Monday, 23 September 2013

Sluts, Slags and Pantaloni

It seems that semantic shifts are now headline news. For those of you not in the UK, politics now rests upon the shifting usage of the word "slut". This is because a politician by the name of Godfrey Bloom decided to call some ladies "sluts". He was then rather astonished when the press picked up on this and even went so far as to ask my poor dear sister-in-law (who's a journalist) "Hasn't your mother ever called you a slut?"

His explanation for all this is that he was using slut to mean untidy woman as opposed to lascivious woman, and that this was the True Meaning. As his press secretary put it, journalists "don't understand the difference between 'slut' and 'slag'. That's a lack of grammar school education."

Before we go any further, we should get some facts straight:

1) Slut did once mean untidy woman. That's the first recorded meaning back in 1402. In fact, I've even written about the old meaning before.

2) Slut is first recorded as lascivious woman in 1450. This does not count as a peculiarly modern usage, even by my standards.

3) Both usages were still going strong in the C19th.

4) The OED has no citations of slut in either sense later than 1894, which is jolly unhelpful, but see below.

5) There is no recorded usage of the word slag as lascivious lady until 1958.

I shan't make any jokes about the perils of a grammar school education, although it is rather tempting.

Now, as I understand it (and I rarely understand anything in the news), Mr Bloom is saying that back when he was a lad slut meant untidy woman almost exclusively. That you could happily go up to a strange lady and call her a slut and no sexual inference would be taken. Her husband, if he were standing by, would say something like "Well you don't dust nearly as much as you could". Or something like that.

This is checkable. Mr Bloom was born in November 1949. Assuming usual child development he wouldn't have started talking until the 1950s. So I scuttled off to Google Book search, where you can search to see how a particular word was used in any given year.

So I searched for slut in 1953, 63, 73, 83, 93 and 2003, miserably aware of what it would do to my Google Suggested Pages*. Then I went through the first few pages of search results for each year, noting down any usage whose meaning was clear. I ignored, of course, reprints, historical novels et cetera. This isn't exhaustive, but it gives a good representative sample.

Every single damned one was sexual.

Here are some samples:

"what do I care for the fornications of a slut?"

"But that wasn't enough punishment for that lewd slut ! I am sure she bedded with Tong, even after that fool of a Kou had made her his second lady."

"Your mother's not a slut? That truck comes at night to honk the horn, eh? Not a whore?"
"the boys around here say l'm a slut, but l'm not — I'm really a virgin."

 There is something other than a difference in the cognitive content between the word pairs: slut and daughter of joy

She would have intercourse with men in a rather indiscriminate way and then would hate herself for this, saying that she was just a "slut" and "should be dead."

And so on and so forth. The one and only exception I found was in 1993, in a book called Good Girls Don't Wear Trousers.

Before I go any further, let me tell you the local definition of a slut; it isn't a woman who sells her body to a rich, demanding man. Here, a slut is any woman who doesn't dress of behave in the way that is considered proper. Not that women like this are, by definition, promiscuous - in fact they hardly ever have a chance.

I thought, when I found that, that I had exonerated Mr Bloom, and could write a reassuring letter to my sister-in-law. But, Alas! It's not in English. Good Girls Don't Wear Trousers is the English translation of Volevo I Pantaloni, and the village slut is... well I can't be bothered to buy the original book and find out... it's something in Italian. There may have been untidy sluts in the last sixty years, but I didn't find them.

So... well... I 'm afraid that Mr Bloom must have been brought up in a rather eccentric home, if he was brought up at all. He must also have lived an almost monastic life of solitude and retreat from the world, as if you do go around cheerily using the word slut to all and sundry, you tend to get your face punched in.

It's rather like... actually, that's a fantastic idea. I'm going to buy a newspaper and then print a massive front page headline:


And then underneath, the small-print article will say.

David Cameron is feeling carefree. A Downing Street spokesman confirmed last night that the Prime Minister was filled with joie de vivre and bonhomie...

There is, though, an old word for an untidy room - a sluttery. The OED has one citation from 1841.

A pre-1958 slag

*I was once researching some local history. I found an old map on which the King's Cross Road was marked as "Black Mary's Hole". Curious, I decided to Google it. I actually crossed myself before clicking Search. As it turned out, the very first search result was an article about the history of the Kings Cross Road.


  1. Italian title is Volevo i Pantaloni; if you can point to me where in the book is the word, I can check if some friend of mine has it or if I can find it in a library.

    1. Thanks. Corrected. It might be interesting to know what the word was, but don't put yourself out as it doesn't really change the argument. I was merely surprised that the only exception turned out to not be in English.

  2. Oddly (or unoddly) enough the american Chambers Dictionary of Etymology glosses slut as n. 1402 slutte slovenly woman, in Hoccleve's Letter of Cupid; later, woman of loose morals (probably before 1474), of uncertain origin; prob cognate with dialectical German Schutt, Schlutte (not sure why they capitalised these middle german nouns. Capitalisation did not come to the fore, of nouns in germ and eng until much later on, and largely died out in eng)slovenly woman. dial Swedish slata idle woman, slut, Dutch slodde slodder slut, old Icelandic slodhra drag oneself forward (lol(I must lol here, it's required)), middle High German slottern, sluttern to hand loosely, dangle, tremble, shake. What i don't under stand is why words such as shit, fuck, cunt etc, etc are not glossed at all in this american dictionary. These are standard, very old ENGLISH words. Not glossing them will not make them go away, nor cause us to stop their use. This kind of mindless childness belongs with the attitude that nudity in films needs to be censored, obfuscated, omitted and warned in case a child or unerring adult is shocked into seeing such a thing. Nudity is not bad, nor are colourful words, it is the context they are applied or used with or in that can damage.

  3. As Zoe Williams ‏@zoesqwilliams tweeted yesterday: "so many of us manage to unite both meanings. Almost as if it were fated."

  4. A very gay post that made for a more joyful, carefree afternoon.

    On a different tangent, is "slagging off" connected to slag as by-product of smelting or to slag?

  5. Currently reading Derek Raymond's The Crust on its Uppers (first published in 1962), where 'slag' appears constantly. The novel's deliberately scattershot glossary defines the term as 'young third-rate grafters, male or female, unwashed, useless'. ('Slag' can be singular or plural.) The narrator himself is a 'morrie', a better class of criminal altogether (pithily defined in the glossary as 'reverse of slag').

  6. A road sign which caught my eye in Besthorpe, Norfolk was for Slut's Hole Lane! Must admit I was rather glad it was not my address;-)

  7. I think the word Bloom may gave been grasping for is "slattern". Grammar School fail there!

    1. That's exactly what I thought when I heard it:

      From Collins World English Dicitonary

      slattern (ˈslætən)

      — n
      a slovenly woman or girl; slut

      [C17: probably from slattering, from dialect slatter to slop; perhaps from Scandinavian; compare Old Norse sletta to slap]


      — adj


      — n

  8. FFS do'nt type in 'manhole cover' then.......

    Laurie -

  9. Who am I to disagree, but... My wife (born in the late 1970s not in this country) learnt her now fluent English at school and used the word slut in the same way as Mr Bloom until I explained that this would be misinterpreted. I don't think Mr Bloom has ever been an English teacher abroad, so something else must be going on.

  10. Is there a UK/US difference? My mother (UK born in 1939) understands 'slut' to mean 'slattern', as in the famous Katherine Whitehorn column from 1964. Maybe many of your Google book sources are American. Not that I have any desire to defend Bloom. Insulting women for poor housework or loose morals is equally indefensible in my book!

  11. And here's a reference to the column I mean. Very influential for women young in the 60s, I believe