Last week, in response to the passage of draconian anti-abortion laws in several U.S. states, a Los Angeles–based makeup company announced that for four days it would be donating 100 percent of its revenue to organizations that support reproductive rights. The company, which was founded in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election “by a group of jaded romantics,” is no stranger to controversy. The provocation begins with the company name: Lipslut.
Pictured: Lipslut’s “F*ck Trump” shade. The company also sells “F*ck Kavanaugh” (named for the newest U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Brett “I Like Beer” Kavanaugh), “F*ck Hollywood,” “Notorious R.B.G.” (a tribute to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg), and a dark purple shade called — deep breath — “Leftylibglobalistsantifacommiesocialisthollyweirdopigs,” which takes its name from an internet troll’s insult.
Lipslut joins an increasing number of mainstream brand names, titles, and idioms that deploy the S-word. As of this writing there are 54 registered or pending SLUT trademarks in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office database; while a few are put to risqué use (SLUTNATION.XXX), many are family friendly. Which means that slut—a wanton word throughout its history—may be shape-shifting yet again.
Slut’s origins are obscure; whatever you may have heard, it is not an acronym. (But scroll down for an inventive backronymization.) When it was first recorded, in Middle English, slut usually meant “a woman of dirty, slovenly, or untidy habits or appearance; a foul slattern,” but it could also refer to a slovenly man (Chaucer used it that way in 1386). A slut could be a kitchen-maid or a “troublesome creature”; slut could also be used playfully, “without serious imputation of bad qualities,” as Samuel Pepys did in his diary in 1664: “Our Susan is a most admirable slut and pleases us mightily.” In the seventeenth century, a slut could be a piece of rag dipped in fat and used as a light; in nineteenth-century America, slut was used interchangeably with bitch in dog-breeding circles; and slut’s wool was what we’d today call a dust bunny. And in twenty-first-century America, slutty is sometimes used to describe red wines that are too easy or approachable, aka fruit bombs.
All along, in parallel with all those meanings, slut has retained the meaning we associate most closely with it today: “a woman of loose morals or low character.” Not a prostitute, necessarily—sluts may deploy their loose morals for fun rather than profit—but certainly not A Ladylike Lady.
Lexicographers have never agreed on a source for slut or for the closely related slattern; there are some similar words in German—schlutt, schlutte, schluite, schlutz—that have connotations of “carelessness,” but their connection to slut hasn’t been confirmed. In a post for the Oxford University Press blog, lexicographer Anatoly Liberman brings up Russian shliukha, which means “a slovenly woman; a prostitute.” “This word,” Liberman writes, “is usually connected with a verb meaning ‘to gad about,’ but is it not a member of the slut-schluite club?” Liberman also points out that words that begin with sl- in English and other Eurasian languages tend to develop negative connotations: consider slime, sleazy, slither, slur, and slight.
Slut was rarely (if ever) heard on the public airwaves in 1979, when SNL made “Jane, you ignorant slut” the pre-internet equivalent of a meme.
Three years later, Bill Murray used slut to deadpan comic effect when he directed it at Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie.
Also in the 1980s, slut began to take on a new meaning: “enthusiast.” As the linguist Arnold Zwicky put it in a 2011 blog post: “[C]omposites of the form X slut come in two varieties, subsective (an X slut is a slut) and non-subsective (an X slut is not a slut, but, roughly, an enthusiast for X).” Zwicky gives the example Scrabble slut: “someone who’s a slut for (wildly enthusiastic about) Scrabble-playing”; a musical friend of mine offers chorus slut as another example. There’s also brand slut, which Word Spy defines as “a customer with no loyalty to a particular brand.” The earliest citation for that usage, in the Sunday Telegraph (UK), is dated November 20, 2005.
As far as I’ve been able to determine, the commercial pioneer of non-subsective slut was Retail Slut, a clothing store on Los Angeles’s Melrose Avenue that opened in 1983, specializing in “rude and nasty clothes for chicks and dicks.” The store closed in 2005, but its website survives.
The literary blog Bookslut (2002–2016) overlapped with Retail Slut and helped bring slut into a sort of mainstream, if the unprofessional literary internet can be considered mainstream. A new and unrelated Book Slut, with a definite article—The Book Slut—emerged in late 2018 with a glamorous website, a social-media presence, and promises of international meetups as well as reviews and essays.
Meanwhile, slut was still being hurled as an epithet. In 2011, after a Toronto police officer told a group of students they could avoid sexual assault by not dressing like “sluts,” women in that city organized the first of many SlutWalks, public protests to raise awareness of rape culture, victim blaming, and slut-shaming. Throughout 2011 and 2012 there were SlutWalks around the world—and in some places they still take place: the eighth annual Jerusalem SlutWalk was held on May 24, 2019.
Amber Rose, a prime mover of the Los Angeles SlutWalks and a self-described “icon of the neo-feminist movement,” uses slut as an honorific and a commercial come-on. She launched the subscription service Slutbox in 2018; each mailing contains a selection of “luxe body care, glam cosmetics, wellness essentials and dope wearables.” Look closely and you’ll see a tube of Lipslut lipstick in the May 2018 Slutbox, pictured below.
The upscale breakfast chain Eggslut—that’s a non-subsective slut, if I understand Arnold Zwicky correctly—began business in 2011 as a single food truck in Los Angeles and now operates five brick-and-mortar locations in California and Nevada, plus one in Beirut and one in Kuwait City.
In conservative Kuwait the logo has been bowdlerized, with an egg symbol replacing the “u” in “slut”; the menu’s signature dish, the Slut, is now called the Slt. (Read about the controversy over the name on the 248AM blog.)
“Slutever”—a portmanteau of slut and whatever—is a mini-franchise created by Karley Sciortino, whose Slutever blog (founded in 2007) begat a Slutever book and two seasons (so far) of a Slutever TV series, distributed by Viceland. Here as elsewhere, slut is reappropriated as a positive term: “In her show Slutever, VICE’s resident sexpert Karley Sciortino explores the mysterious labyrinth of human sexuality and check out the various ways that people around the world like to get off.”
I assured you at the beginning of this post that slut is not an acronym. Nevertheless, the American singer Bea Miller—who competed on “The X Factor (US)” in 2012, when she was 13—has turned it into a sweet little unforgettable backronym. Let’s dance!