Slut or slattern is a term applied to an individual who is considered to have loose sexual morals or who is sexually promiscuous. The term is generally pejorative and most often used as an insult, sexual slur or offensive term of disparagement, meaning "dirty or slovenly". The term has historically been used to describe females in a derogatory manner, only recently being used as a term for men, requiring the clarification term of "male slut". However, in recent times there have been attempts to "reclaim" the word, while some individuals embrace the title as a source of pride.
Although the ultimate origin of the word "slut" is unknown, it first appeared in Middle English in 1402 as slutte (AHD), with the meaning "a dirty, untidy, or slovenly woman". Even earlier, Geoffrey Chaucer used the word sluttish (c. 1386) to describe a slovenly man; however, later uses appear almost exclusively associated with women. The modern sense of "a sexually promiscuous woman" dates to at least 1450.
Another early meaning was "kitchen maid or drudge" (c. 1450), a meaning retained as late as the 18th century, when hard knots of dough found in bread were referred to as "slut's pennies". A notable example of this use is Samuel Pepys's diary description of his servant girl as "an admirable slut" who "pleases us mightily, doing more service than both the others and deserves wages better" (February 1664). "Slut" and "slutishness" occur in Shakespeare's comedy As You Like It, written in 1599 or 1600. In the nineteenth century, the word was used as a euphemism in place of "bitch" in the sense of a female dog.
Similar words appear in Dutch, German and Swedish dialects meaning "a dirty woman," indicating a common ancestor in Germanic languages. The word entered the colloquial Yiddish as "akhsluttishkha" meaning "a hag". It exists in Ukrainian too as slutyj as a loan word from Yiddish or via the mediaeval Scandinavian Varangian colonists in Kievan Rus'. A popular theory connects slut to earlier Germanic forms meaning "slush" or "mud puddle," but this derivation remains in question.
The accepted denotative meaning is a sexually promiscuous woman or "a woman of a low or loose character; a bold or impudent girl; a hussy, jade". These definitions identify a slut as a person of low character—a person who lacks the ability or chooses not to exercise a power of discernment to order their affairs, such as a cad, rake, or womanizer. The adjective "slutty" carries a similar connotation, but can be applied both to people and to clothing and accessories, such as Halloween costumes.
The term slut has therefore frequently been used as an insult. The derogatory power of the term derives both from its denotative meaning of a promiscuous woman, but also from its historical and regional connotations or alternate meanings that identify a slut as a dirty or unkempt person. The lack of a comparable term for men highlights the double standard in societal expectations between males and females. These additional meanings and connotations are negative and identify a slut as being a slovenly and ugly person, for example, as in these quotations from OED2:
- Hearne, 1715: "Nor was she a Woman of any Beauty, but was a nasty Slut."
- Shenstone, 1765: "She's ugly, she's old, ... And a slut, and a scold."
The attack on the character of the person is perhaps best brought together by the highly suggestive and related compound word, slut's-hole, meaning a place or receptacle for rubbish; the associated quote provides a sense of this original meaning:
- Saturday Review (London), 1862: "There are a good many slut-holes in London to rake out."
The British journalist Katharine Whitehorn wrote a famous 1963 article applying this meaning in The Observer: "Have you ever taken anything out of the dirty-clothes basket because it had become, relatively, the cleaner thing? Changed stockings in a taxi? Could you try on clothes in any shop, any time, without worrying about your underclothes? How many things are in the wrong room—cups in the study, boots in the kitchen? ... [this makes] you one of us: the miserable, optimistic, misunderstood race of sluts." This article prompted a flurry of correspondence, with many women writing in to describe their own acts of sluttishness.
The word slut is used as a slang term in the BDSM, polyamorous, and gay and bisexual communities. With BDSM, polyamorous, and non-monogamous people, in usage taken from the book The Ethical Slut, the term has been used as an expression of choice to openly have multiple partners, and revel in that choice: "a slut is a person of any gender who has the courage to lead life according to the radical proposition that sex is nice and pleasure is good for you." A slut is a person who has taken control of their sexuality and has sex with whomever they choose, regardless of religious or social pressures or conventions to conform to a straight-laced monogamous lifestyle committed to one partner for life. The term has been "taken back" to express the rejection of the concept that government, society, or religion may judge or control one's personal liberties, and the right to control one's own sexuality.
British author Helen Fielding used the word in her Bridget Jones series to refer to slovenly or dirty habits, in the original sense still occasionally used in England: "Check plates and cutlery for tell-tale signs of sluttish washing up [...]"
American comedian Margaret Cho summoned the stance of slut pride and the idea of a slut pride parade in one of her stand-up performances, "And I went through this whole thing, you know. I was like: Am I gay? Am I straight? And I realized, I'm just slutty. Where's my parade?", pleading, "What about slut pride?"
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Slut shaming or slut-shaming is a neologism referring to a type of discrimination targeting individuals, specifically women, for sexual behavior deemed excessive. It can be used as a form of victim-blaming for sexual assault and harassment, and some feminists believe that this contributes to rape culture.
- SlutWalk Rally Against Sexual Violence Draws Huge Crowd of Feminists, Rebecca Nathanson, The Village Voice, October 2, 2011
- Oxford English Dictionary[dead link]
- Greer, Germaine (2011-05-12). "These 'slut walk' women are simply fighting for their right to be dirty". The Daily Telegraph (London).
- "Why is the word 'slut' so powerful?". BBC News. 2011-05-09.
- Harper, Douglas. "slut". Online Etymology Dictionary.
- "Samuel Pepys Diary February 1664 complete". Pepys.info. Retrieved 2012-08-27.
- Shakespeare, William. As You Like It (III, iii, 1531–1537). "[Audrey:] Well, I am not fair; and therefore I pray the gods make me / honest. / [Touchstone:] Truly, and to cast away honesty upon a foul slut were / to put good meat into an unclean dish. / [Audrey:] I am not a slut, though I thank the gods I am foul. / [Touchstone:] Well, praised be the gods for thy foulness; / sluttishness may come hereafter. ..."
- A Dictionary of English Synonymes and Synonymous Or Parallel Expressions By Richard Soule - 1891. Books.google.com. Retrieved 2012-08-27.
- Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (abridged) entry for 'slut'
- Oxford English Dictionary (unabridged), Second Edition entry for 'slut'
- GW Hatchet, "What's the Deal with Slutty Halloween Costumes?"
- http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50228191/50228191se4 Dictionary.oed.com
- "Columnists: How to Succeed as a Slut". Time. 1964-01-24. Retrieved 2010-05-23.
- Dossie Easton, Catherine A. Liszt. 1997. The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities.Greenery Press. ISBN 1-890159-01-8
- Easton, Dossie; Catherine A. Liszt (1997). The Ethical Slut. San Francisco: Greenery Press. p. 4. ISBN 1-890159-01-8. "emphasis in original"
- Fielding, Helen (1996-02-07). "Bridget Jones's Diary". The Independent (London). Retrieved 2009-08-03.
- Cho, Margaret. I'm the One That I Want (2000).
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