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Use of the b-word: An insult or a friendly salutation?

November 19, 2007 by  
Filed under News, Weekly Columns

( Call a woman the b-word, and most likely she’s offended. Or does it depend who’s using that little word that rhymes with witch?

Today show anchor Meredith Vieira recently greeted her former co-hosts on “The View” with, “So how are you crazy bitches?”

Comedian Mo’Nique told the “bitches” she loves them when she did a stand-up show at a prison.

And famously, during his sexual harassment trial, New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas was videotaped saying that a white man calling a black woman the name would be more offensive than a black man calling her that name. (He later clarified that he found the term unacceptable in any case; he also denied calling the plaintiff the word at all.)

History of the b-word

A bitch is a female dog.

But the term has been used to insult women since the 1400s, and, since the 1500s, sometimes men, too, said John Baugh, a linguist at Washington University in St. Louis. The word was “the most offensive appellation that can be given to an English woman, even more provoking than that of whore,” according to the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.

By the 1700s, it was also a verb meaning “to complain,” said Grant Barrett, co-host of the radio program, A Way with Words, and editor of Double-Tongued Dictionary.

And by the 1920s it had worked its way into prison culture, to refer to a sexually submissive male.

That’s also about the time when it began to lose some power to offend, with phrases such as “riding bitch,” meaning the passenger seat, came into use. (Although when Barbara Bush deemed Geraldine Ferraro something that “rhymes with rich” in 1984 there was plenty of chatter, even after Bush apologized for calling her a “witch.”)

Then hip-hop came along and transformed the word’s usage.

“Some rappers of course use the word to describe all women,” said Todd Boyd, hip-hop professor at University of Southern California. “Some rappers would use the word to describe a type of woman. You have female rappers who might call themselves ‘bitch’ the same way you have black male rappers who might call themselves ‘nigga.'”

And now of course the latest variant is “be-yotch,” which David Fertig, a linguist at University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, suggests is a “tabooistic distortion” — something people do when a word is too vulgar to utter in certain situations.

Does race matter?

Thomas’ comment — that a black man calling a black woman “bitch” is different from a white man doing so — brought together the volatile issues of race and gender. It also provoked an angry response from some black people.

While he has since said it is wrong for any man to use the word, many say the comment shows how much black women are devalued and disrespected in America — even by black men.

“If you look at the depiction of black women in hip-hop culture, which is the dominant culture of African-American youth, and American youth in general, their image is not the most positive,”

said Manny Otiko, 36, who works for WunderMarx PR in Southern California. “He certainly isn’t helping that image or the image of African-American men. What message does this send to mainstream America?”

damali ayo, author of “How to Rent a Negro,” a satirical book about race relations, said the word “bitch” is a gender-based insult, separate from race. But she acknowledged that the insult coming from a white man would be a double whammy, because of the history of white men in America oppressing or abusing women of color.

A black man calling a black woman the name comes with its own issues, said Cheryl Duncan, 40, a black public relations counselor in New York.

“Given the history of discrimination faced by black men and women, it could even hurt more knowing that someone from your own race was using these words against you in the workplace,” she said. “I think this statement may have single-handedly destroyed Isiah’s likeability.”

Woman to woman

Most people don’t get upset when a woman playfully calls a female friend by the name.

It is like a family affair,” said Carl S. Taylor, an urban culture expert from Michigan State. “Family members can talk about each other, but if someone outside the circle says the same thing, it’s offensive.”

The rule is similar to other controversial words, such as queer or the n-word.

“I think really it’s a way of creating a source of identity as though you are part of a community that the rest of the world is not a member of,” said Elayne Rapping, who teaches pop culture courses at University at Buffalo, The State University of New York. “Is it OK for outsiders to use these terms even though the insiders have adopted them? My answer is no.”

Mo’nique was not available for comment, according to her publicist. Vieira’s publicist did not respond to a request for an interview.

Donna Coffee, a black marketing consultant in Dallas, says it’s inappropriate for women to call each other that — regardless of the context.

“Women using the ‘b-word‘ playfully goes to show how females have allowed the negative connotation to control who they really are,” she said. “Why are we not all walking around here saying, ‘Hey, Queen, what’s up?'”

So who chooses?

The rules can be unclear on who is allowed to say what, as radio host Don Imus found out earlier this year when he was fired for calling members of the Rutgers basketball team “nappy headed hos.” He argued that rappers “defame and demean black women” and call them “worse names than I ever did.”

ayo said she was unsure whether those kinds of arguments are legitimate, but she said they are important to hear.

If you don’t want your child to say curse words, you don’t curse around them,” she said.

Some use the word “bitch” for record sales and ratings, of course. And the American tradition of free speech makes people believe they have room to use whatever language they want.

People are far more comfortable articulating things that were previously only acceptable or uttered in the private realm,” said Murray Forman, assistant professor of communication studies at Northeastern University.

If you allow the b-word to come in, then the m-f word comes in and everything else,” said Cheryl Jackson, a black radio host in Dallas and mother of two sons, ages 18 and 19. “It’s going to be normal everyday language. Somebody has got to stop and say, ‘this isn’t OK anymore.'”

The Federal Communications Commission prohibits indecent and profane material on broadcast radio and television stations between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. While the commission has definitions for indecency and profanity, it does not get into specifics.


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