Published in the Summer 2004 issue • The Last Word
A Shameless look at the history, use and power of everyday words
Blame Avril Lavigne. No, she didn’t coin the phrase “wife-beater,” but she certainly increased its usage when she burst onto the pop scene in her trademark white undershirt and tie. The media just about slipped on its own slobber reporting the fashion trend she launched across the country.
But why the heck did anyone start calling undershirts “wife-beaters” in the first place? It’s hard to say for sure. Most sources trace it back only as far as the mid-1990s, claiming that half-dressed criminals on the TV show COPS inspired the slang. It’s also been connected to the attire of Stanley Kowalski, the abusive brute in Tennessee Williams’s play A Streetcar Named Desire.
At Shameless headquarters, we’re not as concerned about the history of this ugly term as we are about its continued usage. Violence against women is a criminal act and a disgrace, not a cute reference point for snug-fitting undergarments. To throw around words such as “wife-beater” is to trivialize physical assault.
You want proof?
Check out www.wife-beaters.com, where some jerk is selling undershirts emblazoned with the “wife-beater” moniker for just $15 U.S. Throw in a few extra bucks and you can get your shirt customized with cigarette burns or blood stains. Or prove that you’ve been convicted for assaulting your wife and you get a second shirt for half price. You can even pick up a “Lil’ Wife Beater” for the impressionable infant in your life.
Most of the time the reference isn’t so blatant, or even intentional. But that’s a problem, too. Hearing “wife-beater” casually tossed around desensitizes us to its meaning and to the implications of abusing a partner. The slang has become so common that it’s creeping into our dictionaries and newspapers unchallenged.
The last time we checked, “wife-beater” was on the Oxford English Dictionary’s appeals list, meaning it may be added to future editions. (The dictionary’s editors are looking for written examples of its use before 1997.)
Last year, Don Sellar, the Toronto Star’s ombud, wrote a column discussing whether “wife-beater” was appropriate to use in the newspaper. His verdict? “Like it or not, the wife-beater — a ribbed, sleeveless undershirt — has entered the English language through the nefarious pop-culture/fashion route,” he wrote. “As the kids say, whatever. Let it run...”
Seems like a pretty helpless attitude for a self-proclaimed “crusading newspaper” to have. Perhaps it’s time to sit Sellar down for the “If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?” speech.
Here at Shameless, we have a better idea: Stop using it. They’re undershirts, people. Tank tops. We’ll even accept A-shirts. It’s time to put your mouth where your morals are.