Here's a word that everyone seems to love. It really can't seem to make up its mind whether its been reclaimed or not, can it. I don't know what female dogs ever did for their correct term to gain such complicated range of signification.
I first consciously came across the word in a primary school playground. I'd've been about 8. The school was in a rough neighbourhood and I was reagarded as being relatively 'soft' and 'posh'. However I was rarely bullied; my classmates merely regarded my sensitve nature and slightly middle class accents as minor disabilities which allowed me extra leeway. On occasion, however, it would be decided that I needed the edges knocking off me in as gentle a way as possible. One day, a girl called Tamela Parkin cornered me and informed she was giving me a test. Her peer group wanted to know if I understood what swears meant, so I was bundled into a quiet corner and quizzed. Amazingly (to them) I came away with a nearly perfect score. Two rebellious older sisters and access to lots of books not intended for me meant that my grasp of the required vocabulary was pretty comprehensive. The only two words I failed on were bitch and bastard, which were helpfully defined for me by Tammy as 'a girl dog' and 'somebody without a dad'. As my own father had recently left the family home, drastically improving my home life, I wasn't sure how bastard worked as an insult. Also, I thought dogs were nice enough animals, but chalked it up to the tradition of livestock based invective I was used to hearing on the playground.
But bitch is different to cow and pig and cat and toad etc etc. It was on Tammy's official swear list. In my subsequent experience it went along with words like Virago and Harridan and Termagant and Harpy. An insult meaning a woman whose strength and assertiveness in someway threaten a man. These are beautiful words, thoroughly reclaimed by the feminist movement. (eg the women's publishers Virago). In my opinion, bitch is the least of these, but it seems the most popular. I can handle being called a bitch in this contexct.
But no, it's far, far more complex.
If I'm a bitch, fine. But if I become just 'bitch', then the meaning changes. I'm no longer a strong, fierce troublemaker. Now I'm relegated to subordinate being, especially in the context of somekind of relationship. It seems that if I am the superior one in an unequal relationship, I am the 'Daddy' but if I am the inferior one, I'm the other's 'bitch'.
OK. Let's just pause and think about that one.
The power belongs to the daddy. The male patriarch. The highest in the pecking order in a traditional family. OK. we're in a patriarchal world. Masculinity = power in a million and one lingusitic ways. I can kinda see how that happened. But that the lowest in that pecking order is the female dog? "You're my bitch" means "I have dominated you and you must acknowledge me as your superior". And it is applied equally to males and females. It's not enough to imply that the person you are dominating is a subservient, non-human species. No. That doesn't make them feel quite bad enough. Better imply that they are female as well. That'll do it.
What really gets me is when a woman tries to put down a man by calling them a bitch. Unless they are talking about a gay man - at which point the virago-style rules come back into play - any woman who tells a man that they are, for example 'being a little bitch' is using herself as the metaphor which belittles her target. It's just tragic, when you start thinking about it.
Stay tuned for the verbification of 'bitch'.