Wench: Endearment or Insult?

Hill Avenue County Primary School Unofficial School Song 1970 (To the tune of Oh My Darling Clementine)

Build a bonfire, build a bonfire Put the teachers on the top Put the wenches1 on the bottom And burn the blum'in2 lot.

  1. With gusto
  2. or 'bloody' if feeling particularly brave and grown up

Here at Yampy we are planning to introduce pages specific to our male and female visitors respectively.

Question - could we, following the example of many a Black Country Pub loo sign, call the sections 'Chaps' and 'Wenches'?

The problem is the 'wench' word. To many locals it has always simply meant 'girl', and is just as likely to be used by a woman as a man. On the Black Country Bugle's home page for example, the writer calls herself a true Black Country wench. However, outside the West Midlands the word has had several connotations, including:

1) A girl or (young) woman

2) The same, but probably of low, peasant, or servant status

3) A 'wanton woman'

4) A black woman (U.S.)

The origin of wench is Anglo-Saxon; wencel, meaning child. It probably derives from the Old German winchan, to stagger or totter. Originally, it was applied to either sex, as was 'maid' (remember your old school German lessons, wondering why 'Maedchen' was a neuter noun?) and even 'girl'; to Chaucer, a 'yonge-girl' could easily be a boy, and a 'knave-girl' certainly was.

Shakespeare used the - by now exclusively female - word more than eighty times, often preceded by an adjective denoting occupation (kitchen wench, oyster wench, flax wench), desirability (fair hot wench, lusty wench) or insult (base wench, unstanched wench). The influence of Shakespeare's works no doubt helped wench to dissolve into a number of different meanings.

By the end of the 19th Century, wench was being defined as "now chiefly used derogatorily, and the word wenching is quite offensive.." but "..in the Midland counties, when a peasant addresses his wife as 'my wench', he expresses endearment" (E Cobham Brewer). Thus the Black Country has gradually become isolated in retaining the original sense of the word.

Recently, feminists have picked up on the various uses of wench as a short-hand for men's perceptions of them ; at www.wench.com, the editors note that the range of definitions of wench as young, servant, and slut, are an indication of men's conflicting expectations. Indeed, most internet search listings for wench appear to relate to the 'serving wench' costumes that hang alongside 'naughty nurses' and 'schoolgirls' uniforms in sex shops.

Speaking as a born and bred Black Country chap, I have never heard men use wench with any deliberately derogatory intention, or as a sexual slur. For me, as a child it was a collective noun for a completely alien species; there was Robert, Eric, David, etc., and then there were the wenches. Later, it was simply an informal term for women.

Indeed, it could be argued that there isn't a better word for a young adult female, since 'girl' is sometimes considered patronising. On a recent television programme debating women in the army, a kindly but crusty old male officer was castigated by a member of the audience for referring to his female soldiers as his 'girls'.

"You wouldn't call your male troops 'my boys' would you?" she asked accusingly.

"Er, yes, that's exactly what I call them" he replied, with a quizzical look, as if wondering if he had somehow got off at the wrong stop and the world had carried on by.

I was pleased to learn from my 16 year old son that at Dormston School wench is still in common use, often meaning 'girl-friend' ("'Oy Kieran that's yower wench over theyaa ay it?"). But ultimately, a word means what a person who hears it thinks it means

yampy.co.uk

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