Last week, I was reading through the out-letters of Jonathan Swift (1667–1745)* in order to build a reference corpus for my research on the language of John Gay (1685–1732). While reading, I came across something which seemed very shocking to me. I found the following sentence in a letter Swift wrote to Miss Esther Vanhomrigh (c.1688–1723) on 15 August, 1712:
But Mrs Touchet is an ugly awkward Slutt.
Swift does not elaborate on why Mrs Touchet is a ‘Slutt’, nor does he mention her anymore in any of the letters I read. Knowing that the eighteenth century is known for its politeness, one can imagine my surprise and shock at finding the word ‘Slutt’ in this letter, especially in so brief and direct a comment. In fact, even in the twenty-first century, this is not a word to be used lightly. But perhaps the word did not mean back then what it means today?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the oldest use of Slutt, which is of doubtful origin, refers to “a women of dirty, slovenly, or untidy habits or appearance; a foul slattern” (OED, s.v. slut). It could also mean “a kitchen-maid; a drudge”, though this meaning was rarely used.
Its earliest appearance was in 1402 (so more than 300 years before the instance I found in Swift’s letter ,which indicates that the word had been in use for quite some time) in Letter of Cupid by Thomas Hoccleve (c.1367–1426): “The foulest slutte of al a tovne”.
The other appearances provided by the OED all indicate that the word in its earliest form meant something along the lines of “untidy appearance” or “ugly woman”.
In 1621, scholar Robert Burton (1577–1640) wrote in The Anatomy of Melancholy: “Women are all day in dressing, to please other men abroad, and goe like sluts at home”.
Another eighteenth-century instance of the word is in Thomas Hearne’s (bap. 1678, d. 1735) Remarks & Collections in 1715: “Nor was she a Woman of any Beauty, but was a nasty Slut”.
Thus, even though I had not come across another instance of Slutt before in any eighteenth-century letter, my initial surprise at seeing the word was fortunately a bit unnecessary. The word simply had a different meaning in earlier centuries than it has today. Unless Swift was ahead of his time and was somehow aware of its twenty-first-century meaning …
(Unfortunately, I was not able to find out any amore about the identity of this “Mrs. Touchet” on whom Swift comments that she is “un ugly awkward Slutt” in the ODNB or through Google: perhaps readers of this post will know more about her?)
* For the life-dates of all the people mentioned in this blogpost, I am relying on ODNB.
Swift, Jonathan. The Correspondence of Jonathan Swift. Ed. by David Woolley. Vol. 1. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1999.