DEFINE THIS!

The Surprising Roots of the Word ‘Slut’

It crops up in Chaucer, Johnson, Thackerey, and a host of other classic works of literature, and means something different almost every time. Has slut worn out its welcome?

03.21.15 10:52 AM ET

Oh, what a slippery word is slut.

Over the course of six centuries, it has referred to men, women, dogs, and light fixtures. It has meant messy, amoral, and, in one instance at least, cute. It has been a noun, a verb, and an adjective.

Some words change definition over time. Thus moot once meant one thing and now, at least in common usage, means something else. But slut, almost from the outset, was more fluid. Small wonder, then, that today both men and women use the word to mean pretty much what they want it to mean, whether talking slut-shaming, slut walk, or slut-o-ween.

The earliest reference the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) supplies for slut is as an adjective in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in the Prologue to the “Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale”: “Why is thy lord so sluttish …” In other words, in the 14th century, at least one author was using slut to refer to a man, and if you read the context of that quote, it’s clear that Chaucer, for once, didn’t have sex on his mind. He’s talking about the man’s disreputable appearance, which is at odds with his rank.

The OED’s first definition for slut is “a woman of dirty, slovenly, or untidy habits or appearance; a foul slattern.” The earliest citation for such usage is 1402, predating citations for either the F word or the C word. But again, slut then had no sexual connotation, so using it in print carried no onus.

The second definition is “a woman of a low or loose character; a bold or impudent girl; a hussy, jade.” But if you read the citations under this definition, the sexual aspect isn’t entirely clear. For instance, in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1651), Sir Thomas Burton refers to “a peevish drunken flurt, a waspish choleric slut.” Not a compliment, obviously, but it’s not clear whether he’s insulting her character or her housekeeping.

In the mid-17th century, the diarist Samuel Pepys wrote, “Our little girl Susan is a most admirable slut, and pleases us mightily.”

A hundred years later, when Samuel Johnson first published his dictionary, he defined a slut as “a dirty woman” and also noted that it was a word “of slight contempt to a woman.” The examples he cites all use “dirty” in its most obvious, non-sexual sense.

In England and Ireland, sluts were also rags dipped in lard and used in place of candles, and by the 19th century, the word had also come to mean a female dog. Thackerey used the word in that sense, and so did Washington Irving.

Slang is a tricky business for etymologists, because of the variance between what is written down and what is spoken. Going back in time, they have only the written record to consult, and that is not always sure proof of how society was using a given word.

Still, by the 20th century, we seemed to have ditched the definition of “bad housekeeper” and replaced it with the meaning we have now: a woman of loose morals, or, as some would have it, “a woman with the morals of a man.” And lately even that sense has modified, as some women attempt to appropriate the word as a badge of pride.

Leora Tanenbaum, for one, thinks that’s a bad idea. The author of I Am NOT a Slut: Slut Shaming in the Age of the Internet, she recently said in an interview with The Daily Beast, “I’m not trying to censor language. But at the same time I’m concerned. I look around campus and every single day we have a new report of an act of sexual assault on a college campus, and that gives me pause. The fact is that most people don’t use words like ‘slut’ and ‘ho’ the way we in the feminist in-group use it. So I’m asking people to think about what these words mean and how they can be used to shame other people.”

Given the word’s shapeshifting status over time, wherein it has meant multiple things to various people—its defining characteristic, you might say—it’s hard to argue with Tanenbaum. When a word means what you want it to mean, and also means what your opponent wants it to mean, you don’t own it. No one does. Indeed, given how many things slut has meant over the centuries, and how many ways it is still being defined, it’s hardly a word at all. It’s just noise.