A brief history of the verb to pimp.

Language and how we use it.
Feb. 11 2008 8:02 PM

A History of Pimping

What the word meant and what it means now.

Chelsea Clinton. Click image to expand.
Chelsea Clinton

Last Thursday, when discussing calls that Chelsea Clinton made to Democratic convention superdelegates on her mother's behalf, MSNBC host David Shuster asked two guests: "Doesn't it seem as if Chelsea is sort of being pimped out in some weird sort of way?"

Clinton's communications director called the comment "disgusting" and "beneath contempt," but Shuster did not immediately apologize to a Clinton spokesman; his subsequent decision to offer an on-air apology did not prevent him from getting suspended by NBC News.

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The word pimp is of unknown origin. It first appeared in English around 1600 and was used then as now to mean "a person who arranges opportunities for sexual intercourse with a prostitute." The figurative meaning, "a person who panders to an undesirable or immoral impulse," was found by the middle of the 17th century. The verb to pimp dates from the early 17th century.

But the word has seen a renaissance of sorts, with a strong increase in use in recent years. Media attention to (and glamorization of) the stereotype of the inner-city pimp brought such terms as pimpmobile and pimp walk—an ostentatious swagger affected chiefly by African-American men—to public attention in the 1970s. More recently, we've seen the advent of a range of benign figurative uses. We can now pimp our possessions, making them flashily decorated or customized, a use mainstreamed by MTV's car-detailing show, Pimp My Ride. An attractive or appealing man may be called a pimp, and this is viewed as a positive description. To describe something using the accolade pimping is to mark it as wonderful or exciting. Jay-Z's 2001 hit "Big Pimpin'" used the term as shorthand for a livin'-large lifestyle.

Many younger speakers find these uses neutral and unobjectionable. Many older speakers think that any positive use of pimp is sexist or demeaning. But you can't make someone feel a certain way about a word. Younger people will continue to use suck ("to be notably bad") or gay ("lame, boring, terrible, stupid") heedless of what their elders think; it's just as hard to get people to reject something they think is OK as to get people to accept something they've been taught is wrong. (Though it's interesting to observe the online trend of writing the pejorative sense of gay as "ghey," to explicitly disassociate it from the homosexual sense.)

Still, the generation gap does not entirely explain the furor over Shuster's comment. The existence of benign, figurative senses of pimp may have done something to "soften" the word's image among some people. Indeed, it's not hard to find casual uses of pimp by mainstream journalists who hope to sound fresh and young. But pimp out, Shuster's term, has not had a similar progression. Though there are examples of pimp out from the 18th century, the expression was very rare before the 1980s, and its meaning has almost always been literal. There is no real figurative use for pimp out, which may help explain why Shuster's phrasing sounds so objectionable. The problem was not his word choice (though whore out would probably have been worse), but the idea his words expressed: that Hillary was prostituting her child.

On a certain level, Shuster's usage is a reasonable one (although he chose an unfortunately public platform to experiment with it). Shuster did, after all, want to say that this behavior is inappropriate, even morally suspect, and he did couch his words with caveats ("sort of ... in a weird sort of way"). The verb to prostitute has a figurative meaning—"to sacrifice or debase for some profit or advantage"—that has been common since the late 16th century, and it seems possible that to pimp out could take on similar tones. Still, when you're using a sexual term about someone's child, any of the options in your thesaurus are fraught; Shuster would have been wise to steer clear. Whether the level of outrage that has been expressed about his choice is appropriate or overstated, however, is a question we linguists will leave to the pundits.

Jesse Sheidlower, formerly the editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary, is the president of the American Dialect Society. He is the author of The F-Word.

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