Sluttish, Sleazy and Tawdry

Godfrey Bloom, a right-wing English politician, has got into trouble recently at the United Kingdom Independence Party’s annual conference, for calling women in politics ‘sluts’ because they don’t clean behind the fridge.

It’s not the first time he has been deliberately offensive, and no doubt won’t be the last either, but what intrigued me about this particular statement is that – apart from putting most women, me included, in the slut category – his use of the word is correct, if sadly dated.

The online Oxford English Dictionary’s primary definition of ‘slut’ is ‘A woman of dirty, slovenly, or untidy habits or appearance’ – though it also adds that ‘This entry has not yet been fully updated (first published 1912).’  I suspect the word, if not Godfrey, has moved on since then.

The first 'slutwalk', Toronto, 3 April 2011

The first ‘Slutwalk’, Toronto, 3 April 2011

Secondary meanings in the OED include ‘A kitchen maid’, ‘A troublesome or awkward creature’, and ‘A woman of a low or loose character’.  In American English it also means a female dog or bitch, and I’ve come across that usage in colonial Australia too.

It’s odd how words change.  Often these changes reflect changes in the wider society (Godfrey, are you listening?).  Words can lose their impact, or gain it.  When King James I wrote to his favourite, the Duke of Buckingham, hoping that ‘thou and thy cuntis may see me hunt the buck in the park upon Friday next’, he did not mean ‘countess’, as the original editor suggests. He was using a term for woman that was still considered acceptable in the 17th century.

‘Tory’ used to mean an Irish outlaw.  An Anglicized version of the Irish tóraidhe, ‘pursuer’, it was first applied in the 17th century to Irish who had been dispossessed by Protestant English settlers.  Later it was applied to a robber or bandit of any origin. Now of course, it means – well, a more up-market type of class warrior.

Other terms that suggest the second rate have equally curious origins.

‘Sleazy’ began as an adjective applied to the cloth produced in the much-contested region of Silesia.  Rightly or wrongly, these textiles acquired a reputation for being thin, flimsy, of little substance.  From ‘slight, flimsy, unsubstantial’, applied generically, it’s a slow but inexorable process to our modern notion of ‘sleaze’, particularly political sleaze. Like ‘slut’, ‘sleazy ‘ has shifted from a material description to become a judgment of character.

If ‘sleazy’ comes from the early Industrial Revolution, ‘tawdry’ goes back deep into the middle ages. Æthelthryth or Etheldreda was an East Anglian princess who founded a double monastery on the site of Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire during the 7th century.  Her name was later abbreviated to Audrey.  A fair took place on the Isle of Ely every 17 October, the Translation of Audrey, where ‘St Audrey’s lace’ was sold, ‘which makes the Country Girls seem finer than they are, whence the word Taudry came’ (Dove, Almanac, 1697).  The Puritans, in particular, disapproved of servant girls kitting themselves out in cheap finery, and ‘tawdry’ became a term of sneering abuse.  Which brings us back to the sheer nastiness of the term ‘slut’ as it is currently used.

Godfrey Bloom’s older usage of slut (we are told) was meant as a joke.  Whatever.  His use of the term was anachronistic, not only because the meaning has changed.  He is out of date if he thinks that only women should clean the kitchen, but also if he imagines that anyone can get behind a refrigerator to clean it these days.  Heavy, handle-less and plumbed into the surrounding wall space, they need man-handling, with the emphasis on the man.

The quote from James I is in letter J30 in David M. Bergeron, King James and Letters of Homoerotic Desire (1999).
The quote from Dove’s Almanac is in Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (1999)

2 responses to “Sluttish, Sleazy and Tawdry

  1. Judy Powell

    There are canine equivalent histories. Henry Lawson called female dogs sluts, whereas we would call them bitches. Never sheilas interestingly.

  2. Maybe Irish wolfhounds?

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