Some insults just never go out of style. A century before Shakespeare shuffled onto this mortal coil, people were calling women sluts—to imply that they are foul slatterns—dirty and slovenly!—or women of loose character, likely to give it up on a first date. As with almost any word that’s been en vogue since the Middle Ages, people have adapted it into various compounds, like “slut hut” (a brothel), “slut-pup” (a female dog) or “slut-hole” (a trash can). And, as top aide for Anthony Weiner reminded everyone, there is always “slutbag.”
A former intern for the New York mayoral candidate, Olivia Nuzzi, has been penning unflattering insider takes on the campaign. One ran on the NSFWCorp’s blog on Sunday; another piece ran in the New York Daily News on Tuesday. NSFW, appropriately, stands for “Not Safe For Work”: When reporters from Talking Points Memo called up the Weiner campaign for comment on the articles yesterday, communications director Barbara Morgan let the NSFW words fly. “Slutbag” was one in a long list of epithets Morgan leveled at Nuzzi. But it was certainly the most colorful, the only insult that wouldn’t have appeared on Family Feud’s board of “Something You Call a Woman You Would Like to Throw Off a Moving Train.”
In the noisy, hungry world of social media, any unexpected word-in-the-news catches fire like a propane tank. Take a look at this chart from social media analytics site Brandwatch that shows how mentions have spiked over the past 24 hours:
In recent years, the word slut has been the center of feminist controversy, with ladies taking to the streets in organized “SlutWalks” in hopes of reclaiming the term—like black people reclaimed the n-word and the gay community took back the word queer. The worldwide movement was a response to the idea that scantily dressed women who were sexually assaulted somehow “deserved it.” But despite the popularity of the marches, the word is still pejorative. If a woman walked up to her female friend and exclaimed, “Hey, you big slut!” it remains unlikely her friend would respond with a solidarity fist bump.
It’s natural that an insulting word like slut would take on the suffix –bag, which is attached to plenty of other insulting terms, from windbag—popular since the 1800s—to douchebag to scumbag, first slang for a condom and then for a base, detestable person. (Less insulting terms have popularized the suffix, too. Rich guys have been “moneybags” since the 1700s. People of various eras have used nosebags, gamebags, carpetbags and mailbags.) The word bag itself is derogatory slang for an unfortunate-looking older woman—much like baggage, which according to the Oxford English Dictionary, has referred to a “worthless good-for-nothing woman” or “strumpet” since the 1600s. (Linguist Ben Zimmer does a nice rundown of the history of “bag” terms on Language Log.)
Slutbag appears in a dictionary of gay slang from 2004, alongside “slapper” and “whorella” and in Life Without Instruction, a play by Sally Clark from the early 1990s. (“She’s a right slutbag. Gets that from me. When she started her brothel—I was her first customer!”) The term gained some pop-culture cred after being used in Brittany Murphy’s 2003 comedy Uptown Girls. In the last decade, the word has also been thrown at the likes of Lindsay Lohan and True Blood‘s Sookie Stackhouse; American Idol’s Adam Lambert even used it to describe himself in 2009 Details interview. Which is all to say, though some political wonks may be hearing the term for the first time, slutbag has long gotten around.
These most recent Weiner events have already been dubbed “slutbag-gate.” And if that sticks, there’s certainly a chance slutbag will enjoy far more than the 15-minutes of fame the invective is getting now.
This is an edition of Wednesday Words, a weekly feature on language. For the previous post, click here.