Literally, a bitch is a female dog. Its original use as an insult was based on a comparison of a woman to a dog in heat.
The term bitch comes from the 1150 word bicche, which was developed from the Old English word bicce. It also may have been derived from the Old Norse word bikkja for “female dog”. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the term meaning “female dog” to around 1000 A.D.
It is believed that the definition of a female dog for the term bitch derived from the Greek Goddess Artemis. This connection was made because she is the goddess of the hunt. She was often portrayed with a pack of hunting dogs and sometimes transformed into an animal herself. She is free, vigorous, cold, impetuous, unsympathetic, beautiful.
As a derogatory term for women, it has been in use since the fourteenth or fifteenth century. Its earliest slang meaning mainly referred to sexual behavior, according to the English language historian Geoffrey Hughes:
The early applications were to a promiscuous or sensual woman, a metaphorical extension of the behavior of a bitch in heat. Herein lies the original point of the powerful insult son of a bitch, found as biche sone ca. 1330 in Arthur and Merlin … while in a spirited exchange in the Chester Play (ca. 1400) a character demands: “Whom callest thou queine, skabde bitch?” (“Who are you calling a whore, you miserable bitch?”).
Bitch remained a strong insult through the nineteenth century. The entry in Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) reads :
A she dog, or doggess; the most offensive appellation that can be given to an English woman, even more provoking than that of whore, as may be gathered from the regular Billinsgate or St Giles answer–“I may be a whore, but can’t be a bitch.”
Throughout the word’s evolution into the nineteenth century, it lessened from Grose’s claim. The Oxford English Dictionary within the nineteenth century described the insult as “strictly a lewd or sensual woman”. The word went through many similar phases throughout history. It was not until the 20th century that feminism began to reevaluate the term and its appropriation.
The next resurgence of the word bitch as an insult to women occurred during the 1920s. The term bitch became more popular in common language during this era. Between 1915 and 1930, the use of “bitch” in newspapers and literature more than doubled. Ernest Hemingway was a strong proponent of the term during this time. He was known to expand the meaning of “bitch” to a more modern definition. He used it to represent favorable qualities such as ferocity, edginess, and grit. It was during this time that women began gaining more freedom (such as the right to vote through the Nineteenth Amendment). This new found freedom women possessed upset the male-dominated society making anti feminist men of the time feel threatened, possibly leading to retaliation through name-calling. The word “bitch” during the twenties meant “malicious or consciously attempting to harm,” “difficult, annoying, or interfering,” and “sexually brazen or overly vulgar”.