Brian Edwards Media

How come it’s OK to call a man ‘a bastard’, but you can’t call a woman ‘a bitch’? Just asking, Dear Heart.

I have been pondering the difference between ‘a bitch’ and ‘a bastard’, and ‘a total bitch’ and ‘a total bastard’. The reason for my pondering is that I’ve observed that while a man may not relish being called ‘a bastard’ or even ‘a total bastard’, he is unlikely to feel that it is the ultimate insult, requiring pistols at dawn. A woman, on the other hand, will react extremely badly to being called ‘a bitch’ and will consider being called ‘a total bitch’ a legitimate defence to a charge of murder.

To resolve this mystery, all you have to do is attempt to soften the impact of each word by attaching a positive epithet to it. For example: a handsome bastard, an attractive bastard, a sexy bastard, a brilliant bastard. Each of these combinations suggests approval or perhaps envy. Even more negative epithets still have this sense of grudging admiration: a ruthless bastard, a devious bastard, a self-serving bastard, a calculating bastard, a cheating bastard, a rich bastard. There’s the envy again. How come he gets away with it when I can’t?

Now try softening the word ‘bitch’: a beautiful bitch, an attractive bitch, a sexy bitch, a brilliant bitch. It doesn’t work. The noun is too powerful for the adjective. It is laden with contempt. The ‘bitch’ might be beautiful, attractive, sexy or brilliant but, spoken by a man, each phrase conveys less admiration or respect that a sense of endangered male status. ‘What she needs…’  

Given that women react so badly to being called ‘a bitch’, it is not surprising that, coming from a woman, ‘bitch’ is a serious insult, with ‘total bitch’ the most egregious of all.

Interestingly, and to make matters worse, Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus has twice as many synonyms for ‘bitch’ meaning ‘a shrew’, as it has for ‘bastard’ meaning ‘a knave’:

Bastard:  blackguard, fraud, heel, lowlife, miscreant, rapscallion, reprobate, rogue, scallywag, scamp, scoundrel, swindler, villain

Bitch: amazon, backbiter, battle-ax, biddy, calumniator, carper, detractor, dragon, fire-eater, fishwife, fury, harpy, harridan, hell cat, hellion, hussy, madcap, muckraker, nag, ogress, old biddy, porcupine, reviler, scold, she-devil, she-wolf, siren, spitfire, termagant, tigress, virago, vituperator, vixen, wench

Hmm. Seems to me that as insults go ‘rapscallion, reprobate, rogue, scallywag, scamp’ and ‘scoundrel’ don’t really cut the mustard compared to ‘backbiter, battle-ax, dragon, fishwife, fury, harpy, harridan, hell cat, nag, ogress, reviler, scold’ and ‘she-wolf’.

‘Bitch’ then evokes something that ‘bastard’ doesn’t – both physical and spiritual malignancy.

None of this would matter if an exact male equivalent of ‘bitch’ or an exact female equivalent of ‘bastard’ existed, but to my knowledge neither does. Maybe it all began with the canine gender meanings of the words, ‘dog’ and ‘bitch’. After all, most guys would be happy to be called ‘you dog’ but ‘you bitch’ is going to get you into a whole lot of trouble. And rightly so. Sometimes the English language just isn’t fair.

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38 Comments:

  1. Thanks for this piece – I enjoyed it. But, when I listen to teenage girls they hardly ever use the word bastard. They will, however, use bitch in a positive way – calling their friends “hot bitches” on their facebook pics in that same admiring or even envious way. Maybe they have transformed a derogatory word into something acceptable in the same way that has been done with “queer”? Isn’t it great how language is continually evolving.

    BE: Indeed, as you say, the same thing has happened with ‘queer’ and with ‘nigger’ among black Americans. But for a straight man to call a gay man ‘queer’ or a white man to call a black man a ‘nigger’ may be an entirely different ball game.

  2. 2

    Dear me Brian, among the gay, theatrical/arts, media and chattering classes, ‘bitch’ has become a harmless part of the parlance – I put it down to the influence of Absolutely Fabulous et al, as in “you’re a fabulous old bitch, sweetie.” There is also the mutch less loaded “be-atch” or “be-otch”, which is quite popular with the kids.
    Bastard is largely without perjorative meaning in the modern world – legitimacy is mostly a non-issue (pardon the pun). The expression “good bastard” is a positively quaint kiwism, but so much nicer than the newer equivalent of “good c***t”.

    BE: Don’t ‘dear me’, Andrew Paul Wood. I’m not talking about ‘the gay, theatrical/arts, media and chattering classes’, I’m talking about ordinary people, sweetie.

  3. Brian, I don’t mean to bitch and moan but you’re barking up the wrong tree. Margot nicely points out that bitches are owning that word these days. The same goes for the word that rappers, Mark Twain and Quentin Tarantino are fond of. You know, the N word.

    I corroborate Andrew’s point that “good cun*” has emerged as a newer version of “good bastard” as a term on endearment and respect. NZers are equal opportunity swearers.

    BE: See my reply to Andrew Paul Wood below.

  4. ” How come it’s OK to call a man ‘a bastard’, but you can’t call a woman ‘a bitch’? ”

    WHO says you can’t?

    BE: Oh, you can. Come round to our place and try it on Judy. You have got health inusrance, I assume.

  5. I’d probably laugh if someone tried to insult me with “bitch”. In the same way I’d laugh at a little kid trying to shock by yelling “bum”.

    Clever or apposite insults might bite, but generic “swear words”? Not since primary school.

    BE: So if someone you respected said to you, ‘Sarah, you really are a total bitch,’ you’d find that quite amusing?

  6. Australian feminist Dale Spender did some interesting work on this topic some years ago, described in her book, “Man made language”. In it she noted – as seen in your comparison of “bitch” with “bastard” – that there are many more swearwords for women than for men, and that the swearwords applicable to women tend to be much more derogatory.

    BE: Thank you, Kate, I was beginning to think I’d got it completely wrong.

  7. BE: So if someone you respected said to you, ‘Sarah, you really are a total bitch,’ you’d find that quite amusing?

    Absolutely. If someone tried to use it as a serious attempt to put me down I’d find it ridiculous. And if it was someone I respected I’d wonder what screw had rattled loose.

    But then I’m sure calling someone a “strumpet” was, at some point, quite the insult too.

  8. It is the context and social situation its used in that defines its ability to insult.Obviously at your house Brian its not appropriate…..ever.Ive also noticed pronunciation has changed in some situations with bee atch seeming to be popular lately.In my situation barstard seems to have lost favour. Who can forget the ever loved Alan BStard?

  9. It seems to be the context and social situation each is used in which defines it’s ability to insult.In your house Brian its not appropriate….ever.I notice the pronunciation “bee atch” seems to have become popular lately.Who can ever forget the lovable rogue and role model for ACT, Alan BStard .

  10. Bitchen…wicked, great, awesome.
    “Your girlfriend is bitchen dude.”

    Bitching…nagging, whinging, moaning.
    “Your girlfriend is inclined to complain about your activities on a regular basis, sir.”

  11. Well, there might be another explanation — in a society where being born outside wedlock doesn’t carry the same social and legal stigma it once did, “bastard” isn’t quite such a hideous slur as it once was. (And to be pedantic, ‘bastard’ in that sense is equally applicable to women.)

    “Bitch”… well, I’d submit there’s still an atavistic kick to any insult that equates human beings with animals. To take another example: Calling someone a pig may seem relatively mild. In a cultural context where (say) eating pork is forbidden because pigs are considered ritually unclean, that would be one hell of a fighting word.

    And, FWIW, the Broadcasting Standards Authority regularly surveys unacceptable language. IIRC, the one swear word that was considered universally unacceptable for broadcast (regardless of the time or context) was a certain vulgar term for female genitalia that begins with C-. Make of that what you will.

  12. At primary school I called a girl a bitch. She responded with a huge haymaker, which, nearly 50 years later, I can still see hurtling towards my head.

    After I had picked myself up off the ground, Sr Mary Thump ‘em Hard gave me a few whacks with the strap. Those were the days when teachers were allowed to do that, and it was accepted.

    A few decades later, one of my daughters, then in her very late teens, announced that I was her sister’s ‘bitch’.

    I was assured that it was a compliment.

    BE: Lovely story.

  13. This only touches the surface of language inequities, eg:

    Why is calling someone a dick only a mild insult compared to calling them a c***? (And where are tit, boob, bum, asshole and scrote on the bodypart insult heirachy?)

    Isn’t a whore of much lower repute than a gigolo, although a madam has a better one than a pimp. Is a rent-boy any better or worse than a call-girl?

    And why do sons of bitches get a special mention, but their daughters nothing?

    BE: No, but it wasn’t intended to be a Ph.D. thesis. You’ll note that it was in the form of a question which has produced some interesting answers.

  14. @Paul Corrigan. Those were the days Paul. Got the same treatment from Mother Ambrose, who announced to the class that a non catholic lady had reported that my sister and I and two friends had been seen in our back yard smoking cigarettes. When my father found out, he rang up the parish priest and said that what we did in his backyard was his business and nothing to do with the nosey neighbour and the school.

  15. Edward:

    Was your Mother Ambrose a Brigidine?

    Yes, sometimes Catholic parents could show a strong streak of rebellion against Church authority. My Dad did it twice, from memory, singularly undeterred by threats of Hellfire and Damnation.

    BE: Brigidine – not in the Shorter Oxford. Enlighten me please.

  16. It’s an order of nuns, like the Mercy sisters (and boy wasn’t THAT a misnomer?) or the Carmelites or the Poor Clares.

    BE: Thanks Don.

  17. Following on from Don …

    An order of Irish-based sisters, some of whom were also New Zealanders. They taught, from memory, at Pahiatua, Masterton, Carterton, Johnsonville, and Porirua. Perhaps other places.

    I asked Edward whether Mother Ambrose was a Brigidine because they were addressed as ‘Mother’. The others were ‘Sister’, or ‘S’ter’.

    Oddly enough, I retain a great deal of affection for the various nuns who taught me. Often they were very kindly women, despite their ability to dish out some ferocious thrashings.

  18. 18

    BE: Don’t ‘dear me’, Andrew Paul Wood. I’m not talking about ‘the gay, theatrical/arts, media and chattering classes’, I’m talking about ordinary people, sweetie.

    Brian, whom I hold in the highest regard, whom I grew up with on the telly as proof you could be an intellectual in NZ(being only a whippersnapper of 35 myself and deferring to your accumulated wisdom), I trust you are not suggesting that ‘the gay, theatrical/arts, media and chattering classes’ are not ‘ordinary people’. That sort of talk will get you lynched in parts of Auckland and Wellington.

  19. @Paul Corrigan. Don’t know for sure Paul. They wore a creamy white garment with a black veil and taught at St Mary’s Kaikorai in Dunedin.
    Had a similar eperience as you. My father got a sweet little ardent Irish Catholic lady up the duff and did the honourable thing by converting to catholicism and marrying her. It was obvious that he was no believer, since he was not unknown to make rude jokes about the Pope,Jesus,and the nuns etc in front of us kids. However, he accompanied his beloved wife to church every Sunday and was polite to the parish priest when he made his usual visits. No doubt because he once said that he thought that priests, police and doctors had a very difficult position to hold in life. He was a fire breathing dragon of a man and didn’t put up with any nonsense from anyone, including catholic priests. I can vividly remember him sitting on his tattered throne of an arm chair,in his Englishman’s castle, banging his hand down firmly on the armrest while telling the priest that he wanted Edward to “learn just the three Rs; Reading, Writing and Rithmatic and NO RELIGION”. I was duly sent to a non catholic school and the family was threatened with excommunication, much to my Mother’s consternation. A compromise was quickly reached, where I was to attend religious instruction once a week at the parish. Needless to say, my meek little mother and autocratic but reasonable father made a great combination. The only time I heard him raise his voice to her was to say something like “I TOLD YOU NOT TO LET HIM blah blah blah….something like “use my rose pruning shears to cut wire and tin cans”…or something like that…referring to me of course. It seems that my dear’ sweet, little, saintly mammy looks forward to being buried beside him in his Houston grave site with its kitchy concrete angel she had erected where you would find a grave stone.

    BE: Thanks Edward. I just love these stories and would be delighted to see more of them. In fact we could abandon all the argy-bargy and convert the site into a repository of wonderful anecdotes and personal confessions. More please.

  20. I remember an Australian mini-series, from the eighties I think, about the Bodyline cricket series of the early thirties. It was lamentable on many levels, but did have some memorable moments. English captain Douglas Jardine was portrayed as a caricature of the stuck up upper class English twit. Outraged at being called a bastard by one of the Australians, he visited their dressing room after play in search of an apology. His door hammering is eventually answered. “One of your chaps called me a bastard, I demand a retraction” fumed Jardine. The laconic Aussie who answered the door slowly turns around and drawls to his teammates. “This bastard wants to know which of you bastards called him a bastard”.

    Apropos of nothing really, accept that Oz culture celebrates larrikinism, and bastard is often more or less an affectionate term over there.

    Another memorable moment: Jardine whilst fielding swats at a fly. “Leave our flies alone you pommie bastard!!” yells one of the crowd. I have read that both of these comic moments were based on real incidents.

    BE: Thanks Bill. And see my reply to Edward.

  21. I think Brian that “bastard” does mean something good about a bloke, where as the word “bitch” does not mean something good about a woman. For example the last bitch I met was the lawyeress who handled my divorce (fees and hostile communications) and the last bastard I met was a lawyer friend who reckoned he found out to late I was getting divorced and could have saved me a bit of dosh and decided to commiserate on that fact (please correct spelling mistake) with me by “shouting” me several beers on “his shout” and ‘accicentally” charging them up to my bar tab. But at least he lasted the distance.

    This will probably get me banned from your web site (I’m happy to cop a two week ban)but I am compelled to respond to what you have written
    and I quote

    None of this would matter if an exact male equivalent of ‘bitch’ or an exact female equivalent of ‘bastard’ existed, but to my knowledge neither does. Maybe it all began with the canine gender meanings of the words, ‘dog’ and ‘bitch’.

    Let me put it simply – lets let the word bitch remain, and replace the word “bastard” with “prick” and certainly we will end up with bastards.

    I rest my case and have banned myself for a month.

    BE: I can’t see any reason to ban you for a perfectly reasonable comment (and solution). Perhaps you should wait till Lent to ban yourself.

  22. Favourite specific piece of abuse:

    Michael Caine: “If there’s one thing I hate more than a murderer, it’s a dirty, filthy, rotten, stinking grass.”

  23. Let’s not confuse English here, with “American English” – an oxymoron if ever there was one, for as we all ought know, Americans may use words familiar to us English speakers but have an entirely differnt language.

    And could one still consider oneself an intellectual on the telly if one uses a phrase such as “whom I grew up with”, as opposed to “with whom I grew up”?

    BE: Ah, you’re obviously not familiar with Winston Churchill’s famous: “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.” Fowler’s Modern English Usage is quite comfortable with prepositions at the end of sentences if they serve to avoid an ugly sounding construction.

  24. American English is an oxymoron in exactly the same way as New Zealand English is an oxymoron. In other words, it’s a perfectly sensible technical description, and not an oxymoron at all. I find the way some New Zealanders mock American English to be precious, immature and downright silly actually. American English split off from the home of the language hundreds of years ago, inevitably it has evolved and changed differently, get over it.

    Personally I prefer to celebrate it. Because of American English, my native tongue is the world’s language, and I have access to an unrivalled depth and richness of material without having to become multilingual. This appeals to my lazy streak. Exhibit 1: Last night I was enjoying “Heat” with DeNiro and Pacino on blu-ray. Pure, distilled pleasure from start to finish. DeNiro and Pacino are masters, American English is their medium. You wouldn’t want Rembrandt painting in water colour would you ?

  25. To Zinc …

    Apparently there was an old Latin rule that a preposition can never be last, because the word comes from the Latin ‘placed before’.

    Sir Winston Churchill apparently wrote: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put. to [sic] ridicule the clumsiness which can occur as a result of attempts to avoid final prepositions. No-one could possibly object to This [sic]is something I will not put up with.”

    It’s like the absurd ‘rule’ about splitting infinitives. Although, sometimes, just as a matter of variety, I think to say or write ‘to go boldly’, or even ‘boldly to go’ instead of ‘to boldly go’ is fine.

    BE: Couldn’t agree more about the split infinitives. Without them we’d never have had ‘to boldly go…

  26. On “ending a sentence with a preposition”; given the original topic, I can’t resist adding the tale of the poor Southerner travelling on an aeroplane for the first time. Deciding to strike up a conversation with the well-heeled lady beside him, he asked: “Where y’all from?”
    She replied: “I come from a place where we were raised well enough to know never to end a sentence with a preposition.”
    The bloke thought about this for a moment and asked: “So where y’all from, bitch?”

    And oddly enough, among some elements of the Australian underworld, the epithet “dog” to a bloke is likely to get you a severe kicking at the very least.

  27. I wonder if ‘bastard’ in a positive way comes from that broad streak of larrikinism in NZ’s (and Australia’s) history – valuing men who weren’t always on the right side of the law but who were doers and mates?

    (I hate being called a bitch – there’s something malicious about it – but not as much as that c*** word, which is just plain ugly.)

    BE: Agree on all points. Nell. (Like Nell as a name. Not many Nells about.)

  28. BE: Thanks Edward. I just love these stories and would be delighted to see more of them. In fact we could abandon all the argy-bargy and convert the site into a repository of wonderful anecdotes and personal confessions. More please.

    Your most welcome Brian. I thought you would like that, in view of my having recently read your “Daddy was a German Spy”. An honest and very humorous account of your life from childhood to pubescence to manhood. I just loved it and found untold parallels to my own childhood, which produced the greatest mirth. The only difference being that you lacked the presence of a father. As a child. I never consciously saw my father as a role model and quite often wished he would die in a plane crash while attending conferences and I could sit up watching telly till it ended and take advantage of my mother’s more or less complete lack of control. It wasn’t until later in life that I began to appreciate my father and realise what an influence on the make up of both my sisters and I he had.

  29. Charlie Brooker in The Guardian – note use of the B word:
    “…the Rebecca Black “Friday” affair. In case you’re not aware of it, the trail of events runs as follows: 1) Parents of 13-year-old Rebecca pay $2,000 for her to record a song (and video) called Friday with a company called ARK Music Factory, a kind of vanity-publishing record label specialising in creepy tweenie pop songs. 2) The song turns out to be excruciatingly vapid, albeit weirdly catchy. 3) It quickly racks up 40m views on YouTube, mainly from people marvelling at its compelling awfulness. 4) Rebecca is targeted on Twitter by thousands of abusive idiots calling her a “BITCH” and a “whore” and urging her to commit suicide. 5) She gets very, very upset. 6) Thanks to all the attention, the single becomes a hit. 7) Rebecca becomes an overnight celebrity, goes on The Tonight Show, and donates the proceeds from Friday to the Japan relief effort. So the story had a happy ending, at least for now. But it marks a watershed moment in the history of online discourse: the point where the wave of bile and snark finally broke and rolled back.

    God knows I enjoy a helping of bile. But only when it’s crafted with flair. One of the most disappointing things about the slew of online Rebecca Black abuse is the sheer poverty of language involved. If you are complaining about a banal pop song but can’t muster a more inventive way to express yourself than typing “OMFG BITCH YOU SUCK”, then you really ought to consider folding your laptop shut and sitting quietly in the corner until that fallow lifespan of yours eventually reaches its conclusion.”

    BE: Good stuff TRT. And one of the reasons why I find myself on the side of the BSA on the question of the overuse of four-letter-words on television. If you replace all your adjectives with f***ing, and many of your verbs and nouns with f**k, you end up with a completely impoverished vocabulary which, sadly, is what a lot of our young people now have. The other point is that, used sparingly, these are wonderfully useful words which are now losing their currency and impact through overuse.

  30. Several strong minded women of my acquaintance refer to themselves as “Bitch trolls from hell” usually when they are doing battle with insurance company/telecom/bureaucracy. They wear the label with genuine pride and yes I think its ok for a man to call them such; well I have survived so far.

    Brian your list of synonyms revealed some worthy of resurrecting. I can’t wait to call someone a Rapscallion but will avoid embarrassing myself with, scallywag, just doesn’t have the right bite to it.

    Swear words are so overused these days there are so few left with any bite at all. Bitch is hanging in there but its days are numbered. Taking this further I became so alarmed at our shortage of good curses and insults I made a wee study of them. Here’s a nice insult.
    “I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great
    pleasure.” — Clarence Darrow

    Ok just one more .
    “A modest little person, with much to be modest about.” — Winston Churchill

    BE: Good stuff. Sometimes you can be thrown by what someone calls you. Some years ago at a Government House garden party for the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, Dame Cath approached Judy and me with Her Majesty and said, ‘Your Majesty, this is Dr Brian Edwards. He’s a bit of a larrikin.’ What are you supposed to do after that – squirt Her Majesty with the fake rose you’ve got in your buttonhole and say, ‘Whoops your royalness, spot of rain today.’

  31. One of the most disappointing things about the slew of online Rebecca Black abuse is the sheer poverty of language involved.

    I’m more disturbed by the sheer misogyny, bullying and creepily sexualised nature of much of the abuse directed at a thirteen year-old girl. YMMV, but I find that offensive and dangerous even when there’s no cussing involved.

  32. I lived in Greenpoint, NYC, for several years. ‘Bitch’ was a compliment. ‘Hey Bitch’ was about the same as ‘Hey Dude’.
    An insult occurred if the word ‘slut’ or ‘loose’ was used in regard to a woman. Nothing has really changed now. It is still horrible and degrading for a woman to be seen as easily available sexually. Even today I hear educated men using subtle language to negatively refer someone who ‘sleeps around’.
    The term ‘bitchy’ is OK to use when talking to your grandparents these days, without getting a raised eyebrow. ‘Bitch’ isn’t far behind.

  33. What happened to, “You little hussey” and “vixen”?
    Not so mean, those terms.

  34. “What are you supposed to do after that – squirt Her Majesty with the fake rose you’ve got in your buttonhole and say, ‘Whoops your royalness, spot of rain today.’”

    Sounds like a good start and a perhaps whoopee cushion at the royal reception would have cemented your reputation.

    I think the idea of court jesters or perhaps parliamentary larrikins should be restored.
    Imagine the change in the house if a professional comedian had speaking rights and could take the piss out of the pollies with impunity.

    BE: Yes, some very good suggestions there.

  35. 35

    There is in Upper Austria a town called F***ing – yes it exists (it suffers terribly from tourists stealing roadsigns) but is pronounced differently. I have, on occasion, asked various print editors whether they would print the town’s name if it was in an article, and have never yet recieved a straight answer.

  36. The more use a so-called swear word has, the less effective it becomes. “F***” has run its race; even Billy Connolly and Gordon Ramsay don’t use it as much now. What comes next when “c***” has gone the same way?

    BE: Good point and good question. We’ll probably have to go back to ‘darned’ and ‘bloomin”.

  37. Reminds me of the colloquial as quoted in a 19th century narrative,along the lines of “well I met this young tart and she was f*cking comely.So we goes for a walk,came to a f*cking stile,climbed over it into a f*cking field,and had sexual intercourse.”

  38. Just call a woman a bastard also. It gets the point across and is not sexists.