Was it sexual in reference or wasn’t it? According to the BBC radio news, after Godfrey Bloom, elected as a Ukip MEP, had said that all we women who didn’t clean behind the fridge were ‘sluts’, he justified himself by saying he had used the word in the ‘old-fashioned’ sense. I’m not sure history is on his side.
The first use of slut in the sense of a ‘woman of a low or loose character’, as the Oxford English Dictionary quaintly puts it, comes from the middle of the 15th century. That is exactly the same period in which the fridge-dusting sense originates, even though fridges hadn’t yet been invented for the specific purpose of dust preservation.
Caxton’s chum Wynkyn de Worde thought it worth printing an amusing poem called Cocke Lorelles Bote, which refers unmistakably to sluttes and drabbes. By Shakespeare’s day Nicholas Breton, one of my poetic minor heroes, was writing about someone who would ‘swap each slut, upon the lippes, that in the darke hee meetes’. That was in the tavern, not behind the fridge.
The meaning ‘woman of dirty, slovenly, or untidy habits’ ran in parallel from the 15th century onwards, and always risked being confused with the other meaning. What, for example, was one to make of ‘the foulest slutte of all a town’ (Hoccleve)? And a writer in 1450 quotes someone’s mention of ‘unclene wymmen’ by which, he says innocently, ‘slottes I suppose it meanes’.
Yet slut could be used as an endearment. Bunyan observes in The Pilgrim’s Progress of all places that a mother may cry out
‘against her Child in her lap, when she calleth it Slut and naughty Girl, and then falls to hugging and kissing it’.
The triumph of the sexual sense of slut was confirmed in 2011 when a march was organised in Toronto after a policeman remarked that ‘women should avoid dressing like sluts’ in order to avoid rape or unwanted attentions. Protesting women, some dressed in a supposedly sluttish way, held what was called a SlutWalk (in that annoying way of running two words together with a capital letter in the middle). Such walks are now a regular event, heaven help us.
But there are two special uses of slut that may appeal to Mr Bloom, if he links women in his mind with housework. One is a name for those hard bits you can find in a loaf when the dough hasn’t been kneaded poorly. They’re called slut’s pennies. The other is a name for the little rolls of fluff to be found under some beds: slut’s wool. It will, I think, be uphill work for Mr Bloom to revive these two usages.