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Trying to rehabilitate harmful four-letter words

October 2011

Little did police constable Michael Sanguinetti realize that his not-very-common name would one day elicit over one million Google hits following his ill-advised use of a four-letter word while addressing a group of students at Osgoode Law School on matters of health and safety. In case you haven’t heard, Sanguinetti advised women to “avoid dressing like sluts” to mitigate the risk of sexual assault.

Feeling that Sanguinetti’s comments were implying that victims were responsible for being attacked, a “SlutWalk” took place in Toronto in April, attracting more than 3,000 angry demonstrators.

Before long, this type of march went viral and as I write well over 50 slutwalks have been held in various North American cities, such as Montreal, Chicago and Los Angeles as well as similar events in Melbourne, Amsterdam and London. states: “Historically, the term ‘slut’ has carried a predominantly negative connotation.

“Aimed at those who are sexually promiscuous, be it for work or pleasure, it has primarily been women who have suffered under the burden of this label. And whether dished out as a serious indictment of one’s character or merely as a flippant insult, the intent behind the word is always to wound, so we’re taking it back. ‘Slut’ is being reappropriated.”

This raises the following question: Can the meaning of slut be rehabilitated? Before answering this question, it might be instructive to look at the etymology of “slut.”

The Oxford English Dictionary offers two main definitions: a) “A woman of dirty, slovenly, or untidy habits or appearance; a foul slattern.” (This sense is still quite common in England, particularly among older people); b) “A woman of low or loose character; a bold or impudent girl; a hussy, jade.”

Notwithstanding that the “loose” rather than the “slovenly” sense is the dominant one, the latter is listed first because its first usage in the 15th century preceded the second by 50 years.

It should be noted that under definition b), the OED mentions that slut can be employed “In playful use, or without serious imputation of bad qualities.” For example, in 1664, diarist Samuel Pepys referred to his servant girl Susan as a “most admirable slut who pleases us mightily.”

One should note, however, that the last recorded “playful” sense of slut was in 1884 by C.G. Gordon, and when Charles Dickens uses the word in Nicholas Nickleby as well as in Dombey & Son decades earlier, it carries a strong licentious connotation. So there can be no doubt that nowadays when both men and women direct the word toward women, it is invariably a term of opprobrium.

The sense of disdain can range from the relatively mild to the almost vitriolic; seeing a slut as a woman with low self-esteem who dresses provocatively to make herself more desirable, to seeing a slut as someone with low moral character who is not selective with whom she copulates.

Men are generally not called “sluts” and probably most men would not be concerned if similarly labelled. As a result of the double standard in society, men are more likely to be referred to positively as “studs” or by the somewhat archaic term “ladies’ man.”

So to answer the question on whether the term “slut” can be reappropriated, the answer is largely a resounding “No!”

The reality is that only the people whose attitude toward equality of the genders is not problematic will use “slut” in a non-derogatory manner. In any case, the English words people choose to use is not controllable, because no person or force owns them.

For example, while some francophones might be unhappy with all the “anyways” and “ohmygods” found in their vernacular, as language use is a democratic process; nothing can be done about it.

Even if eventually by some process the meaning of the word is ameliorated, unless societal attitudes change, before long there would be another pernicious word employed to debase women.

Howard Richler’s latest book is Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words.



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