Nurse, teacher, schoolgirl, cop, firefighter, witch, vampire or Little Bo-peep: according to retail America, on Halloween, we can be anything we want to be, ladies, as long as it’s naughty. If we want a ready-made costume, our choices are limited; no matter the theme, the gear is the same: booty shorts, minidress, butt cleavage, fishnets, thigh-highs, polyester and mesh.
Putting aside the obvious sexist problems with using terms like the ever popular “Slut-o-ween” to refer to this state of affairs, let’s take a moment to examine the word “naughty” itself – a word just as sexist in its connotations and history as words like “slut” or “whore.”
Naughty is the adjectival form of naught, which means “nothing” or “not anything.” As early as the twelfth century, an effort described as “all for naught” meant the effort was all for nothing. In this sense, naughty means worthless. The phrase “bring to naught” meant “to bring to nothing; to destroy.” The Oxford English Dictionary traces yet another meaning of naughty to the fourteenth-century: “having or possessing nothing; poor; needy. The sense of naughty as “morally bad; wicked” shows up mid-fifteenth century, and about 100 years after that, we get the first recorded usage of naughty to mean “immoral, licentious, promiscuous, sexually provocative.” The most disturbing etymology of naughty isn’t ancient history though. In the twentieth century, the verb “to naught” has been used, albeit rarely, in some theological literature to mean “to annihilate.”
How did our language develop so that the same word suggesting worthlessness and poverty also came to suggest sexual indecency or promiscuity? The answer may lie in the rigid gender roles of past centuries when marriage was merely a business transaction in which women were wed off in exchange for property, with virginity a prerequisite for drawing a high price – or drawing a price at all. Because a single woman’s retail value on the marriage market declined in direct correlation to her level of sexual activity, a promiscuous woman was worth precisely naught to the family hoping to trade her for a larger coffer. In 1529, the OED lists the first use of the term “naughty pack” which meant simultaneously “promiscuous woman” and “prostitute.” Men could also be naughty packs, though only in the sense of immoral or promiscuous; the label for a man isn’t linked to prostitution. In a patriarchal society organized so that women had no access to property rights and few career options outside of servanthood, loss of virginity could truly destroy a woman’s future chances for a comfortable life and portend the very real possibility of remaining forever dependent upon the largesse of others for survival. “Calle hir a naughtie packe: withe that one woorde thou haste taken all from hir, and haste lefte hir bare and foule.”
Thankfully, American women today live in a system where the efforts of our feminist forebears mean that naughtiness is usually more fun than dangerous. But far as we’ve come, we can’t deny that those outdated notions of virginal value still exist. Every girl who’s ever slept with the wrong guy and had her reputation trashed because of it knows that’s true. Unfortunately, sexploitative costumes on Halloween reinforce these values through the very language used to sell them. Here’s to dressing up like a pumpkin, a bumblebee or a suffragette this year.
*All quotes taken from the Oxford English Dictionary.