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The meaning and origin of the expression: Son of a bitch

Son of a bitch

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Son of a bitch'?

A general term of abuse for a man.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Son of a bitch'?

This expression is, of course, widely associated with the USA and, despite the worldwide spread of American popular culture, it isn't much used elsewhere.

Nevertheless, it isn't American in origin and owes its coinage to no less a coiner than William Shakespeare. He used something pretty close to it in King Lear, 1605:

One that art nothing but the composition of a Knave, Begger, Coward, Pandar, and the Sonne and Heire of a Mungrill Bitch.

It is likely that the expression was in use in England at the time and we don't have to wait long for the current wording of the expression to turn up in print. For example, in Beaumont and Fletcher's Coxcombe, circa 1625:

They had no mothers, they are the sons of bitches.

...and in the Middlesex Session Rolls for 1655:

She did revile him... Calling him ye ‘sonn of a Bitch, asking him also where ye Bawd his mother was.

Soon after, in the 1650s, the phrase 'son of a bachelor' was coined and was probably an alternative to 'son of a bitch', although it hasn't survived into current usage.

Like many words and phrases that were in use in Tudor England 'son of a bitch' was taken across the Atlantic by early settlers and thrived there while dying out back at home.

'Son of a bitch' is so engrained into US culture that the abbreviation 'sonofa' is known and used there but is unused elsewhere.

See also: Son of a gun.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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