Literally, a female dog. But it has become a slang put-down for a woman (usually), whether or not she’s unreasonable, malicious, a control freak, rudely intrusive, or aggressive. When applied to a man, bitch is a derogatory term for a subordinate. 

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘bitch’ comes from the Old English word bicce, meaning ‘female dog,’ dating back to around 1000 CE. Its original use, documented to the 15th century, suggested high sexual desire in a woman, comparable to a dog in heat.

‘Dog’ has long been used as an insult toward both sexes, including in ancient Greece. The earliest slang meaning of ‘bitch’ mainly referred to a promiscuous or sensual woman. From this rose the powerful insult ‘son of a bitch,’ found ca. 1330 in Arthur and Merlin. Euphemisms are often used for a term like ‘son of a bitch.’ Substitutions are, for example: ‘son of a gun’ or  ’s.o.b.’ Like bitch, the severity of the insult has diminished, and is sometimes simply means “how about that!”

During the 1920s, Ernest Hemingway used ‘bitch’ to represent favorable qualities such as ferocity, edginess, and grit. It was during this time that women began gaining more freedom (such as the right to vote). This newfound female freedom upset the male-dominated society, making anti feminist men of the time feel threatened. Because of this, ‘bitch’ during the twenties often meant “difficult, annoying, interfering, or sexually brazen or vulgar.”

Nowadays, the meaning of the term may vary from offensive to endearing and, as with many slang terms, its meaning and nuances can vary with the region in which it is used.

‘Bitch’ now can refer to a person or thing that is very difficult, as in “Life’s a bitch.” When used as a verb, it means ‘to complain.’ The term bitchin’ arose in the 1950s to describe something cool or rad. It is common for insults to lose intensity as their meaning broadens (‘bastard’ is another example). By 1974, Elton John had a hit single with ‘The Bitch Is Back,’ in which he says ‘bitch’ repeatedly.

Generally, the term is still considered offensive, and not accepted in formal situations. It’s common for the word to be censored on Prime time TV, often rendered as “the b-word.”

In the context of modern feminism, ‘bitch’ has varied reappropriated meanings that may connote a strong female (anti-stereotype of weak submissive woman), cunning (equal to males in mental guile), or else it may be used as a tongue-in cheek backhanded compliment for someone who has excelled in an achievement.

Rappers use the adjective ‘bad bitch’ in a complimentary way to refer to an independent, confident, attractive woman. However, ‘bitch’ is frequently used towards other men in rap lyrics, usually to describe a man who is a subordinate or homosexual, or a man who is supposedly unmanly or inferior in some way. It is also used this way in prisons.

The use of the word ‘bitch’ on television shows tripled between 1998 and 2007, which had much to do with the word’s feminist facelift in the previous decade.

There are several backronyms. Heartless Bitches International is a club with the slogan, “Because we know BITCH means: Being In Total Control, Honey!”

The term ‘bitch slap’ is derived from American slang. In the original sense, a bitch slap is a powerful, full-swing slap in the face with the front of the hand, evoking the way an angry pimp might slap a defiant prostitute (not to be confused with a pimp slap, which uses the back of the hand). However, the term is now frequently used figuratively to describe a humiliating defeat or punishment.

‘Bitch slap’ was what I looked up in the first place, but it turned out to have a lot of history!

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