I read this in Word by Word by Kory Stamper:

Maybe, she offered, the usage note about the word being a generalized term of abuse was meant to cover both the non-“whore” sense of “bitch” when used as a slur against women and the “weak, ineffectual” sense of “bitch” when used as a slur against men. She moved her wineglass from one hand to the other. “A usage note could take care of both.”

“Only if it’s its own sense,” I said. “This usage note is attached to the ‘malicious, spiteful, or overbearing woman’ sense.”

“So it can’t be in reference to men.”


“Or just…women in general. Like women who don’t respond to assholes who catcall them on the street.”

“Or women who don’t play into hyper-feminized stereotypes.”


“You know, ‘bitches get shit done,’ that sort of use. Though,” I said, “I suppose that’s really a reclamation of the slur. Which means—”

“Oy,” she groaned, and took a very large gulp of wine.

First let me provide you the context here, two lexicographers are discussing about an entry in the dictionary, "bitch". I can't really figure out who is saying what and am unable to get to the gist because of this ambiguity. Is a woman "who doesn't respond to assholes who catcall them on the street" not a "malicious, spiteful, or overbearing woman"? Another thing that I can't get is the implication of "which means" part of the conversation. Can someone help me in breaking it down?


The two lexicographers are wrestling with the meanings of the word bitch in various contexts and realizing how difficult their task is. I'll call them She and I because that's how they're identified in the dialog. In particular, they're trying to figure out how to attach an explanatory note to some of the meanings to clarify the context when the word might be employed.

The first problem is the contrast between a common slur applied to women (meaning overbearing and spiteful) and a slur applied to men (meaning weak). For instance when Bill Maher calls Donald Trump "a whiny little bitch," he means that Trump isn't a strong man, but a weak character who can't take criticism.

She: A usage note could take care of them both.
I: Only if it’s its own sense.

I think this means that one usage note can address only one sense at a time, and there are already two senses under discussion.

She: So it can’t be in reference to men.
I: No.
She: Or just … women in general. Like women who don’t respond to assholes who catcall them on the street.

Now here's a third usage. Men who catcall random women, i.e, (toss suggestive and inappropriately familiar comments to women they happen to see) are likely to yell "Bitch!" at those women who ignore them. You ask whether such a woman is a "malicious, spiteful, or overbearing woman." And the answer is of course not. She's just a woman who doesn't want to be verbally harassed. The catcaller may take it that such woman is malicious, but remember that the usage note has to describe the occasions on which the word will be employed.

I: Or women who don’t play into hyper-feminized stereotypes.

So this might be a fourth type of occasion for the word bitch to be applied -- not for a mean woman, not for a weak man, not for an unresponsive woman, but for a woman who refuses to conform to a gender stereotype.

She Right.

I: You know, "bitches get shit done," that sort of use. Though, I suppose that’s really a reclamation of the slur. Which means -—

Here's a fifth use, in which a woman might take the sting out of the slur by adopting it for herself as a label of strength. Which means that the number of meanings is multiplying and the difficulty of writing appropriate usage notes is increasing commensurately.

She: Oy.

This last is an expression of despair or mock despair, likely from the Yiddish expressions Oy vey ("Oh, woe!"),‎ Oy vey iz mir ("Oh, woe is me!"), or Oy gevalt (harder to translate literally but basically the equivalent of "Good grief!")

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  • @user105719- Mind you that the different uses that you are implying the word "bitch" would be put to use for, are exactly those which the "I" person is saying would not be the uses of the word which is evident if you read the "So it can’t be in reference to men." sentence and the two that follow it in which they are saying that if the usage note is not addressed for men then it follows that they aren't addressed for "women in general" either. Correct me if I'm wrong. – kelvin Jan 19 at 9:37
  • The usage note is specifically for the spiteful/malicious woman usage. And I/She decide that it can't be used for men. (Obviously, right?) But the note can't be used for the other meanings either. This follows not from the fact that the note can't be used for men, but because the usage note only covers the one restricted meaning for women. I'm not sure I answered your question. Let me know. – user105719 Jan 19 at 10:51
  • I appreciate your effort very much but your reservation about the answer being convincing is the same as mine. I'm yet unclear. Could you do me another favor by referring my question to some linguist you might know? I'd be very grateful since I'm unable to proceed further in the book – kelvin Jan 19 at 13:40
  • I'm confident of my answer in keeping with my family's motto: "Often wrong, never in doubt." I'm less confident that I understand your concern. I'd be happy to discuss this more in chat. I'm not sure this is a linguistics issue more than one for English usage or narrative nonfiction, but English usage, linguistics, and writing all have their own stackexchange entities. I would be happy to do you the favor, but I'm just a poor boy from a poor family and my social circles, online or otherwise, don't comprise academic worthies such as experts in linguistics. – user105719 Jan 20 at 0:32
  • @user105719- where would you like to chat with me, FB or hangouts? – kelvin Jan 20 at 10:24

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