March is Women’s History Month in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. (Canada celebrates Women’s History Month in October.) Setting aside a special month to celebrate women’s history always has struck me as a mite amusing, because without women there would be no human history.
Let that sink in for a minute.
Women’s History Month traces its origins to the original International Women’s Day, March 8, 1911. In 1980, Jimmy Carter, then President of the United States, expanded the recognition of women’s roles in society to a week. In 1987, the U.S. Congress declared all of March Women’s History Month, but they didn’t make the designation permanent. Each year since (until 2017), the President has proclaimed March Women’s History Month.
Regardless whether Women’s History Month continues in an official capacity or becomes an informal observance, there is no doubt women have changed the world in ways too numerous to mention. Most of us would rather be called “the fairer sex” than “the weaker sex” — but we’ll let men call us whatever (polite) term they desire, because we know who’s really in charge. 😉
Women in 19th Century America knew who was in charge, too. Perhaps nowhere was that more evident than in new vocabulary that entered the lexicon during the period. (How’s that for a segue?) Here are some of the more colorful terms.
California widow: a woman whose husband is away from her for an extended period. Americanism; arose c. 1849 during the California Gold Rush.
Call girl: prostitute who makes appointments by phone; arose c. 1900. To call someone, meaning to use a phone for conversation, arose in 1889 along with the telephone.
Catty: devious and spiteful; c. 1886 from the previous “cattish.” The meaning “pertaining to cats” dates to 1902.
Cute: pretty, 1834 from American English student slang. Previously (1731), as a shortened form of acute, the word meant “clever.”
Drag: women’s clothing worn by a man. 1870s theater slang from the sensation of long skirts trailing on the floor.
Fancy woman: high-dollar whore or a kept woman; possibly from the 1751 use of “fancy” to mean “ornamental.”
Fast trick: loose woman. Of unknown origin, but possibly related to the 15th Century use of the noun “trick” to mean “trifles,” or pretty things with little value. By 1915, “trick” had come to mean a prostitute’s client.
Feathered out: dressed up.
Filly: a young, unmarried woman (literally, a young mare).
Frump, frumpy: cross, unstylish person; sour-looking, unfashionable. The noun arose c. 1817, possibly imitative of a derisive snort. The adverb followed c. 1825. The slang etymology is a bit obscure, although earlier uses of the noun frump meant “bad temper” (1660s) and “cross-tempered” (1746), both of which may have derived from the verb frump, which in the 1550s meant “to mock or browbeat.” All senses may have descended from the late-14th-Century verb frumple, “to wrinkle; crumple.”
Grass widow: divorcee
Gyp: female dog; more polite form of “bitch.” American slang from about 1840 as a shortened form of gypsy, presumably in reference to stray dogs’ wandering nature. By 1889, gyp’s meaning had shifted to “cheat or swindle,” also based on gypsies’ perceived behavior.
High-strung: temperamental, excitable, nervous; c. 1848. Evidently based on earlier (1748) musical term referring to stringed instruments.
Hot flashes: in the menopausal sense, attested from 1887.
Hysteria: mental disorder characterized by volatile emotions and overly dramatic or attention-seeking behavior. When the word arose in 1801 (based on the Latin medical term hysteric), it was applied solely to women and often resulted in their confinement to an asylum. In 1866, clitoridectomy was proposed as a cure.
Lightskirt: woman of questionable virtue. American slang. Date unknown, but most likely from the notion loose women’s skirts lay over fewer petticoats than traditional skirts of the time and therefor were easier to raise.
Painted lady: any woman who wore obvious makeup, primarily entertainers and prostitutes. From the 1650s use of “paint” to mean makeup or rouge.
Scarlet woman, scarlet lady: prostitute. From the 13th Century use of scarlet to mean “red with shame.”
Soiled dove: prostitute; generally considered the kindest of such terms. Most likely a conflation of the 13th Century definition of “soil” (to defile or pollute with sin) and the Christian use of “dove” to indicate gentleness or deliverance.
Sporting house: brothel. Arose latter half of the 19th Century as a combination of “sporting” (early 1600s for “playful”) and “house.”
Sporting ladies, sporting women: prostitutes. Shortening and modification of 1640s “lady of pleasure” by substitution of early 1600s “sporting” (playful). Arose in America during the latter half of the 19th Century in conjunction with “sporting house.”
Vaulting house: brothel. Conflation of “vault,” meaning a vigorous leap (mid-15th Century), and “house.”