I did. And the Oxford English Dictionary provided the answer.
Recently I wrote a post for the Oxford Dictionaries Blog about sexist language to tie in with International Women’s Day. One of the things I was curious about was why terms for sexually promiscuous men and women are so different. Being labelled a “slut” is negative, while being called a “playa” just doesn’t carry the same judgement.
Anyway, I decided to research these words and find out their etymology. The OED tracks a word’s meaning and usage by finding examples of it in print.
Slut is of doubtful origin. The earliest reference to it comes from as far back as 1402, and used to mean a slovenly or untidy woman. The first known reference to slut as a promiscuous woman is from around 1450 – “Com forth, thou sloveyn! com forthe, thou slutte!”
Here slut is used ambiguously and could refer to a woman of unclean habits. Clearer examples can be found in Nicholas Breton’s 1577 Floorish vpon Fancie (“To haunt the Tauerns late And swap ech slut, vpon the lippes, that in the darke hee meetes”) and Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy from 1621 (“A peevish drunken flurt, a waspish cholerick slut.”). Of course, references to unclean habits don’t necessarily exclude sexual behaviour – since 1599 dirty has been used to mean ‘morally unclean’, ‘impure’ or ‘smutty’.
Slapper used to mean a large object or a strapping, or overgrown person. In its modern sense the term found its way into the 1990 Bloomsbury Dictionary of Contemporary Slang, which describes slapper as a working-class term from East London and Essex meaning ‘prostitute’ or ‘slut’. It’s possible that the word may have its roots in the Yiddish schlepper, meaning an ‘unkempt, scruffy person; gossipy, dowdy woman’ but its etymology is unclear.
Slightly less egregious – although not by much – is bimbo. Bimbo comes from the Italian, bambino, meaning ‘little child’. In American slang it dates from around 1919 and was originally used as a contemptuous term for ‘fellow’ or ‘chap’ but since the 1920s bimbo has been used to describe a prostitute or a sexually attractive woman of little intelligence, which is now the usual sense of the word.
While slut and slapper are the most common terms in use today, there are plenty of synonyms for them – tart, harlot, minx, jade, strumpet, hussy, trollop and tramp. While there are equivalent terms for men, these don’t carry the same pejorative connotations.
Consider the slang neologisms such as manwhore and playa. The amusing if not terribly scholarly Urban Dictionary defines manwhore as (among other things) ‘a badge of f***ing pride’, and notes that ‘it is “cool” and “hip” to be labeled as a “playa”. A female version of this would be slut.’
Older terms for promiscuous men include philanderer – “a man who philanders; a male flirt”; rake, which the OED explains is “a fashionable or stylish man of dissolute or promiscuous habits”; and sybarite, who we may disapprove of for being “devoted to luxury or pleasure” and “an effeminate voluptuary or sensualist” to boot. As I’m sure you’ll have noticed these terms are not in frequent usage these days, nor are whoremonger, lecher, debauchee or roué. Even playboy sounds a little outdated to contemporary ears.
Playboy originates from Irish English and refers to a wealthy man who pursues pleasure, is irresponsible and sexually promiscuous. The original playboy was Christy Mahon from JM Synge’s 1907 play, The Playboy of the Western World, although these days when most people hear the term they think of a dirty magazine and the smoking-jacket-wearing old codger who made a fortune from it.