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:
DAVID CAMERON IS GAY!
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.