Bitch. You have heard it countless times in your life, maybe even countless times since you woke up today. Maybe it strikes you as offensive or perhaps it rolls off your tongue without a thought. Before you dismiss the word either as completely acceptable or completely unacceptable, it is worth breaking down what the word means into both its denotations and its connotations.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, bitch has the following definitions:
“The female of the dog” and when “applied opprobriously to a woman; strictly, a lewd or sensual woman. Not now in decent use; but formerly common in literature. In modern use, especially a malicious or treacherous woman; of things: something outstandingly difficult or unpleasant.” This second, vulgarized definition of bitch dates back to literature in the early 1400s.
Now let’s look at the differences in meaning in context.
“You’re such a bitch.” This use of the word is a mean spirited put down that can be used for a variety of reasons usually to connote that a woman is a heartless, cold, uncaring or generally off-putting person. It usually has little sexual undertones except when used by a person who is angry that he or she has been denied sex.
“My bitch!” In this context, that of a greeting between close friends, bitch is intended to be a compliment. However, this term of endearment is less sweet than a word like bae, sister, bestie or girlfriend. It is often said with an air of reverence for the qualities of independence, confidence and attractiveness
“She's such a basic bitch.” This use of the word can be taken as complimentarily, neutral or offensive, depending on the woman. It usually refers to a woman or girl that conforms to stereotypically female behaviors such as: drinking pumpkin spice lattes, making sure to get the perfect picture for Instagram or wearing popular clothing items. Some women have no issue with being associated with this label as all these are benign behaviors. Other women find the label insulting because they associate it with behaviors that they regard as shallow and meaningless.
“Quit being such a little bitch.” In this context, bitch is referring to a guy who is not living up to stereotypical male expectations by portraying a tough exterior. It is “quit being such a baby” infused with gendered stereotyping. To me this is the most offensive use of the word in modern day because it perpetuates a dangerous environment in which men feel they can never be vulnerable.
“That project was a bitch.” Here the term bitch is used to characterize something irritating and difficult to deal with. This could be anything from a school project to a difficult work out.
“He/she just kept bitching about (insert noun).” When used as a verb, bitch is typically just a vulgar substitute for complaining.
When it comes to any word, I think context is important. However, it’s not fair to dismiss someone’s concerns about the word by simply saying “I didn’t mean it like that.” After all, it’s important to remember that historically bitch has been used to demean women for being too sexual or on par with a dog.
Personally, I don’t find the word to be particularly offensive nor do I have a desire to reclaim it as a positive attribute. “(The word bitch) doesn’t really phase me,” said Morgan Dykman, A&S ’15. “Being a bitch seems to be labeled on a girl who is assertive and knows what she wants.” Eliminating the word or saying we should never use it feels a little too Orwellian to me. For me, it remains a vulgar word that I occasionally use.
However, if you’re uncomfortable with the way someone is using the word bitch, ask that person to state what he or she means by the word. Perhaps you’ll find out that his or her intentions are benign. If this is not the case, being forced to define the term will likely make that person reevaluate his or her use of the word.