Linguist, lexicographer, radio host, public speaker

What a bitchin’ word!

Read my latest column in the Malaysia Star, bitches.

One of the measures of whether or not a word is considered safe, at least by Americans, is whether or not it’s OK to say it on television during prime time, when the whole family might be watching.

“Bitch” is one of those words.

In its simplest, literal use, a bitch is a female dog. That’s only the smallest part of the story.

In slang use, “bitch” is a derogatory word for a woman, and, occasionally, for a man who acts like a woman, especially when it’s not considered the proper way to behave. To be a bitch is to be ball-busting (verbally aggressive towards men), to be disagreeable, to be difficult to get along with.

Calling someone a bitch is still considered impolite enough to make them smack you, yet it’s not anything that would cause fines to be imposed by government agencies on the television shows that use the word in their scripts.

Indeed, women will sometimes call themselves a bitch, without anger or self-hatred. In those cases, they simply mean that a bitch is a tough, uncompromising woman, usually one who knows what she wants and intends to get it.

Even more facetiously (humorously or flippantly), a woman could refer to all of her female friends as “my bitches”. It’s slangy, it’s very informal, but it’s unlikely to offend because it’s the kind of thing you can say about your inner circle that you simply cannot say about outsiders.

It simply means that, for better or worse, with flaws and all, these women are her friends.

Among men, a bitch is a man who is believed to be weak, fragile, whiny, or complaining. For example, if one man calls another his bitch, he means that the other man is under his control and is being dominated physically, emotionally, or socially. “I’m not your bitch, dude. You can’t make me do that.”

It’s also the negative, undesirably feminine aspect of “bitch” that gives the word its place in the slang terms “bitch tits” and “bitch slap”.

“Bitch tits” are fatty breasts on a man, usually the result of being overweight. It’s a curious combination of words, since “tits”, a crass slang term for “breasts”, usually only means a female body part. “Bitch tits” seems redundant; that is, it kind of says that they’re feminine twice.

A “bitch slap” is a hard smack with an open-handed palm on someone’s face. A bitch slap usually results in a satisfying “smack!” sound; at least, it does if you’re the one doing the smacking.

I suppose this is called a “bitch slap” because it’s the kind of hit perceived as more typical of a woman. A man is expected to punch with a closed fist, not smack someone with an open hand.

The noun, as they tend to do, eventually became a verb. To bitch means to complain or gripe in a constant, annoying way. To bitch out someone means to lecture, chastise, or criticise someone.

A son of a bitch is a bad man, or a man who is tough, stubborn, and unkind. It’s a universal term of abuse that you might call someone simply because you don’t agree with them or they don’t agree with you.

“Son of a bitch” is often abbreviated as SOB, which is not pronounced as a word, but as letters: ESS oh bee, with the emphasis on the first letter. It has the same uses as the longer form.

A milder version of “son of a bitch” is son of a gun, although it’s so tame that it doesn’t carry anywhere near the same force as “son of a bitch”.

Both can be used as exclamations of surprise. “Son of a bitch! They stole a billion dollars?” Or “Well, I’ll be a son of a gun! They even stole my toothbrush!”

Similarly, you might say “What a bitch!” when someone has bad luck like losing a mobile phone or having a small automobile accident, the kind of thing that is annoying and costly but not life-threatening.

A bitch, in this case and others like it, is simply a difficult situation or thing. “That nut is a bitch to get off that bolt” means that it’s hard to get off.

One of the few positive forms of “bitch” is bitching, used as an adjective to mean “good” or “great”. It’s usually spelled and pronounced as without the final ‘g’, as “bitchin’ ”.

It’s a bit dated now, but still heard in music and movies occasionally, especially since it never really seems to have become passé (outdated) in California. “He’s got a bitchin’ new car, man.”

To flip a bitch isn’t really negative or positive. It simply means to make a sudden left turn in a car, especially in a place where such a turn is not usually done.

Why the “bitch” here? I’m not completely sure. A much bandied about stereotype is that women are worse drivers than men. I suppose a sudden, incautious left turn could be seen as a sign of bad driving.

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Grant Barrett