A veterinary practice is usually quite a civilised place. Receptionists are helpful and polite, the nurses are caring, and the vets work hard. So why does everyone who works at the vets swear in public?! “We’ll book you in for a bitch spay.” “She’s a breeding bitch.” “She’s a healthy bitch, isn’t she!” How rude!
Joking aside, most people are aware of the difference between the term we use for a non-spayed female dog, a ‘bitch’, and the swearword ‘bitch’. But does this make it okay? Is it wrong to call a female dog a ‘bitch’?
Language is incredibly complex and ever changing; what is an appropriate word for some may be offensive to others. This may change as a person changes too. And this is before we even get into other languages, where similar sounding words can have very different meanings.
What does this mean for the word ‘bitch’? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘bitch’ used to be spelt differently (‘bicce’ or ‘bicge’) but still referred to any female dog. This was in Old English, in around 1000CE. We may have borrowed this word from the Vikings, who had a similar word ‘bikkja’. It was not uncommon to have different words for the male and female of species – many are still in use today! Horses are stallions and mares, cats toms and queens, and rabbits bucks and does. Humans can be lazy with language, and one word is better than two, so it is easier to say ‘bitch’ than ‘female dog’.
Don’t Insult Me!
We aren’t always nice to our fellow humans, and we have probably been insulting each other since before language existed! There’s evidence that the Romans insulted each other on the walls of Pompeii, Shakespeare loved an insult, and even the Bible contains insults.
As a proud human, being compared to an animal is rather insulting! Who wants to be called a pig or a dog? Dog was quite a common insult in the Middle Ages. Again, Shakespeare frequently wrote characters insulting others by calling them a ‘dog’. They can be violent, smelly, dirty, shameless, overly excited or show other negative qualities.
Sadly, in olden times, women had a lot less rights and respect than nowadays, and insults were thrown freely to degrade them. One of the worst was ‘bitch’, comparing a woman to a female dog in heat. This had negative connotations of being overly sexual, a prostitute, impetuous, flirtatious or other qualities that were not appropriate in those times. It was used in a similar way to the word ‘whore’.
In the 19th and 20th century, ‘bitch’ was still primarily used against women, but less for its sexual connotations. Instead, it implied a woman was too loud, strong, powerful, edgy or outgoing. Again, these traits were not commonly considered acceptable in woman at that time.
Today, ‘bitch’ still is used as an insult against women as described above, but is also used to refer to people of any gender considered weak or subservient. Notably, the word is also starting to be used in a more positive light, among friends as a term of endearment, or even used to market products! The way language changes can sometimes be unusual.
Throughout the evolution of ‘bitch’ as a swearword or insult, it has remained a term for a female dog. However, it has fallen out of fashion with most of the general public, and is now mainly used among breeders and in the veterinary world. Nevertheless, the use of the word does make some people uncomfortable. Furthermore, it could be implying that the dog in question is not a pleasant dog. Should we still be using it at all?
What’s the Verdict?
There is no real answer to this question, and everyone will likely have different opinions. In the veterinary world, ‘bitch’ is used so freely as a term for a female dog, that we usually do not register that it is a swearword as well. They may as well be two completely separate words. Some vets may be aware the term is contentious and try not to use it in front of clients anyway. Others have no such qualms and are happy to use it in front of clients, assuming the client will know they or their dog are not being insulted!
If even one person is uncomfortable with the use of the word in reference to their dog, perhaps we should make some attempts to phase it out? It is a rather archaic word, after all – just ask the Vikings! As we mentioned above, many vets are already doing this. Good alternatives are lady, girl, entire female, or even just female dog. All of these terms are clear and will not insult anyone. Language evolves and so can we – do we still need to be talking like filthy Vikings anymore? On the other hand, ‘bitch’ is just a technical term, and is it the job of a vet to ensure each and every client is not insulted when no insult was given?
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