Saturday, August 16, 2008

slutty

While it would be great if (BrE) pupils/(AmE) students in schools could read this blog, I am fairly certain that I've already run afoul of any nanny software worth its code, what with my repeated references to f(a)eces and genitalia. So I might as well report today's SbaCL moment.

We were in a restaurant (BrE) car park/(AmE) parking lot with the Ginger Nut and her family, and had just pointed out that her 15-year-old daughter had a fair amount of her dinner on her (AmE) tank top/(BrE) vest. GN suggested that her daughter ride with us in order to direct us to our next destinations. Better Half teasingly shouted "We don't want that slutty teenager in our car!"

I don't think he'd finished the sentence before I rushed to inform everyone in earshot: "That means 'slovenly' in British English!" (Though the OED tells us that it's now dialectal.) Nowadays, of course, it can also be a not-nice way of describing someone as promiscuous, and that's the only meaning I've ever experienced in the US. The OED has only added that sense in 2004, with examples going back only to 1970--as opposed to c.1400 for the 'slovenly' sense.

The noun on which this adjective is based, slut, was originally used of "A woman of dirty, slovenly, or untidy habits or appearance" (OED), but the "woman of a low or loose character" sense came hot on its heels. While I've not heard women called sluts for being unkempt, I have heard the adjective slutty used to convey that meaning within BH's London-born family. And the next time they come to America, I'll warn them against shouting that other people's children are slutty.

50 comments:

itinerantlondoner said...

I thought that (slovenly) meaning had pretty much died out in the UK - I am aware that was the original meaning, but wouldn't even dream of using it in that way in case I was misunderstood. And I if I ever heard it, I would assume the more modern meaning, and I'm from London as well.

Damon Lord said...

I agree in that I would have interpreted the word as meaning "promiscuous, etc." I was unaware of any other meaning for the word, and would have thought it a dreadful judgement on the sexual morals of a 15 year old, if it were not for the clarification you provided. Thank you for that.

Ellen said...

I am 22, British, lived in England all my life, and I didn't know 'slutty' meant anything other than sexually promiscuous. I've never heard anyone use it to mean 'slovenly', where is your better half from? I'm pretty sure the OED is way behind on this one!

tomroper said...

Women have often cheerfully described themselves to me as sluts, meaning, I think, that they care little for the conventionally feminine virutes of domestic order and tidiness. I do not think they intend me to understand that they were sexually indiscriminating.
Indeed Erin Pizzey wrote, in the 80s, a cookery book entitled the Slut's Cook Book. The point of the title was that it was a cookery book for slatterns, not for the sexually promiscuous, though the latter might be an interesting publishing proposition. I suppose the AmE meaning is taking over, though.

Lisa said...

My fifty-year-old (BrE) mother is one of those women who describes herself as a slut (i.e. slovenly). If it is dialectal then I couldn't tell you which one as she was brought up in Dorset by parents from Yorkshire and the West Midlands/Wales/North East so it could come from anywhere.

Sunglass said...

I genuinely think that, as the slovenly meaning is now largely archaic, that you'd need to qualify 'slut' to ensure it wasn't interpreted as 'promiscuous'. I've certainly come across descriptions in novels where women are described as 'sluttish housekeepers', and a (now also archaic, I think) expression for those dustballs you get under furniture is 'slut's wool'.

RWMG said...

I'm from SE England, 50 years old, and the promiscuous meaning is the one uppermost in my mind. I am aware that it used to mean slovenly, but I would only take that meaning in historical novels of about the same vintage as when 'making love to' meant romancing, rather than sex.

jhm said...

When I, as an American, use 'tart' as a derogatory (I assume that this is a BrE usage), I think of it more as a comment on dress than of sexual mores. Is this my misconception, or is the word more harsh than I imagine (in England)?

Mrs Redboots said...

I, in my 50s, still assume that describing someone as a "slut" means that they are slovenly rather than sexually promiscuous, but I would agree that the American meaning is now taking over.

"See Saw, Margery Daw
Sold her bed to lie upon straw.
Wasn't she a dirty slut
To sell her bed and lie upon dirt?"

lynneguist said...

A couple of commenters have called the 'promiscuous' sense 'the American meaning'. Let's be careful about that. It's a meaning that is used in the US, but it is not American in origin.

anne t. said...

Slut/dirt there's a loose rhyme to my ear, if I ever heard one!

tortipede said...

My brother and I (now 40 and 43 respectively) a few years ago once had a real argument with my mother (now aged 74, all from the south of England), because she described her cousin's wife as a slut (the noun, but in the context of a discussion of her housekeeping). He and I were horrified: how could she possibly make such a statement?! It turned out that for us 'tart'/'slapper' was the primary meaning, and 'slattern' one of which we were vaguely, historically aware, while for my mother it was most definitely the other way around...

tomroper said...

JHM, Partridge suggests that tart was originally an affectionate endearment, used 'of chaste and unchaste alike', but in the early 1900s began to mean 'fast or immoral women'. Australians, Lancastrians and Brummies continued to use it to describe a girlfriend, with no censorious connotations.
He also records another meaning, which I recall from school, 'the young favourite of one of the older boys, not necessarily a catamite'.

Alison said...

When I came to the US from England (forty years ago!) I was surprised to hear "slut" used for a promiscuous woman, as I had always thought it meant a poor housekeeper. We used the term "slut's wool" for the bundles of dust that accumulate under a bed, but Americans call them "dust-bunnies".

Alison said...

When I came to the US from England (forty years ago!) I was surprised to hear "slut" used to describe a promiscuous woman, because I thought it meant a slovenly housekeeper. We used to call the bundles of dust that accumulate under a bed "slut's wool", but Americans call them "dust bunnies".

Kevin said...

I'm surprised at how many BrE speakers among your other commentators think that "slut" refers to sexual promiscuity.

I must have lived a very sheltered half-century plus in GB, since to me it still means "a woman who is habitually untidy", even though I'm aware of the word's AmE meaning.

My mother once, innocently but inadvisedly as it turned out, informed an American acquaintance that her daughter (my sister) was, she was afraid, "a slut" -- meaning that she was the opposite of houseproud.

This acquaintance later whispered to me in shocked tones: "Do you know your mother thinks your sister is a slut?" I had to explain that this meant no more than that my sister did not place a great value on appearances and that there was undoubtedly more than the average amount of dust in her house.

The word seems to be so strong in AmE, however, that I'm not altogether sure he entirely believed me...

JaxCA said...

I love this. Now I can be a slutty slut!

Simon K said...

As a 37-year-old, well-read (I thought) BrE speaker (south-east England), I have to say that this is the first time I've become aware that there is a meaning other than the "promiscuous" one. To coin a cliche, you really do learn something new every day.

mollymooly said...

I suspect that, while the "promiscuous" meaning is now the primary one in Britain, it is not as strongly derogatory as in the US. One might apply it to a friend in banter, or reclaim it for oneself.

jonathan bogart said...

Of course, how derogatory it is in the US can depend on context as well. Among younger friends, calling one another sluts is often considered relatively harmless; a stranger calling a woman in her forties a slut would generally be considered to have committed assault.

One interesting aspect of the word as it's used in AmE (I don't know if it has this property in BrE as well) is that it's popularly used in a metaphorical sense as well. Preadolescent girls may accuse each other of being "kiss sluts," or promiscuous kissers. Extending the metaphor even further, someone who describes themselves as, e.g., a "pizza slut" really likes pizza (with the possible, though not necessary, interpretation that they'd do anything for a pizza). The title of the literary blog Bookslut carries this meaning, as far as I can tell.

Some influence from "crack whore" may be at work here, as "slut" is very often used as a (slightly) less intense version of "whore." (Though pedants will always say that the real difference is that a whore does it for money.)

mrcsmbqx said...

I vaguelly recall the word slag being used by British people, is this just a verb meaning to abuse (I think). Is someone ever called a slag? I don't mean this to be a topic changer. I was just suddenly unsure and wondering if slag and slut are related in use or meaning (either meaning). Thanks.

Ginger Yellow said...

"I vaguelly recall the word slag being used by British people, is this just a verb meaning to abuse (I think). Is someone ever called a slag?"

Indeed they are. Puerile (but occasionally very funny) comic Viz has a long-running strip called The Fat Slags, about a pair of fat, well, sluts. Also, over the top 70s cop show The Sweeney was famous for the phrase "Shut it, you slag!".

It sometimes has the same sense as AmE "slut", though not always.

Simon K said...

I would say that in BrE, "slag" and "slut" as nouns can be be used pretty much interchangeably for a promiscuous woman. Though to my ears, slut is the stronger term and slag is a bit more humorous and informal.

The irreverant comic Viz used to have (may still have - I haven't read it in years) a strip called The Fat Slags, about a pair of overweight women constantly chasing (reluctant) men. Even ignoring the "messy" meaning, I'm not sure it would have worked if it had been The Fat Sluts.

"Slag off" as a verb does indeed mean to criticise or abuse - you cannot just "slag" someone.

Chris said...

As a Brit from southern England, the wrong side of 60, it's only within the last few years that I've noticed 'slut' being used to mean 'promiscuous woman'. Obviously I was slow to catch the trend.

I recently saw an epigram quoted on an American site - something like: "The difference between a housewife and a slut is an hour a day." I'm sure the original meant the British 'slattern' sense. But taking it in the standard US sense turns it into something much more attention-grabbing.

Chris

gosia said...

It's news to me as well and I have extensively studied bith BrE and AmE... Granted, there is no way to be able to learn absolutely everything there is about any given language but I've never heard anyone use 'slutty' in any other meaning than what most pople know...

simplymaggies said...

Quite interesting, i must say, even if the meaning of the word as 'slovenly' is somewhat old-fashioned, isn't it?

anne t. said...

Thanks for clearing that up for me. "Fat slags" sounds better than "fat sluts" because of the similar a sounds maybe. Slags is a pretty fun word to say because of the length of the vowel. It hasn't seem to cross the Atlantic, to my knowledge, however. I've only heard slag referring to slag heaps, byproduct of coal extraction which a number of small mountains are made of in Eastern Pennsylvania (and perhaps elsewhere). Does slag have the same slovenly conotation as well?

Gosia, I'm confused, which is the understanding that is most usually understood by "slut"?

Cameron said...

Simon, up here in Scotland (at least in and around Glasgow) you most certainly CAN just "slag" someone, and we tend to slag each other frequently! We also give people "a good slagging." It hadn't occurred to me at all that those usages might be regional.

anne t. said...

I think here, in the US, we would call someone a "slob" to mean slovenly (all these "sl"-beginning words), but this is not gender specific or AS gender specific. (I have in my youth, I'm ashamed to say, called a young man a slut, but this was perhaps a double insult - and not standard.) I'm trying to think if there is a corresponding term in the US with the slovenly connotation and gender specific.

James said...

Wait, is it true that 'slut' in the slovenly sense is gender specific? That would be excellent. In my mind, most insulting nouns you can call someone (bitch, dick,...) are gender specific, though they're sometimes used the wrong way for humor or reclamation. I've never really thought about non-profane examples. There must be tons.

biochemist said...

I (BrE) have found myself about to describe someone (female) as a 'slut' and changing it into 'slob' to avoid the sexual connotation - 'couch potato' is a good term to describe one aspect of slobbish behaviour; I have a teenage son....
As to tarts, JHM - I think 'tarty' does describe dress rather than morals although it also falls into the spectrum of tart/slut/whore to describe promiscuous (figuratively)behaviour, as described by Jonathan. For example, a media tart will take any opportunity to appear on TV chat shows, and a rate tart will move money around from one account to another to take advantage of favourable interest rates. Tarts sound much more energetic than sluts or whores!

Roger Green said...

"Jane, you ignorant slut!" was a regular line from Saturday Night Live, given by Dan Ackroyd when they got into "debate" during the faux news segment, Weekend Update.
I doubt it was a reference to her tidiness.

mollymooly said...

Seconding Cameron: In Ireland too, you can slag someone instead of slagging them off. Probably related is the Australian "sledging" - barracking or insulting remarks to an opponent - the secret of Australia's sporting success :)

ella said...

as someone who grew up on both sides of the pond, I use and recognise both senses of 'slut'. However I would generally expect 'slutty' to express the NAmE sense of the word, and would use 'sluttish' to express the 'slovenly' meaning.

Anonymous said...

As an American, I've obviously never heard the term 'slut' in the slovenly sense. It's curious that the slovenly sense of the word only applies to women. Is 'slob' the male equivalent? Or can slob refer to both genders in British English as well?

jonathan bogart said...

I don't think it's very strange that the slovenly meaning of "slut" applies only to women -- women have traditionally been responsible for keeping homes tidy. Sometimes language changes more slowly than social mores.

biochemist said...

I was musing on just this gender divide - yes I think that 'slob' usually refers to untidy men, corresponding to the slovenly aspect of 'slut'. Now, as to the promiscuous aspect - would the male version be 'stud'? Somehow the male words don't carry the weight of disapproval that 'slut' does when either interpretation is referred to women.
But I feel society has moved on a little when it is no longer acceptable to criticise a woman for not being a perfect housekeeper. We might think nowadays of a seriously houseproud woman as a bit of a control freak.

Janet said...

Good Lord - you've taught me something I did not know about British English!

I too would have completely misunderstood the use of "slutty"!

Janet

Anne t. said...

I don't think of slob being male-specific, though the preponderance of slobs may be male. :)

Stud is a good try, but I don't think this is the corresponding term for slut. This may be social bias, where women are condemned for sexual promiscuity and men are praised. Slut is an insult and stud is a compliment. Stud means more like virile than indescriminate. I'm not sure what the corresponding term to stud would be for a woman. Fertile mertyl doesn't quite make it.

Stud to me does not necessarily mean that he beds a lot of people, only that he is a catch- that he's good looking and has the qualities, like those of stud animals,

Anonymous said...

The female version of stud would probably be babe.

Anne t. said...

There you go, babe or hot mama or something. I agree.

Pimp has more negative connotations but isn't right either to correspond with slut or ho... wanker comes closer, somehow, as far as insult.

Anne T. said...

Maybe sleaze or lecher? perv?

TootsNYC said...

it was a cookery book for slatterns, not for the sexually promiscuous,

I have read "slattern" to be used for promiscuoous (but coupled as well w/ the sense of a servant who cleans, or woman of low social birth)


Also, a "pizza slut" isn't *just* someone who really likes pizza. It's someone who isn't picky about what pizza they eat, and who will eat pizza from ANY pizzeria, no matter how delicious or well-made it is or isn't. It's the lack of pickiness or discrimination that makes one a "slut," not the volume.

Also, I have always reaction to "slovenly" as really, really, really garbagey. People w/ slovenly homes don't just have a lot of dust and dirt; they have mold growing in the dog poop on the rotting floor.

malimar said...

The notion of a difference between American and British uses of "slut" has come to my attention before. Specifically, in one of the last Harry Potter books, I was somewhat taken aback when JK Rowling used "slut" at least once or twice in the text.
I asked my one British friend whether "slut" was a less severe word in Britain than in America, and he said he didn't think so. I may not have a very firm grasp on the way my own culture (north-east USA) uses the word, but I would not have described it as a word fit for use in a family publication in AmE. I'm no prude about profanity, but the use of this one word in HP, otherwise seemingly free of dirty words (although there could be enough British profanities that a native BrE speaker would describe the volumes as liberally speckled with filth, which I don't even notice), stands out to me like a sore thumb.

Mrs Redboots said...

It's certainly not the sort of word here that would be replaced by asterisks in the sensationalist press (not that they would use it at all, but you know what I mean!).

Kevin said...

That prolific poster Anonymous asked: >>can slob refer to both genders in British English as well?<<

It most certainly can, Anon. See the characters Wayne and Waynetta Slob in the BBC television sketch show "Harry Enfield and Chums":

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TRlV5RuZ-R0

Semidetachedbrit said...

A conversation with my American husband today has led me to think that slut is a stronger word in America than in England. It's not a bad word to me, but although he and I agree on the meaning, he considers it offensive and I don't. Can anyone give me an idea of how it sounds to an American?

lynneguist said...

It sounds realllly bad in American to call someone a slut. I can't think of an equiv that's precise in 'feeling' in BrE. In fact, the only equivalents I can think of are AmE! I think this is because I didn't have my teenage years (when people are freer with sexual insults) in the UK.

Anonymous said...

There seems to be a similar phenomenon in German: "Schlampe" used to mean "a slovenly female", but nowadays it´s almost only used for "a promiscuous female" (and it´s a very derogative term, much like "slut"). The adjective "schlampig", however, is, in my experience, still (mostly) used in the sense of "slovenly/"not very clean"/"not neat".
(school teacher, female, 31)

Anonymous said...

London/Kent BE Speaker here. I've never, ever heard anyone use the adjective "slutty" to mean anything other than promiscuous.

I'm aware of the other meaning, but only from old books. Even my parents wouldn't use the term to mean slovenly, but they would use it to mean promiscuous/skimpily attired (aged 55 from the Home Counties and 65, South London respectively).

The only time I've heard it used to mean domestically lazy is in Bridget Jones style books as an attempt by 30something women circa 1997 trying to "reclaim" an old fashioned word to make their negative qualities sound cool.