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Word in the news: Slut

“Slut” is a very successful word. Centuries old and one brutal syllable. Sexual, crass, impolite, and almost always used as a weapon to inflict scorn upon women. It’s a grenade: Don’t use it unless you’re sure.

What’s more, “slut” is seldom considered a profanity, so you’re allowed to say it on the radio. Which brings us to Rush Limbaugh.

Rush understands language and knows the power of a well-placed insult. But he seemed blindsided by the backlash after he recently called a woman a “slut.” On his radio show February 29, Rush spewed out an exaggerated critique of Sandra Fluke, who had testified before Congress on the subject of student health coverage of contraception. Rush (getting Sandra’s name wrong) said:

“What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke, who goes before a Congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.”

This had the intended effect of provoking outrage. It also had the unintended effect of scaring advertisers away and drawing a rebuke from the president. A few days later, Rush apologized. It’s hard to see how his stunt changed any minds or advanced the debate about the government’s role in health care whatsoever.

But stories about sex and politics tend to linger, and this one is still going on. Garry Trudeau got the word “slut” onto the comics page with this week’s Doonesbury (at least, in papers that didn’t pull the strip).

“Slut” is a very old word, dating to at least Middle English, though it has changed meaning over time. Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” from the late 1300s, includes the sentence, “Why is thy lord so sluttish, I thee pray, And is of power better clothes to bey.” (In the New York Daily News this week, writer Kate Wadkins tracks the evolution of the word to modern times.)

It’s still an insult. Today the word means a promiscuous woman. There is no comparable word for a promiscuous man, a twist of sexism that makes a caustic word even more sour.

Over the last year or so, feminists have tried to reclaim the word with SlutWalks against sexual assault, and by generally embracing “slut” as a term of empowerment.

Despite attempts to reclaim the word, it hasn’t lost its stigma. If anything, people who seek to act as moral judges and demean women are using it more effectively than ever before. If Rush Limbaugh can earn headlines by craftily deploying the word “slut” on the radio, the word still has currency.

The cleverest takedown of the word is still from Saturday Night Live in the late 1970s. As part of the Point/Counterpoint segment of Weekend Update, Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd would hold mock debates that devolved into crass insults. Aykroyd delivered the famous line: “Jane, you ignorant slut!”

The clip’s on Hulu — Go watch it, and see how little things have changed since the 1970s.

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under Language, News & Journalism, Politics

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