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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

There were a number of things in Rush Limbaugh's attack on Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke that he ultimately had to apologize for, but it was that one word, slut, that incited the strongest reactions. Most people agree that the word was over the line, but as our linguist Geoff Nunberg observes, people have different ideas about why that word is so troubling.

GEOFF NUNBERG, BYLINE: My choice of words was not the best, Rush Limbaugh said in his apology. That's the standard formula for these things: You apologize not for what you said, but the way you said it.

Though in this case, there didn't seem to be a lot of distance between thought and word. What was the point of saying that Sandra Fluke was asking to be paid for sex and then adding, what does that make her, if not to get to that potent monosyllable slut?

Whatever your view of Limbaugh, he's one of our most gifted controversialists, and he must have had a good idea that that word would kick up more of a row than any of the other things he said. Still, he obviously didn't anticipate that the reaction would be so intense that it would drive off advertisers who had been willing to overlook all his previous effervescences about race and gender.

It couldn't have landed well. Slut is a charged word, even when it's just used metaphorically. When the MSNBC host Ed Schultz called Laura Ingraham a right-wing slut last year, he had to apologize for his vile language. And that was just about Ingraham's politics, whereas Limbaugh was trying to discredit Fluke by literally going after her sex life with a word that is freighted with repugnance.

But if most people found the remark offensive, it wasn't always for the same reasons. Some have a problem with the very existence of a word that stigmatizes women who are sexually active, or who look as if they'd like to be. In an age when it's obligatory to condemn the double standard wherever it rears its head, the disparity between slut and player is an embarrassment to the English language.

The objections to slut went public last year after a Toronto police constable told a crime prevention meeting that women should avoid dressing like sluts if they didn't want to be victimized. In response, several thousand women held what they called a slut walk to protest the whole culture of slut-shaming.

The idea caught on, and slut walks have been held in a number of cities since then. Some feminists object to the term, saying that the sexist associations of slut are beyond redemption. And it is hard to imagine slut being reclaimed the way queer was, as a respectable label for academic programs and cultural centers.

But the word can be undermined and denatured, which is what women are doing informally when they make light of it. Shortly after the Limbaugh story broke, the New Yorker's TV critic, Emily Nussbaum, tweeted: I am the Whorax. I speak for the sluts.

Maybe someday, slut will be as comically dated as bounder or cad. But in recent times, it's actually become stronger and more offensive. I was a little surprised when a group of House Democrats reproached Limbaugh for using what they called obscene language. I've never thought of slut as that kind of four-letter word.

But when I look on the Internet, I see all these people spelling it with an asterisk or a dash in place of the U, as if it were too indecent to write out in full. Or sometimes people add, if you'll pardon my French. That's the way you talk about a naughty word, not about something that's just a sexist slur.

Even the media can be wary of the word. Last week, the Fox News website was prefacing its stories quoting the Limbaugh remark with a warning that they contained vulgar language. And when Casey Anthony's attorney said in his closing remarks last July that she was being defamed as a no-good, lying slut, CNN's Kiran Chetry spelled out the word, explaining that there might be children listening - though my guess is that spelling out a word would actually be the best way to get the attention of any six-year-old who happened to be in the room when a CNN newscast was on.

Even if not everybody shares that skittishness about saying slut, it reflects a general feeling that the word is coarse and indecent, and not merely unkind. It may not be quite as taboo as the other s-word or its four-letter companions, but like them, it's contaminated by the impurity of the thing it names.

From that point of view, slut is a dirty word because a slut is such a dirty thing to be. In fact, slut originally meant just a slovenly girl, and it and whore are the two English epithets that are most often modified by filthy.

And like other dirty words, slut besmears whomever it's applied to in earnest, particularly when it's simply ridiculing or discrediting someone. It trails all those repellent associations, along with sister words like hot, cheap and trashy that populate the titles of porn videos.

Whether you're somebody who rejects the very idea of that stigma or somebody who takes it very seriously, it's disturbing to hear it evoked so wantonly. And however we think of the word now, we can't help recalling the casual cruelty of the middle-school lunchroom where we first learned how vicious it could sound, even though we had only the vaguest idea of what it was about.

I suspect that that memory was another reason why people found Limbaugh's remark so offensive. It told us more than we needed to know about what he was thinking. What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? As if we were all back in eighth grade, sneaking a smoke with him in the stairwell.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information at the University of California Berkeley. You can download podcasts of our show on our website: freshair.npr.org. We had been having problems with podcasts of our show - podcasts downloaded from sources other than our website, but we're happy to tell you that those problems have been fixed. We apologize for any trouble you may have had. And I want to thank everyone who wrote to let us know about problems they were having. And remember, if you want to get in touch, you can Tweet us @nprfreshair.

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