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A comment in “What is a feminine version of guys?” got me wondering: how derogatory is the use of chicks to refer to women (either in general, or to a specific group). To me (I'm a man), it was quite disrespectful, so that it may be some slang term you use with male buddies (“See the hot chick over there?”), but I would not use the term in presence of women: neither in direct address (“Hi chicks!”, as I would say “Hi gals!” to a group of friends) nor when referring to other women.

How derogatory is chick? In what contexts would you use it, as a man? And when used by a woman?

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Is there really a way to measure the degree to which something is derogatory? –  Karl Knechtel Aug 21 '11 at 20:29
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7 Answers

up vote 11 down vote accepted

As a man, I still consider it derogatory and would not use it in any normal conversation. I will agree that it's quite mild as a term, not a major insult, but it's still derogatory.

It's originally a slang term, derived (if I'm not mistaken) from the older British slang of "bird" for a woman. (Thus, young woman = "chick".) It was almost invariably used between men, with the "bird" being a form of quarry to be hunted, and the term still has that connotation. It is definitely dismissive; the person referred to that way is not on an even status with the speaker.

As far as groups that refer to themselves with it, such as the cited "Dixie Chicks" and "Chicks with Picks", I consider them to have understood the connotations and intentionally used it ironically. I'll refer to the organization as they prefer, but personally I still wouldn't walk up to a random member of "Chicks with Picks" and say, "Hey chick, come over here." At least, if I did I wouldn't expect a positive reaction. :)

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Lighten up, everyone. It's all in the tone and intent, not in the word.

Friendly, on a double date: "Let's see this movie. What do the chicks think about it?"

Appreciative: "That's a real cool chick."

Informal: "Chick flick"

Sneering: "Think you're some kind of really hot chick?"

It's a diminutive but not offensive per se. Substitute "cutie" for "chick" and it doesn't change the intended meaning.

This is unlike other words, always offensive, like "cunt", where an impolite body term stands for the person, like calling a guy a "dick". Always negative.

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Context and intent are enormous - they preceded language as we know it now, and without them language is a sad, lost servant with no master.

When I use a word, am I speaking in a mean or a simply thoughtless tone, or am I speaking with a loving smile?

I have good friends (married for over 30 years). He always addresses her as "chick". It no doubt started out as a tease decades ago, but it is said and quite clearly heard as affectionate, and I think it was then. If he stopped calling her "chick" she'd probably start to worry.

If I call my best buddy, "hey, old fart", does he think our relationship has done a 180 degree turn?

Although his example may not be the best, I have to agree with Noah's take on this. While "chick" may frequently be taken as offensive, and is therefor not a word to use lightly with strangers, it is by no means automatically and always offensive. I find it much further from the "automatically offensive" end of the continuum than many words are.

I notice also that up to this point (as far as one can tell by Internet handles and avatars) no members of the feminine persuasion have weighed in on this. So maybe we're all just blowing hot air.

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NOAD claims chick is derogatory, but I would dispute that claim.

For one thing, it's not too derogatory if women themselves use it about themselves. Think of the country music group The Dixie Chicks, who, according to Wikipedia, "took their band name from the song "Dixie Chicken" by Lowell George of Little Feat. Presumably they would have refused to convert chicken to chick if they felt it disrespected women. And if you've ever seen the group (which sings songs like "Thank Heavens for Dale Evans"), you realize they're not making the same kind of statement with their name as, say, the rap group N.W.A.

Then think of terms like "chick flicks" and "chick lit" — men may use them to express their disaffection with such subjects, but women equally embrace them. My wife and her friends, for example, use those terms enthusiastically and without reservation.

Indeed, this points up a contradiction in NOAD's characterization, since it defines "chick flick" this way:

chick flick noun informal a movie that appeals mainly to women.

What was claimed to be derogatory is now merely informal. How's that for consistency? If it's derogatory as a noun, certainly it ought to be derogatory as an adjective or attributive noun.

And if it's derogatory at all, it's certainly not on the same level as calling a gay man a "fag" or a Lesbian a "dyke" or a black man a — well, you get the idea. Chick is pretty mild stuff, and pretty well accepted in informal conversation.

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I would not place much strength on the fact that some women use it in compounds like "chick lit" or "chick flick"; it may be acceptable coming from another woman, where it's understood to be ironically, but it's still derogatory from a stranger. Two black men may be fine calling each other "nigger", but if as a white man I walk up and say "hey nigger, come here" I expect to be on the verge of a fight immediately. It's a social awareness issue, not an English language issue. –  Erik Johnson Apr 2 '11 at 23:38
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@Erik Johnson Er...no self-respecting black man would refer to another as nigger. Perhaps you're confused with the closely related nigga? I thought everyone had seen the Youtube clip where a teacher explained the difference quite clearly. –  Uticensis Apr 2 '11 at 23:58
    
@Billare: Are you talking to me or to @Erik Johnson? –  Robusto Apr 3 '11 at 0:00
    
@Robusto If you're down with the N.W.A., I'm pretty sure you know the difference. –  Uticensis Apr 3 '11 at 0:02
    
@Billare: Link to the youtube clip? –  Mitch Apr 3 '11 at 15:26
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For words like "chick," which have multiple definitions and interpretations, it depends both on the speaker's intent and context. Let's start with a definition of derogate:

–verb (used with object) 3. to disparage or belittle.

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/derogate

If your intent is to disparage or belittle someone by calling that person a "chick," then indeed, it's probably derogatory. Otherwise, not.

For example, "the baby chicks followed the mother hen out of the hatchery." That sentence uses the term in question but couldn't be understood to derogate even under the most liberal interpretation.

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I disagree. If common usage of the term is considered offensing (or derogatory), even using it with the best of intentions doesn't mean it won't come across as offensive. –  F'x Apr 3 '11 at 7:10
    
See revised answer. –  g33kz0r Apr 3 '11 at 10:18
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The question (and title) clearly mention when used to refer to women. Of course, there are some non-derogatory meanings of chicks, but that's not the point here. –  F'x Apr 3 '11 at 10:25
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I'm inquiring about common usage of the word “chicks”. Words can be offensive even when used without willing to cause offense. The question is: in common usage, how is xxx perceived? If I find cunt such a lovely and poetic word, maybe people with children next to me in the train won't like me saying it out loud: should they just be told that no word can be intrisically vulgar? In a given language/dialect, words aquire a connotation, which is independent of the intent of the speaker. –  F'x Apr 3 '11 at 12:36
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Regarding vote: I disagree because I think your a wrong (specifically, off-topic). If your answer is right or worthy, don't worry! You will get your lot of upvotes, which pay much more than downvotes. –  F'x Apr 3 '11 at 12:41
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Found an interesting, though possibly dated, discussion of the term at Green Left. It's a feminist argument against the growing popularity of the term and the idea that once derogatory terms can be "reclaimed." It's full of zingers like this:

Even if the generally understood meaning of some words used to describe women does change, this doesn't in itself alter capitalist society's reliance on (and constant efforts to reinforce) the oppression of women.

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As normally derogatory as "chicks" is, there are many specific contexts where it isn't derogatory at all. While I would never walk into a room full of girls and say, "Hey chicks," because it would be disrespectful, in the same room I wouldn't hesitate to use a phrase like "chicks dig scars" or mention some climbing group like "Chicks with Picks".

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+1 for interesting contexts I hadn't though of. I would argue that in “chicks dig scars”, the tone is part of the intended effect. And a “Chicks with Picks” climbing group would be named by women, and so more acceptable (self-deprecating humor). –  F'x Apr 2 '11 at 17:28
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I agree. Ironic use ("chicks dig scars") is very different than using a term as a direct address. –  Erik Johnson Apr 2 '11 at 23:43
    
I think the objection you guys raise by saying that those phrases are not a term of direct address only goes to strengthen the argument that it is less the word itself that carries a derogatory meaning as the form of address that you intend. It lends itself to derogatory forms of address, but isn't inherently bad. Also, I don't think any of my friends who are members of Chicks with Picks would consider their name self deprecating. Humor sure, but not self deprecating. And they aren't people I'd mess with! –  Caleb May 27 '11 at 21:47
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protected by RegDwigнt Nov 8 '12 at 10:07

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