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28 November 2006 @ 17:08
Not now in decent use  

In this morning's Toronto Star, Antonia Zerbisias (she of azerbic) has a typically incisive column, headlined "Under the B, double standard," about some of the ways in which women in politics are subjected to more frequent—and more personal—insults than their male colleagues.

The example she leads in with is Norman Spector's characterization of Belinda Stronach as a "bitch." Zerbisias writes:

You'd think a man with a c.v. like Spector's — Globe and Mail columnist, blogger for Maclean's, former publisher of the Jerusalem Post — could come up with a better epithet.

But he insisted it was apt.

"I think it's the perfect choice of word that the Oxford English dictionary describes as 'malicious or treacherous,'" he told the Globe's Gloria Galloway. "So I think as an analyst of politics, I chose the right word."

Well, not according to my Oxford: it leads off with "female dog" and never mentions "treacherous" at all.

Well, Oxford University Press publishes quite a lot of English dictionaries, of varying degrees of comprehensiveness. The one that is the Oxford English Dictionary, though, is the one edited by James A. H. Murray et al., subtitled "A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles," and taking up a good shelf or two on the bookcase. I consulted the online version of the second edition, made available to me by my university, and this is what I found by way of definitions in the relevant entry:

    1. The female of the dog.
    2. The female of the fox, wolf, and occasionally of other beasts; usually in combination with the name of the species. (Also as in sense 2.)
    1. Applied opprobriously to a woman; strictly, a lewd or sensual woman. Not now in decent use; but formerly common in literature. In mod. use, esp. a malicious or treacherous woman; of things: something outstandingly difficult or unpleasant. (See also son of a bitch.)
    2. Applied to a man (less opprobrious, and somewhat whimsical, having the modern sense of 'dog'). Not now in decent use.
    3. A primitive form of lamp used in Alaska and Canada.

So "malicious or treacherous" is in there, but I would direct Spector's attention to another part of sense 2a, namely the bit that says, "Not now in decent use." Spector has every right to call Stronach treacherous—the people on the other side of the floor from him feel differently, of course—but if he wishes to do so in polite company, he had better find another word for it. Note also the "lewd or sensual" bit; when he calls Stronach a "bitch," Spector is being ambiguous, perhaps treacherously or maliciously so. Is he commenting on Stronach's political defection, or is he joining in the chorus of prurient speculation about her private life? (There's been rather a lot of that, too, as Zerbisias notes elsewhere in her column.)

In expressing her doubts about the meaning of the word, Zerbisias asks, "Isn't a dog — male, female or fixed — loyal and, by definition, not treacherous?" That "treacherous" is, in fact, part of the OED's definition is, I think, further evidence that it is a specifically misogynistic insult—the vices of the "bitch" (sense 2a) are stereotypical female vices, not stereotypical canine ones. And note the male counterparts: bitch applied to a man is (or was) "less opprobrious, and somewhat whimsical"; the non-whimsical way to use the word bitch to insult a man is to apply it to his mother ("See also son of a bitch").1

Yes, there is definitely a double standard here. Antonia, keep fighting the good fight, but next time do remember to check the big OED; Norman, you may be right about the definition, but you need to apologize to Stronach and go wash your disingenuous, insinuating, misogynistic mouth out with soap before you can join any civil discussion of politics, lexicography, or anything else.

1. I remember hearing a middle-school classmate of mine struggling to reconstruct the feminine insult from the masculine: "She's a real son of a bi—I mean, daughter of a bi—I mean, a bitch."

Nuværende humør: bitchybitchy
Sallysoulchanger on 29. November, 2006 06:35 (UTC)
I feel compelled to comment that that is a poorly worded, inaccurate, and incomplete entry. I understand that the OED may not place as much priority on the nuances of insulting and/or obscene language, but if someone is going to refer to a source to defend their word choice, at least refer to a source that gets it right.
parodieparodie on 29. November, 2006 17:26 (UTC)
There are 3 other entries for "bitch" in the OED - this is the relevant one (bitch n. 1).

The OED is the most complete source that I know of - what would you suggest?
Sallysoulchanger on 29. November, 2006 21:03 (UTC)
Well, first of all, google. When I google "bitch" I get a sidebar that says "Results 1 - 10 of about 54,000,000 for bitch [definition]." Clicking through gets me to answers.com, which contains entries from the American Heritage Dictionary (which, in this case, is already better than the OED), Wordnet, and Wikipedia. The Wikipedia entry goes into great detail and is the most complete, although I think it, too, misses a few nuances of the word in modern hip-hop culture. Hmm. Maybe I'll go edit it.

Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 29. November, 2006 19:05 (UTC)

The OED, I think, cares just as much about being accurate and complete in its definitions of insults as it does about accuracy and completeness in all its other entries. It is, however, a huge project, and it takes an awfully long time to update; the effects of this are more visible in entries like bitch simply because colloquial language tends to change faster than words that are mostly used in a more formal register. In the edition that I consulted, the most recent example of bitch given is from 1961, and that's for the lamp sense. So I agree that the OED's definition of bitch is rather out of date (in particular, it doesn't say anything about the sense the word now has when used with a possessive), but it's because the dictionary sacrifices currency for comprehensiveness; a shorter dictionary would probably reflect more recent usage, but would also have shorter entries and few, if any, examples.

parodieparodie on 30. November, 2006 03:01 (UTC)
I think the other thing to keep in mind is that the OED bases its definitions on written sources, which is not (necessarily) the case for wikipedia. The online edition of the OED has precisely the same definition you linked to, though I don't think it's outdated-ness is due to a lack of completeness so much as a that the meaning of the word has not shifted enough in written sources to warrant changing the definition.