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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
A Streetcar Named Desire is likely the reason why Stella Artois is called a wifebeater. – Kit Z. Fox Jan 30 '13 at 20:08
@KitFox And of course Brando wore a "wifebeater" as Stella's Stanley. – StoneyB Jan 30 '13 at 20:26
@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
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

6 Answers 6

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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Barbara Kipfer & Robert Chapman, Dictionary of American Slang, fourth edition (2007) offers the following definition of wife-beater:

wife-beater n A sleeveless undershirt worn by men * Fr[om] regarding this as the attire of a male would do this

Kipfer & Chapman doesn't provide a date of origin for the term, but it doesn't appear in the third edition of Dictionary of American Slang (1995), suggesting that it became popular fairly recently.

Tom Dalzell & Terry Victor, The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (2015) has this entry:

wife-beater noun 1 a sleeveless tee-shirt or undershirt US [Examples from 1994, 1996, 1998, and 2001 omitted.] 2 any alcoholic drink, especially beer UK: Wales [Example from 2004 omitted.]

Th earliest instance in Google Books search results of wife-beater as an alcoholic drink is in David Huggins, The Big Kiss (1996):

I needed a drink and stopped for a vodka in a grim thirties boozer at the end of a row of shops that had been cur adrift at the edge of a housing estate. The shops read like a list of idle pleasure—Tobacconist, OffLicence, Bookmaker's and Video rental store. There was Sky TV in the pub and the bar was awash with Premier League football shirts. I pushed my way to the bar through a group of Crystal Palace supporters drinking their sugary pints of Wife-beater. I bought my vodka and sat by a bleary window that gave onto a world of concrete and tarmac.

The first Google Books matches for wifebeater in the shirt sense are from 2000 and 2001—much later than the earliest newspaper instance cited in Dalzell & Partridge (above):

Preppy is in, grunge is out. Lycra is out, vinyl is in. Bowling shirts are in, wife beaters are out. —The Boston Globe, p. 35, 28 September 1994.

I first heard "wifebeater" used as a slang term for a plain white cotton sleeveless undershirt (a garment that I would have called an undershirt or—if it was thick enough—a tank top) about eight years ago, when my son returned to California from his first semester of college in Kentucky. Evidently, wifebeater was the standard term for the garment among college kids in Lexington.

Considering how tone-deaf and potentially offensive use of the word wifebeater in a jocular sense might seem to be, both slang senses of the word emerged surprisingly recently—well after the dawn of the supposed era of political correctness.

So far, no one has posted an answer that takes up the suggestion raised by Kit Z. Fox and StoneyB in comments beneath the poster's question that the connection between the name Stella and the word wifebeater might involve the movie version of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). For much of the movie Marlon Brando's character, Stanley Kowalski, wears various T-shirts and undershirts—including wifebeaters, in various stages of uncleanness and decrepitude.

In one of the most memorable (and most mimicked) scenes in the movie, Stanley, standing on the pavement outside and looking up at a door and a window on the second floor, repeatedly bellows to his wife Stella DuBois, who has locked him out of the apartment, "Stella! Stella! Stella!" The tableau actually occurs twice in the movie, once at the very end. Stanley is a frightening character—moody, unpredictable, and prone to bouts of extreme drunkenness and/or violence. We don't ever see Stanley attack Stella, and perhaps he never would—but it's hard to say that anything is really off-limits to him. (He certainly assaults Stella's sister, Blanche.)

In any case, millions and millions of people are familiar with the movie—or at least with the "Stella! Stella!" monologue—and someone who was familiar with wifebeater as slang for the undershirt that Stanley sometimes wore in the movie might have connected Stella DuBois with Stella Artois and wifebeater with Stella DuBois.

On the other hand, if wifebeater as a shirt is not attested earlier than 1994 and if wifebeater as a drink is attested no later than 1996, that gives the term very little time to have jumped from the United States to the UK in the shirt sense and then to have transformed itself into the drink sense before dying out (in the UK) in the shirt sense. On the whole, the likelier scenario is that the U.S. and UK senses of the term emerged independently of one another, with no influence by A Streetcar Named Desire on UK usage.

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"Wifebeater" as a shirt certainly goes back beyond the mid 90s, though I can't think of a "solid" reference point. – Hot Licks Nov 18 at 7:18

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