Trump: 'Such a Nasty Woman....'
Lookups for 'nasty' spiked after Trump used the word to describe Clinton
The splendidly evocative (and apparently semantically broadened) word nasty became one of our most searched-for entries after Donald Trump uttered it in a caustic aside during the third and final presidential debate.
CLINTON: Well, Chris, I am on record as saying that we need to put more money into the Social Security Trust Fund. That's part of my commitment to raise taxes on the wealthy. My Social Security payroll contribution will go up, as will Donald's, assuming he can't figure out how to get out of it. But what we want to do is to replenish the Social Security Trust Fund...
TRUMP: Such a nasty woman.
—(transcript) Vox.com, 19 Oct. 2016
Nasty has been a part of our language for a considerable length of time, with attested use dating back more than 700 years. It has had a variety of meanings, almost all of which are decidedly negative in tone (“filthy to the point of exciting disgust,” “morally reprehensible,” “characterized by a sharp lack of sportsmanship, generosity, or good nature,” etc.).
Some supporters of Hillary Clinton were quick to take to social media sites in an attempt of linguistic reclamation, invoking the word in a positive manner.
RT if you're a nasty woman and it's made your life a freakin' pleasure— 💎 Lena Dunham 💎 (@lenadunham) October 20, 2016
The positive sense of nasty, although greatly outnumbered by the negative senses, is not as recent as one might imagine. There is a good deal of written evidence of nasty used to denote “attractiveness” as far back as the early 19th century.
"She is a nasty looking gal," implies she is a splendid woman. I know not by what singular change this meaning has been given to the word nasty, but certain it is, that expressed above, it is considered among the class to which it has reference, as highly complimentary.
—The Knickerbocker, Jan. 1834
”Sling a nasty foot,” means to dance extremely well; and “a nasty looking gal” implies a splendid woman.
—Henry Cook Todd, Notes upon Canada and the United States, 1840
You did’nt know Sal, Squire, did you? She was an uncommon nasty-lookin gal, and—
—The Rover, 9 Nov. 1844
There is a possibility that the renewed attention being given to nasty will cause the word to continue to take on positive meanings. We do not, as a matter of course, take positions in such matters; our goal is to catalogue the language, and we do not seek to issue mandates or recommendations regarding its course. However, if we were to do so, it is possible that we would make a plea for the resurrection of one of the other 19th century expressions mentioned in the citations above: sling a nasty foot.
Trend Watch tracks popular lookups to see what people are talking about. You can always see all Trend Watch articles here.