Mr Donald Trump’s fans have been condemned for calling Hillary Clinton one, while some of her supporters have urged her to be more of one. So why is Hillary Clinton so often associated with the word “bitch” – and how offensive is it?
Supporters of Donald Trump have sparked outrage in US media with merchandise attacking Hillary Clinton that many people say uses lewd and demeaning language.
T-shirts saying “Trump that bitch” and badges with similar motto were found on display at rallies. Despite the media outrage, both men and women at a rally in West Virginia told media they thought the items were “funny”. They liked the way the shirts defied political correctness, something the presumptive Republican nominee has railed against.
The shirts are not authorized by Mr Trump’s campaign. But a simple online search reveals a whole range of unofficial items such as bumper stickers, badges displaying the same word in reference to the first female president candidate in the US.
And is not just Mrs Clinton’s detractors who use the term. Tina Brown, former editor of the New Yorker and Vanity Fair, told the BBC’s Today programme that the Democratic nominee needed to “own her inner bitch” in order to appeal to young women voters.
Some experts argue the taboo around the word has changed. Of course, women can buy themselves T-shirts and necklaces labeling themselves “bitch”.
But as anyone who has been called it by a passer-by in the street, or at work, will know – it can still pack a painful punch. Why is that?
The term “bitch” has been used to refer to a female dog since about 1000 AD, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and began to be used as a pejorative term for women in around the 15th Century.
The 1811 edition of the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose said it was “most offensive appellation that can be given to an English woman”.
The OED defines its modern meaning as “a malicious or treacherous woman” or “something outstandingly difficult or unpleasant”. But other dictionary definitions say its premier use is no longer as a term of abuse.
“It has gone through this whole history of the way words change,” says Connie Eble, an English professor at the University of North Carolina who has documented the language of college students for some 40 years.
“There are some really interesting things going on it popular culture that are informing its usage.”
While female students often affectionately refer to friends as “best bitches”, she says, the term “bitchin” is commonly used as a positive description by young people in the US. “Bitch” can also be used as a verb, meaning to “complain”. Or changing it to “biatch” can add humor or force.
Behind much of the change has been American and British hip hop that used ‘bitch’ simply to refer to a woman, says Eble. Music critics pointed out that Madonna used dozens of times on her latest album. But it also follows a campaign for women to reclaim the word.
A feminist magazine called Bitch was set up 1996. Its founders wanted to use the title to spark debate about language and talk about women’s rights.
Andi Zeisler, a co-founder of the magazine, says the controversial title was inspired by the way the word “queer” had been appropriated by the LGBT community.
But she says it is has been both “fascinating and frustrating” to see how attitudes to the word “bitch” had changed since.
What does “bitch” mean in slang?
- A woman (noun)
- A despicable woman (noun)
- A feminine or weak man (noun)
- A sexually submissive person (noun)
- something that is difficult or unpleasant (noun)
- to complain (verb)
- to inform (verb)
Source: The Concise New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English
“When we started the organisation, bitch wasn’t used in common parlance the way it is now,” says Zeisler. “It was still very much an epithet for a woman who was doing or saying something that other people did not want to hear.”
But in the years that followed it became “very normalised to hear it as a synonym for a woman”, she says. “People started to use it as a term of endearment or as emphasis.”
However, the core meaning of the word has not changed, she says. “It’s still the most common way to describe a woman who’s doing something that people do not like.”
So she was not surprised to see Trump supporters using the term.
“Hillary Clinton has been thought of as a bitch since she was first lady,” Zeisler says. “That was not because she was seen as mean spirited or petty – but because she had ambitions that people thought were above her station.”
Critics of Mrs Clinton have repeatedly pointed to her alleged mishandling of issues such as healthcare reform, and the scandal surrounding her husband’s affair with Monica Lewinsky.