A spokeswoman for Anthony Weiner went on a tirade about ex-intern Olivia Nuzzi last night. Speaking to a reporter from Talking Points Memo, Weiner communications director Barbara Morgan called Nuzzi, who has written about the campaign for the New York Daily News, a “cunt,” “twat,” “bitch,” and “slutbag.” Morgan’s use of this last term in particular prompted an explosion in interest in the word, though Morgan is far from the first to use it. Where did slutbag come from? And when did we start adding –bag to everything, anyway?
It started with douchebags, scumbags, gasbags, and windbags. While slutbag doesn’t derive from any literal meaning—there’s no such thing as bags of “sluts”—there were such objects as douchebags, scumbags, gasbags, and windbags long before those words became insults. People were talking about windbags, meaning the bellows of an organ, as early as the 15th century, and gasbags, meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “bag[s] for holding gas,” as early as 1819. The terms each became epithets, used to refer to people full of hot air, starting around the middle of the 19th century. Likewise, people were using douche-bags (bags used to administer a douche) and scumbags (condoms) by the early 1900s and the 1960s, respectively, and both words were used as insults by the 1970s. (You can read more about scumbags and douchebags elsewhere in Slate.) In Australia, there have also long been ratbags, who are contemptible people that the OED compares to scumbags, though the term has never been common in the United States.
Over time, these –bag words became increasingly disassociated from their original meanings, the actual sacks full of undesirable things, and over the last three decades this seems to have led to people adding -bag to other words willy-nilly. The OED traces the first “sleazebags” to 1981, while the New York Times first mentions the similarly fanciful terms dirtbag and nutbag in 1986 and 1994. By way of pointing out how arbitrary these insults could be, it’s worth mentioning that they were accompanied by many similar insults using the suffix –ball, such as sleazeball, dirtball, and nutball.
Then again, the –bag suffix might not be entirely arbitrary when it comes to slutbag. As Slate contributor Ben Zimmer notes on Language Log, there are also the very slutbag-like insults hosebag and ho-bag, which the OED traces back to the 1970s and 1980s. Both words denote “a sexually promiscuous woman,” and the acclaimed Green’s Dictionary of American Slang notes that these –bag words often have connotations of promiscuity when used to refer to women. (Perhaps this is influenced by the insult bag, which has been an insult used to refer women since the 1920s.) As for slutbag, it followed many of the other –bags by appearing in print around the late 1980s: The oldest instance of the word on Google Books seems to come from Greg Matthews’ novel Little Red Rooster, published in 1987.*
*Correction, July 31, 2013: This article originally misstated the publication date of the novel Little Red Rooster. It was first published in 1987, not 1988.