Long-reviled slang pops out of its shell


Like it or not, the '60s word "chick" is back on the scene. Other bits of hippie slang -- like stone fox -- may languish in the retro-chic ragbag.

But chick is chic.

Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders says she likes being called a chick. So do the Dixie Chicks.

A baby shower invitation for Mary Matalin of CNBC's "Equal Time" said, "Chicks Only."

Hillary Rodham Clinton laughed when the media called her trip to Asia a "chicks' trip."

PBS ran an all-female movie-reviewer show called "Chicks on Flicks," and a new summer movie, "A Little Princess," is now being dubbed a "chick-ette movie" for young girls.

Some credit Hollywood with resurrecting the dead-and-buried chick.

"Chick flick was used for the first time in 'Sleepless in Seattle,' " says Jack Nachbar, professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University.

"We really liked the Tom Hanks character very much, so the term chick, which is sexist, takes on a kind of lightly satirical tone. . . . We understand that he means it playfully."

This time around, chick is hip, cool, and oh-so-controversial.

Some say they're offended by chick. But others say it's a great word -- a word with an edge and an outlaw feeling that babe and doll never had.

"It's like a jazz term, like the word cool or the word beat," says Joseph Boskin, a professor of history at Boston University who specializes in the beat generation and African-American issues.

Chick was first used in the black community in the 1920s, according to "Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang." It says that chick, "meaning woman or female, has been a word used most frequently among black speakers."

Chick became popular in the '40s jazz world, then crossed over into beatnik chic.

The word first appeared in popular slang, says the "Oxford English Dictionary," in a 1959 magazine that described "beatniks and their chicks -- palefaced girls wearing ponytail hairdos and toreador pants."

By the early '60s, almost every female was a chick. There were genres of chicks: surfer chicks, biker chicks, beatnik chicks. On television, the ultimate chick was Peggy Lipton in "The Mod Squad," with her long hair and go-go boots.

In the late '60s, however, feminists pointed out a little problem: The chick was always the sidekick. She got power only from standing in the shadow of a man.

But today, chick is stripped of that tired baggage: Just look at "Thelma and Louise," the saga of two '90s chicks on a bizarre road trip. Chick is most often used as an in-group word by women, a term of endearment or friendship. Most men, in this politically correct world, say the word would never cross their lips.

"If it's used by an outsider, it's presumed to be pejorative," says Mr. Boskin. "But if women use it to describe other women, it can be powerful.

"The minute any group takes over power of its own words, it can use them and shape them."

Both sexes agree it's an informal word, not to be used in public talks or places. Age seems to have no bearing. Some women in their 20s hate the word, and some in their 40s love it.

Still, controversy will always surround a word that's survived so many evolutionary twists in the world of slang. Context, most agree, is everything.

Recently, Jill Kotvis of the Dallas legal firm Hughes & Luce heard a story about two women attorneys having lunch with a male attorney. One of the women was the only female lawyer at her firm.

"The guy was kidding her, saying that she was 'the token chick.' She said, 'I'm not a token anything.' She took offense at the word token, not chick, but the person telling the story thought she should have taken issue with the word chick."

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