MIDWAY: No ‘bitchin’ in Big Apple?

There’s no doubt that the word “bitch” can be very offensive indeed — a term used to denounce women as vicious, sluttish and underhand. In fact, a dictionary from 1811 defined it as “the most offensive appellation that can be given to an English woman”.

And it is this definition that Council woman Darlene Mealy, of Brooklyn, has cited as she calls for the word to be banned in New York. Her move follows a similar symbolic ban on the N-word, and 19 out of 51 of Mealy’s fellow council members have supported her. The fact that 32 are yet to sign up seems to underline not just an uneasiness with banning words, but an ambivalence about this particular one, which has, after all, many meanings.

In some situations the B-word can actually be positive. In 1980s California, for instance, “bitchin’!” became the contemporary version of “that’s hot”, and is still occasionally used worldwide with affectionate irony. Another less offensive usage is when people talk about having a “good bitch”, meaning gossiping — a use that can suggest a subversive camaraderie.

Over the past decade or so, there have also been feminist attempts to reclaim the word. The argument goes that women have often been denounced as “bitches” simply for being outspoken and challenging — and so the word should be a badge of pride, hence the title of the US feminist magazine Bitch.

However, there is no doubt that use of the B-word has strayed into dodgy territory. Calling someone “my bitch” has long been the parlance of prison inmates, pimps and gangsta rappers, but the phrase now crops up regularly in everyday speech. When applied to either a man or a woman this suggests that someone has been feminised in the worst possible way — reduced to a person to be used, at will, for sex, cash or labour.

This usage (and the related “bitch-slap”) is all about male dominance. Anyone claimed as someone’s “bitch” is immediately designated the woman in the partnership (whatever their actual sex) and, it apparently follows, weak and pitiful in the extreme.

While banning words always seems like a bad plan, when it comes to the latter meaning, I can at least see where Mealy’s coming from.