Slut: What’s In a Word?

It’s not nice to call a woman a slut. But maybe it’s not about sex as much as we think. At least not originally.

The origin of slut is uncertain. We don’t know where it’s been, though it’s gotten around. But there are some guesses. The English Oxford Dictionary encourages us to compare slut with the German word schlutt (which today is confined to a dialect).

Slut originally meant “a woman of dirty, slovenly, or untidy habits or appearance.” A 16th century English translation of Stefano Guazzo’s Civil Conversation contains this gem: “I haue noted often those dames which are so curious in their attire, to be verie sluttes in their houses.”

I guess that could have a double meaning, but I don’t think Guazzo meant it that way.

Its medieval use wasn’t strictly gendered even if it did usually refer to women. Geoffrey Chaucer, in the Yeoman’s Tale, has the character ask, “Why is thy lord so sluttish, I thee pray.”

Slovenliness is often associated with poverty, and as recently as the 1800s slut could be used without sexual connotations. In The Saint’s Tragedy Charles Kingsley refers to “almshouses for sluts whose husbands died.”

Associated with sloppiness is cleaning up the mess, as in this diary entry from 1663: “Our little girl Susan is a most admirable slut and pleases us mightily, doing more service than both the others and deserves wages better.”

How did slut as a sloppy woman migrate to a poor woman, and finally to a sexually indiscriminate woman?

Dunno. Slovenliness and poverty have long been attributed to low morals (poverty being systemic is a very recent idea). And perhaps prostitution, being a fate more common among poor women, had something to do with it.

Of course, the progression might not have been linear as words can have multiple meanings depending on context. But by the 20th century, slut had an exclusively sexual meaning.

Yet, even today the socio-economic aspect lingers. Elizabeth A. Armstrong‘s research at the University of Michigan found that slut shaming is often a competitive strategy to keep women with a lower socio-economic status away from high status men.