housew. Comp. 21 There is often what we call slutts-pennies among the bread, that will appear and eat like kernels. 1862 Sat. Rev. 15 Mar. 298 There are a good many slut-holes in London to rake out. 1862 Edin. Rev. Apr. 410 Upstairs there is ‘slut's wool’ under the beds. 1893 Westm. Rev. Jan. 17 She would also..see that floors were scrubbed, and corners clear of ‘slut's-wool’, and spiders well kept down.
Posted by Mark Liberman at March 4, 2004 08:20 AM