Told  /  Etymology

Sluts and the Founders

Understanding the meaning of the word "slut" in the Founders' vocabulary.

In the 1800s, the Richmond Recorder often mentioned Sally Hemings in essays attacking Jefferson. In one column, Hemings is described as “a slut as common as the pavement.” (Yes, people knew about Jefferson and Hemings during his lifetime.) She was a completely undeserving target, as is always the case when the word is hurled as an insult. It was used in a way someone born in the 20th century would immediately recognize. That’s not always the case. When Jefferson warned Patsy against appearing like a slut, he wasn’t referring to the immoral behavior I understood the word implied.  (At least, not in that instance.) He was thinking of the definition that appeared in Samuel Johnson’s first dictionary: “A dirty woman.” 

The use of “slut” in Early America, however, isn’t limited to women who are dirty or promiscuous. The word returns seven results when you search it on the National Archives' Founders Online, which allows anyone with Internet access to view thousands of historical documents from the era. I first discovered this while reading a 1798 letter that Frederick Kitt, who had been a steward in the President’s House, wrote to George Washington about Hercules, an enslaved man who had escaped bondage. (He would never be caught.) At the end of the letter, Kitt writes: “My Wife joins me in respect to you Mrs Washington and Miss Nelly—and desires to inform your Lady that our little Slut died in the Straw.” I only had to wonder at his meaning for about two seconds, because Founders Online had done the work for me. “This is one of a number of hints in GW’s correspondence that Mrs. Washington was particularly fond of dogs,” the notes under the letter explained.

I knew that a dog could be called a “bitch,” but “slut” was new. So I took to the Internet. A Google search for “dog slut,” apparently a popular porn query, didn’t offer me much, but John Stuart Skinner’s 1845 book, The Dog and the Sportsman, satisfied my curiosity: 

The second use of “slut,” to imply disorder, appeared in another letter to Washington. The British prisoners were being treated fine, Brigadier General William Smallwood wrote in 1778, but winter brought certain grim realities. A captain in the Continental Army had “had the skin taken off his hands by the Frost.” Like the British prisoners, “many of Soldiers in common shared with them, from the severity of the Wearther, & unavidably getting their Feet & legs wet in Landing, the shore being very slutty & muddy.” Captain Smallwood did not write a Revolutionary War memoir, but if he had, Slutty and Muddy would’ve been a great title.