Why are Women Called Sluts, Dames, and Broads?

Rinni asks: Why are women sometimes called “sluts”, “dames”, and “broads”?  Where did these words come from?

Origin of the Word “Slut”

“Slut” originally didn’t mean at all what it means today.  For instance, in a diary from 1664, Samuel Pepys writes,

“Our little girl Susan is a most admirable slut, and pleases us mightily, doing more service than both the others and deserves wages better.”

In modern day terms, this diary entry seems quite suggestive for a man to describe a servant girl such. However, at this time, while the term had begun to take on a more suggestive connotation of “woman with loose morals”, it still also was commonly used with the original meaning, that of a “messy, dirty, or untidy” woman or girl.  Because of this, it was frequently used at this time as a name for kitchen maids and servant girls, as Pepys was talking about in the above quote.

The word first popped up in English with this latter “slovenly” definition around the 14th century and by the 15th century had started to be used to describe promiscuous women as well.  It also came to be a somewhat common term for an ugly woman, as in a quote from 1715, “Nor was she a woman of any beauty, but was a nasty slut.”

In the 19th century in England, slut still retained something of its original meaning, even so far as garbage cans being called “slut-holes”, meaning a hole for rubbish.  This can be seen in a Saturday Review snipped from 1862, “There are a good many slut-holes in London to rake out.”

Much more recently, Helen Fielding in Bridget Jones’s Diary used the word “slut” with its original meaning, “Check plates and cutlery for tell-tale signs of sluttish washing up…”, so the original meaning is still around, albeit much less commonly used now than the “promiscuous” definition.

As to where the word “slut” came from, that isn’t entirely known.  It may have come from the German “schlutt”, meaning “slovenly woman” or the Swedish “slata”, meaning “idle woman”.

Origin of the Word “Dame”

“Dame” popped up in English around the 13th century from the Old French “dame”, meaning “wife / mistress”, which in turn came from the Latin “domina”, meaning “mistress of the house, lady”.  “Domina” has its origins in the same Latin word that “domestic” ultimately came from, namely “domus”, meaning “house”.

In the 13th century, “dame” was synonymous with “female ruler” (and indeed even today “Dame” is considered the female equivalent of “Sir”, as in knighthood, in the UK. Further, originally a knight’s wife was given the title of “Dame”, though this changed to be “Lady” a few centuries after “dame” entered English.) By the 14th century, “dame” extended to also being sometimes used generically as a title for a housewife.  Around the early 20th century in American English, “dame” started to be used as synonymous with the generic word “woman” and gradually over the course of the last century in American English has come to have derogatory connotations, despite its illustrious origins.

Origin of the Word “Broad”

“Broad”, as referring to a woman rather than something with great breadth, has slightly less certain origins.  It first popped up being used this way in the very early 20th century.  Theories as to its origin include simply referencing a woman’s broad hips, or perhaps from the American English “abroadwife”, which was a term for a slave woman, or just a woman who was separated from her husband.

Another popular theory is that it came from a slang term for a ticket, such as a train ticket, a meal ticket, a sporting event admission ticket, etc.  This slang term became common around 1912 and by 1914 “broad” was being used, among other things, to refer to a prostitute, thus a pimp’s “meal ticket”.  “Broad” possibly came to mean “ticket”, from the 18th century practice of sometimes calling playing cards “broads”.  This derives from the fact that in the early 20th century, many types of tickets often resembled playing cards.  This theory is attested in the 1914 work A Vocabulary of Criminal Slang, by Jackson and Hellyer where they define Broad as:

Noun, Current amongst genteel grafters chiefly. A female confederate; a female companion, a woman of loose morals. Broad is derived from the far-fetched metaphor of ‘meal ticket,’ signifying a female provider for a pimp, from the fanciful correspondence of a meal ticket to a railroad or other ticket.

Whatever the case, when “broad” first showed up as referring to a woman, it generally was used to signify a prostitute or immoral women.  This gradually changed somewhat in the century since with “broad” slowly coming to be less used as a derogatory term and more used just to be synonymous with “woman”.  One of the earliest instances of this was in the 1932 “Guys and Dolls”, where one characters refers to another as a broad without any negative connotation.

This change is in contrast to “dame”, which used to be solely an honorific title that has gradually come to be used in a derogatory sense.  As Frank Sinatra said, “Calling a girl a ‘broad’ is far less coarse than calling her a ‘dame’.”

In the cases of “broad” and “slut”, there have also been recent efforts to “take back” the terms and spin them in a more positive light.  For instance, in A Dictionary of Words About Women, by Jane Mills, a broad is defined as “a woman who is liberal, tolerant, unconfined, and not limited or narrow in scope.”  “Slut”, while still retaining the same modern “loose woman” connotation, has begun to be a label worn proudly in some circles, though not without controversy.  As Rebecca Traister in the New York Times states,

…at a moment when questions of sex and power, blame and credibility, and gender and justice are so ubiquitous and so urgent, I have mostly felt irritation that stripping down to skivvies and calling ourselves sluts is passing for keen retort…

If you liked this article and the Bonus Facts below, you might also like:

Bonus Facts:

  • Another common word for a woman, generally a young woman, is “chick”.  This comes from a practice that started around the 17th century of calling children “chicks”, shortened from “chicken” and adopted from the practice of calling baby chickens “chicks” that started around the 14th-15th centuries.  Around the 1920s, “chick” started to be used just to refer to young women, rather than male and female children.
  • Before 1967, a track and field long jump was called a “broad jump”.  However, due to “broad” being seen as an offensive term at this time, and the fact that women were competing in broad jumps, the term was changed to “long jump”.
  • Before “slut” popped up as a word to describe an untidy woman, a variation of it was used by Chaucer to describe a slovenly male, using the word “sluttish” in this sense in 1386.
  • Pieces of a bread loaf that were hard from insufficient kneading were once called “slut pennies”, beginning around the 15th century.  This was in reference to the fact that servant girls and kitchen maids were often called sluts.
  • While today “domestic violence” tends to signify spousal abuse, in the 19th century it meant “revolution / insurrection”.
  • Dame was once used as the name of the game pieces in checkers.
  • “Broad” as in “something wide”, came from the Proto-Germanic “*braidaz”, meaning “broad”.  Where that came from, nobody knows for sure.
  • Today “broad” is also a prison slang term for a man who plays the role of a woman in prison lovin’.
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  • First I’ve heard of Dame having a negative meaning!
    I’ve only heard it as in Dame Judy Dench or in 1960s American films talking about “Dames” and I just assumed it was a cool teenager way to say “Girls”….

  • Piers "Morgan" Moron

    That’s what I call anyone, regardless of gender, who does not agree with me.

  • more like filthy sluts, especially the way women have changed today.

  • “slut” also used to mean bitch, as in female canine. Kipling’s “The Return of Imray” is the most recent such usage I know of.

  • My British mum would say things like ‘let’s be sluts and leave the washing up til tomorrow’. First time I said it in front of my new MIL she nearly fainted, and I don’t think she looked at me in quite the same way after that…

    • LOL! My husband is British, and we both spend a lot of time saying “Wait a minute – what does that word mean in YOUR country?”

      It’s pretty funny trying to navigate the “Two Englishes”.

  • The confusion over the use of the word “slut” comes from it having become synonymous with “dirty”. Dirty can mean in cleanliness, or it morals – And so “slut” also took on the duality.

    I have always believed the whole issue comes from “unclean”. “Dirty” or “slut” when referring to a woman could therefore mean slovenly in housework, or unclean in reference to infections (sexually-transmitted diseases).

  • Two Englishes —> two dialects of English

  • I always thought that “broad” had some connection with “bride” and or “Bridey” or “Bridget.” I assumed it was a generic word for a women from some old, possibly Celtic, language in the same way as “Sheilagh” but I’ve never researched it.

    Similarly I thought that “chick” must be from the Yiddish “Schickse” which I believe means a gentile woman and that maybe “guy” was related to “Goy” meaning a gentile man. Of course this too was only an unresearched speculation and is as far as I know, nowhere validated in scholarly sources or it may be that Yiddish appropriated “guy” and “chick”. Shakespeare’s MacDuff refers to his murdered children as “my pretty chickens” and their murdered mother as their “Dam.” So it is simply derived from an infantilising endearment? How disappointing.
    Disclaimer – I admit I know nothing about etymology – I just like language.

    • Actually Shickse was a derogatory term Jews called Non Jewish females but isn’t used as such now, Similar to the way Chinese call westerners guailo which was insulting but is commonly used now.

    • An alternative to the “chicks”/children origin story, not related below, traces the word to Spanish-to-English migration of the word “chica.”

  • Yiddish didn’t get “goy” from English “guy,” though that’s an amusing idea. “Goy” is a Hebrew word meaning “nation.” It came to refer to non-Jewish persons because of it frequent biblical use in the collective phrase “the nations,” (plural “goyim”) referring to all the nations _other than_ the Jewish people. So, by extension, a non-Jew was being referred to as “a person of one of the nations.”

  • “Broad” is a naval reference to the length of a ship’s rail. In early days a ship battle would form as a mutual Broadside. Two ships ‘en Passant’, firing all guns on the passing side at each other.

    When a ship would dock the “unsavory ladies” would line the docks. (A Broadway typically being the wide street where they loaded and unloaded ships, sometimes called a board walk if planked. The ladies who would stand along the broadside of a docked ship,and solicit the sailors were called “broadside girls”, eventually shortened to Broads.

  • As a Londoner, I was taught that the the terms “birds” and “chicks” came from the prostitutes that were licensed by the Bishop of Winchester to ply their trade in Southwark in the 12th century.
    The Bishop owned the fields on the river Thames where he raised and fed his geese, thus the local ladies of the night became the “Winchester Geese”.
    As these ladies were forced to live in the area they plied their trade, they were also part of the Bishop’s congregation each Sunday, from whence came the word “flock”.

  • Well lets face it, Most of the women out there these days are Nothing like the good old fashioned women of years ago were, that is for sure. And many of you that were Blessed to be in a good marriage, be very thankful for what you have.

  • Be careful how you use the word ‘slut’. Godfrey Bloom got into all sorts of trouble for saying it. or was that bongo bongo?

  • Most women aren’t women anymore these days.

  • Um.. No. A slut is a pregnant sow. That is, a pregnant pig.

    (I couldn’t read past the first one because it was just so off!)

  • Broad came from butchers shops in the late 19th early 20th century, referring to a piece of meat that was held aloft by a stick.

  • Let’s see some substantiation for your claim that “dame” is derogatory! The SOED doesn’t flag it as such, and I’ve never heard it used negatively by anyone who wouldn’t also use the word “woman” dismissively or with contempt. The word “dame” when used for women in general (as opposed to minor nobility) is simply slang.

  • I would rather be called a “broad,” “chick,” OR “dame” than a “bitch,” “cunt,” or “ho.”

  • if ‘broad’ is early 20th century is it possible it was a more phonetic spelling of bra’d? which was invented in the early 20th century …

  • some women have changed the definition of a slut to someone who enjoys frequent sex with little negative connotation and a tramp or ho as someone who does it for money/ prostitution

  • Well that is one way to describe them.

  • I’m an Australian, and my mother (born 1909) told me that, in her youth, polite people would never use the word, “bitch” for a female dog. I only found that out when she casually used the term, “slut” with the same connotation. I also noted in one of Henry Lawson’s short stories of the late 19th century, he also called a female dog a slut.

  • What happened to the good old days when most women were Real Ladies back then? Today they’re so very horrible and evil.

    • Think about it, what’s the common denominator between you and all these women you think are evil? Well, you are. Maybe it’s not then maybe it’s you…

  • Anonymous With The Truth

    Most women in the past were very Normal.

  • Barney Rubble

    Regardless of your gender, it’s obvious which words have a negative intent/connotation…while others are far more simple to understand. For myself coming from the beatnik era, the word “chicks” simply meant “the girls”. The guys were the “the guys/dudes”.

    I feel like some day there will be no flexibility. We’ll refer to each other as female and male. Try plugging in those terms into your regular conversation…even that will piss off someone.

  • Not everybody seems to be here for the etymology.

  • The word “slut”, when used to describe a woman in/from any time period is derogatory. The degree of insult intended may always be contingent upon time period and context, but it is not a polite term, nor has it ever been.

    The word “broad” when used to describe a woman, is–at a minimum–a dismissive term, and in 2020–impolite.

    The word “dame”, when used to describe a woman, is typically a complimentary term, even though it has been regarded in recent times (1970s-on) as mildly dismisive or objectifying.

    Words evolve and worlds dissolve.
    What can’t be reckoned can’t be solved.

  • The term Broad comes from the now extinct vegetable Broad Beans. Women used to be ‘full of beans’ hence the term Broad.
    In Britain in the 18th century most women were only allowed to eat Broad Beans and very little else, possibly occasional Runner Beans.
    Most women back then lived in Norfolk – which is where the local term Norfolk Broads originated.
    The term Broadly Speaking refers to words uttered by a woman or women. Equally the phrase its as broad as it is long refers to long or wide women from Norfolk.

  • Is there not one Christian or Jew that has ever read this article? In the Bible that is a woman named Rahab. She was a prostitute. The name in Hebrew means broad, wide or large. In the case when referring to a woman, you can imagine her actions as wide if you know what I mean.

  • This article reminds me of the movie “To Sir with Love” and the “incident” in the classroom.