The English Pedant – How slags became sluts


The exponential boom in pornography in these Internet years has given a voice to all sorts of people, many of whom it would now be unwise to call ‘deviants’ (because we’re not allowed to dismiss anyone as bad unless they actually harm people). And with their perfectly legitimate sexual chatter comes their language and vocabulary.

So, on with the latex gloves as we delve into the British English lexicon of sex.

Not so long ago a slag was a woman of loose morals, the easy lay, the office bicycle, the girl who couldn’t say ‘no’.

At the same time, a slut was a physically dirty, unwashed, unkempt woman

Me, dirty? Well it depends what you mean by dirty

Since these are both four-letter words beginning with sl that say something derogatory about women, it is perhaps understandable that they should have become mixed up. Some time in the late 20th century the meaning of slag was transferred to slut, which lost its scruffy, smelly element and took on the indiscriminate sexual hedonist one instead.

Around the same time, the newly-redundant ‘slag’ came to be applied to men. In London’s gangland (if you can believe films like Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels), anyone you didn’t like was a slag – i.e. a despicable person.

tart 2
You call me either of those things and you’re dead, buster

Of course, this leaves a gap where slut used to be. How do we now describe a dirty, unwashed woman without questioning her virtue? The dictionaries, which reflect current usage without attempting to correct it or preserve the original, have all but abandoned it. Or don’t such people exist anymore?

This leads us naturally on to the most versatile word in the English language: the F word. This began life as a simple verb that described having sexual intercourse. It has branched out into many other areas, with the –ing or –ed endings helping it to cover everything from exasperation (that effing dog has eaten my slippers!) to damage beyond repair (my slippers are effed). It can also be used to convey extremes (she’s as sexy as ****/as ugly as ***) and countless other things.

F word
The Urban Dictionary gives the F word the once-over

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the original meaning has had its territory invaded by a host of other words, with various shades of seriousness and profanity. Thus we shag someone, we bonk them, we doink them, we make love with them, we have our way with them and so on. But nothing comes close to the primitive impact of the F word.

Often referred to as a ‘good old Anglo Saxon word’, its origins are far from clear, as the online Oxford Dictionary explains: “Early 16th century: of Germanic origin (compare Swedish dialect focka and Dutch dialect fokkelen); possibly from an Indo-European root meaning ‘strike’, shared by Latin pugnus ‘fist’.”

Who re you calling a slag? Footballer-turned-actor, the Rev. Vinnie Jones

Whatever the fact of the matter, it’s the ultimate expletive with a host of other uses. Where would many of us be without it?

Or should that be “ Thank **** for this word. Where the **** would we be without it?”


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