Is the Word 'Pimp' Still Offensive?

A MSNBC host suggested the Clinton campaign had "pimped out" Chelsea Clinton.


Feb. 12, 2008 — -- While it may be OK to pimp your ride, it's certainly not OK to pimp the daughter of a presidential candidate.

"Suggesting that someone is pimping out their own daughter is the lowest of the low," said Michael Silverstein, a professor of anthropology, linguistics and psychology at the University of Chicago.

MSNBC anchor David Shuster learned this the hard way last week, when he was suspended after he made an on-air remark suggesting that the Clinton campaign had "pimped out" Chelsea Clinton by having her call super delegates to promote her mother's candidacy.

Shuster, who apologized twice on the air for his pimp remarks, was lambasted both by the press and Hillary Clinton herself, who leapt to the defense of her daughter.

"I am a mom first and a candidate second. I found the remarks incredibly offensive," said Clinton in a statement provided to ABC News. "I can take whatever comes my way, that's part of what I signed up for as a candidate, as an office holder, but I think that there's been a troubling pattern of comments and behavior that has to be held accountable."

"Pimp-gate," as Shuster's comment and Clinton's response has now been dubbed by the national media, hasn't deterred Chelsea from helping out on her mother's campaign. Monday, the former first daughter ate breakfast with 21-year-old Wisconsinite Jason Rae, who is one of the 796 super delegates whose Democratic endorsement is still up for grabs.

But during a campaign in which Clinton has been chided by some critics for being overly sensitive or too emotional, several linguistic experts told that her strong reaction to Shuster's remarks was merited, and that the use of the word "pimp" is exactly what Clinton said it was: offensive.

"To say that someone is pimping is really an extraordinarily negative description," said University of Chicago's Silverstein. "It takes a lot of work to use it so ironically that it becomes positive."

While the word "pimp" was formerly known primarily as a noun that meant a male procurer of prostitutes or street walkers, according to Silverstein, its meaning has since changed and is now defined primarily as a verb to describe actions that are "obviously being compared to those of the male pimp."

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the most common definition of pimp is "to act or work in a manner suggestive of a pimp to promote the interests of a corrupt or immoral person, esp. for material gain or advancement."

Other meanings of the word, including someone who poses or flaunts themselves for a particular cause, are the less negative interpretations of the word, but according to OED's editor at large Jesse Sheidlower, these meanings often fall on deaf ears.

"This is not a word where its original sexual meaning has largely been forgotten," said Sheidlower. "Pimp still has that main meaning, and there is no question what it's supposed to imply."

"And the concept of pimping out one's daughter -- or any person period -- is going to have that [sexualized] connotation," said Sheidlower.

Even though the word pimp has been used time and time again in popular culture and is often times even glorified by the media, "It's a Hard Life Out Here for a Pimp" won an Academy Award in 2005 for best song, its negative connotation still prevails.

"The fact a word is used more doesn't necessarily make it less offensive," said Sheidlower.

Barry Popik, a contributer to the Oxford English Dictionary, told that he doesn't believe the word packs as much punch as it used to.

"In my opinion, 'pimp' has certainly been watered down from what it once was," Popik told in an e-mail. "But it's all in the context -- the same with 'bitches' and 'hos.' It wasn't wise to use it on a television news broadcast."

Thomas Whalen, an associate professor of social science at Boston University, said that while some critics may argue that Clinton's response was only for political show, he believes otherwise: Clinton was doing what any mother would do in a similar situation and defending her child.

"People are forgetting the point that Chelsea is the daughter of Hillary Clinton, and that she has always been very protective of her daughter -- when she was first lady and now," said Thomas Whalen, who is also the author of "A Higher Purpose: Profiles in Presidential Courage."

Whalen said the pimp remark was appropriate but not akin to radio host Don Imus' remarks last year, when he was fired for using a racial slur to describe members of the Rutgers University women's basketball team. Imus has since been reinstated on the airwaves and has apologized repeatedly for his remarks.

"It seems like Hillary Clinton and her family have been lambasted somewhat unfairly, added Whalen. "It's like the Clinton family is a punching bag for America."

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