Ouch! What a nasty word this is! Of course, it’s originally, and still, a word for a female dog – any female dog, not just an ill-tempered one. But one can’t use it naïvely; the human reference barks out at every turn. One may see a poster in the window of a store that sells clothing for dogs: one prettily primped Pekinese says to another, “Nice dress, bitch.”

The sound doesn’t resemble barking (though there are a few small pooches that make sounds like this), but the final voiceless alveopalatal affricate carries a taste you get in kvetch, retch, snatch, botch, itch, snitch, and other burrs on the pant-leg of daily life. The [b], with its burst, bark or bite, is the sound most suited to a pugnacious mug: hold your lips as though about to say [b], but build up air pressure behind them until they pucker a bit, and you will find your face becomes bitter. And the shape of the word? Three ascenders and a dot are a bit like horripilated fur on a furious pooch.

This word has come down to us from somewhat murky Anglo-Saxon origins; the oldest spellings we have of it are bicce and bigce. The exact historical nature of its connection to French biche is uncertain, but it doesn’t come from the French; more likely from Nordic roots.

It does not keep the best of company, of course. Although its most common collocation is with the phrase son of a, and it has shown up in sewing circles (including magazines) in a rhyming phrase with stitch, it is frequently found with an assortment of words that I simply don’t think I should include here. And then, of course, there is D.H. Lawrence’s classic phrase from Lady Chatterly’s Lover: the bitch-goddess of success. But is success really so bad? Can I just find out firsthand, please?

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