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I was a li'l nonplussed to find out that the word wifebeater can mean other things besides "a man who beats up his wife". Its definition reads:

  1. One who (usually as a repeated practice) beats one’s wife, or a husband prone to violence
  2. A kind of sleeveless shirt, often but not exclusively worn as an undershirt.
  3. (uncountable, UK, slang) Stella Artois, a brand of lager beer.

ODO reckons that sense 2 is American and originates "apparently from the association of such a garment with men who commit domestic violence". It does not register the UK slang. I'm guessing that Stellas also have an unfortunate association with domestic violence.

Are these alternative senses popular in their respective countries or are they perhaps nonce words that have lingered on? Any idea how these disparaging associations came about? I expect that the brewers of Stella Artois are none too happy about it.

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Stella is a strong beer. It's not unknown for people to get drunk on it and commit domestic violence while in that state. –  Andrew Leach Jan 30 '13 at 20:04
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A Streetcar Named Desire is likely the reason why Stella Artois is called a wifebeater. –  KitFox Jan 30 '13 at 20:08
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@KitFox And of course Brando wore a "wifebeater" as Stella's Stanley. –  StoneyB Jan 30 '13 at 20:26
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@terdon: The point is Stella, when first introduced to the UK, was stronger than the domestic beer, which were around 3%. See my answer. –  Hugo Jan 30 '13 at 20:54
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Contrary to what I expected to find when i followed the link, it seems widowmaker beer isn't actually some superpowerful draught that's likely to kill the husband on his first drinking session. –  FumbleFingers Jan 30 '13 at 21:41

5 Answers 5

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Slang sense 3, for Stella Artois, is well known in the UK.

Originally domestic brands were weaker than lagers drunk in mainland Europe. The stronger Stella was introduced later, and the suggestion is a stronger drink makes a violent man more drunk and dangerous.

The earliest example I found in Google Groups is from a 4 July 2000 post titled
"WIFE BEATER!!!" in alt.drunken.bastards:

Every one knows one of the side affects of alcohol is that it can make u aggressive. But the one drink that can make u more aggressive than others is definatly STELLA. B4 I started drinking it I heard people refer 2 it as WIFE BEATER. Know that I drink Stella is plainly obvious why. I'd always get slightley aggressive when drinking. But since I have been drinking Stella I have got worse. A mate and I left a bloke unconcious the other week. Don't get me wrong this bloke deserved a beating after making a girl cry and then starting on me for telling him 2 leave off. I would never have reacted like that though.
Has any1 else had any Stella experiences?
I want 2 here about how WIFE BEATER has effected u.

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Precisely. Have an upvote. –  Andrew Leach Jan 30 '13 at 20:51
    
I'm from the UK and have heard Stella called WifeBeater plenty of times, but I've no idea what the Americans are referring too. –  Carl Smith Feb 18 '13 at 20:26

Sense 2 is certainly popular in the US. It specifically refers to the A-Shirt. Back when racist terms for Italians were popular it was also called a "Guinea Shirt". My understanding is that the shirt may have been termed "wife beater" after frequently being worn by the men being arrested for domestic violence on the reality show Cops.

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Also commonly heard in the UK (at least among young people) –  Nico Burns Jan 31 '13 at 2:36

"Wifebeater" to refer to tight fitting, sleeveless t-shirts/tank tops is common usage in the US in 2013.

  • My 18 year old and 14 year old teenagers use the term freely

  • Bloggers post about the term (for example, from the headline of a cultural blog: “Wife Beater” language of fashion trivializing domestic violence)

  • Newspapers write stories about the term (for example, from an Orlando newspaper headline: What's Behind `Wife-beater' Shirts? Young Adults Say The Name Is Just A Blue-collar Mockery, But Some Experts Worry The Term Is Trivializing Real-life Problems)

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If a person (in my area) wanted to express that someone committed domestic abuse they would say "that man beat his wife."

Wife-beater colloquially only means a guinea tee, I'm from NJ, USA (where I proudly speak Webster-English).

I have never heard the term applied to a person until I came across this blog.

I have never even thought of it applying to a person, although it does make sense.

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+1 Every sentence makes a good point. (meta: This is a Q&A, not a blog.) –  Kris Feb 16 '13 at 12:30

definition 2 is definitely a thing in the US. I generally hear that type of shirt referred to as a "beater" more often than a "wifebeater". But that's just a shortened version of the original. I have no insight into the origins, but my guess would be it's the stereotypical attire of those engaging in domestic violence.

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