When Did “Pimp” Become a Positive Term?

By Maeve Maddox

Much to my horrified amazement, I just ran across a Facebook page called Obama Is A Pimp.

The amazing thing is that the page is supportive of Barack Obama.

The horrified part of my discovery had to do with the fact that to me pimp is a despicable term for a person who practices a despicable occupation.

Apparently the word means something else to the person who created the Facebook page.

As a noun, pimp means a person, usually a man, who lives off the earnings of a prostitute. The word may come from Medieval French pimper “to dress elegantly.” The stereotypical pimp is known for a garish mode of dress.

Another French word, pimpreneau, meant “a knave, rascal, varlet, scoundrel.” In Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, a “pimp” is an informer or stool pigeon.

As a verb, to pimp seems to have reclaimed some of the earlier association with elegant dress. “To pimp one’s ride” seems to mean updating or decorating a motor vehicle in some unusual way.

But while “pimping” a ride or a wardrobe may have become an acceptable usage, “to pimp” when applied to a woman is still the unlovely practice of sending her out to be a whore.

MSNBC host David Shuster learned the continuing unacceptability of the expression when he asked two guests: “Doesn’t it seem as if Chelsea is sort of being pimped out in some weird sort of way?” The remark got him suspended from NBC News.

For some of us pimp will always be an ugly, unacceptable word for any use other than to describe a trafficker in women. Younger people may not understand what the fuss is about. As Jesse Sheidlower says in a Slate article on the subject, “you can’t make someone feel a certain way about a word.”

To some extent, the gentrification of the word pimp can be said to be a generational thing, but it also carries cultural undertones. A dictum of General Semantics is that we see what we say. Language colors our view of the world. Pimps exploit, abuse, and degrade women. What kind of cultural perspective enables pimp to evolve into an inoffensive word?

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21 Responses to “When Did “Pimp” Become a Positive Term?”

  • joe

    just relax. it means you’re cool

  • Katy

    I think the way the word is used now tends to mean something more along the lines of “a guy who is good at getting women to like him (etc.).” For example, in the movie Superbad, one of the characters talks about feeling “pimp” when he offers to buy something for a girl he’s interested in, and she is clearly pleased. In that moment, he feels like he is being successful in winning her affections, so he later describes it to her friend as “f***ing pimp.” I think my generation (I’m 23) is drawing more on the fact that a pimp tends to be surrounded by women than on the fact that he is literally a pimp . . . if that makes any sense!

  • Supermance

    Obama Is A Pimp ?!?!? that is not good people !

  • Amy

    “to pimp” also has advertising connotations. When one is advertising one’s own creations, or trying to get others interested in an activity, they are often seen to be “pimping” the creation or activity.

    I think it’s a case where the word is part of a youth-oriented language set. The Facebook-page writer was not only saying something about Barack Obama, but also about himself–distinguishing himself from his elders and connecting with his social peers. If he were attempting to actually connect with his elders, he doubtless would recognize that “pimp” would convey the wrong image to them, and (struggle though he might) he would choose different language to communicate with his new audience.

  • mike

    I am wondering if this blog was written as a response to my forum post “Pimp my paragraph,” which, by the way, has been ignored. Ha Ha.

  • Spirit

    My sister and I like to joke that out little brother is a ‘pimp’ because he has a new girl friend every week. We neither mean it as a good or a bad thing in his case.

    I think it started going from a word meaning a horrid person to meaning something flashy (so to speak) or good when people started seeing ‘Pimps’ as people with lots of money, lots of women, and expensive clothing. People like those things and trafficking aside- you’d think ‘pimps’ have it made. People want to be able to identify with those things but not with the ‘job’ bit- so they do the one thing they can. Use the word. 🙂 Or at least that’s the way I take.

  • David Hamilton

    In the case of this word, I think the change in meaning happened slowly and from many sources. First I think the outlandish peacock style of dress became separated (at least partly) from the other meaning. Eighty’s rap videos frequently displayed rappers in pimp dress.

    Most of these videos features the slick style and a glamorized version of the pimp. The women in the video did not appear to be prostitutes but street savvy and sexy types drawn to the greater street savvy and style of the “pimp”.

    The word then got a strong association with the flamboyant pimp cars. This might have been the true re-birth of the word. Once the underlying meanings of ownership and pandering got re-applied to an object rather than a person, the word just started over.

  • Kevin (ReturnToManliness)

    That suspension was garbage! Yes, the word is crude especially when referring to women, but if he is right and that is what is happening, then what is more offensive? He did not abuse the word for sensationalist reasons. He wasn’t going for shock value. It was simply using a crude word to express an act that, if happening, should cause an uproar.

    Poor decision from NBC…

  • Michel

    Many words have changed shock values

    In Britain it is acceptable to say the word bugger and getting acceptable to use a in stead of i in twit…
    Some person on yahoo answers complained that tw*t was not censored there…

    To pimp something is now like getting a makeover

  • sean

    It is an example of how the ‘gangsta’ culture of hip-hop has infiltrated our public consciousness. The word originally described a person engaged in the brokerage and sale of women in the act of prostitution, using intimidation and physical violence to retain the women in their employ. They take a percentage of the womens’ payment and brutally assault them if they attempt to leave.

    This profession has traditionally been glorified within the urban minority population, who often resort to drugs, prostitution and violence for lack of more respectable avenues of self reliance within their blighted communities. The role of the pimp id looked on as the ultimate ‘alpha’ status within the street community.

    The glamorization occurs within the culture of rap and gangsta related mass media, and as these art forms have normalized within society as a whole, this concept of ‘pimp’ as ‘king’ has been assimilated fully into the consciousness of today’s average youth.

    Ironic that the first African-American candidate to become a nominee for leader of the free world would be thus described, unwittingly reflecting the very bounds of which Obama has broken. (Meaning the word ‘pimp’, considered a high status within a community for which no other choices seem readily available, would be used to describe a man who represents the anti-thesis of this depressing reality, and who should offer a new hope to the people of these communities.)

  • Susabelle

    I agree, I find the term offensive no matter how it is used. But I’m “old” according to some (I just turned 47). To me, a pimp is a bad guy, and to pimp is a guy making money off someone else (usually a woman) through oppression and abuse.\

    Unfortunately, words and their usage change often, and popular culture is pervasive in this age of self-made media and the internet, so it is not really a surprise that a formerly perjorative word can take on a more positive meaning.

  • Maeve

    Susabelle,
    Right. No surprise.

    I’m like the Elephant Child: “hot, but not at all astonished.”

  • Gwen

    It’s just a shame that a person that basically rapes and imprisons young girls and “pimps” them out to strangers should be lauded so much in this society.. Young girls in general are not only called “hoes” , they are TREATED like that. For instance, while in the music LAB, I was propositioned by a male student as if I was some type of street whore to give him a blowjob and everyone laughed.. I imagine that happens to the younger women all the time. I kindof wish the word “madam” had been glorified instead (a woman that “pimps” out boys, men and women) like the famous madam, Xavier Hollander that always wore the fancy long fur coats and was really tacky or Heidi Fleiss — the famous Hollywood Madam… “That’s so Madaaaam” You Gigolos keep your place! haha and the world would view all successful women as “Madaaaam” and all the men of the world as Gigolos to be their playtoys instead of women as their Hoes…

    Anyway, one of our male teacher kept using the word pimp all the time in class and so I brought it up to one of my other male teachers and he thought I was way out of touch with the current times and that it meant nothing and basically made fun of me for taking offense to the word.. That, to me as a female, is almost the same thing as society going around calling people “Master” and using THAT word in a positive light even though they enslaved black people.. Female sex slaves have a “Pimp” like black slaves had a “Master”. But gender prejudice takes a backdoor to racial prejudice by far.. I wish things could change in this country.. but it might take more than just peaceful demonstrations.. I don’t know what it will take..

  • J.R.

    What’s funny to me about the whole thing is that the kids who go around (mis)using this word have no idea what an insult it used to be in criminal circles. They see it as a word that legitimizes their “gangsta” status. To them, it’s the best thing one can be. However, all you have to do to disprove this notion is to watch “The Godfather” where Don Corleone sneers “Tataglia’s a pimp, he never could have outfoxed Santino.” To the old guard, calling someone a pimp meant they were the lowest form of criminal. Not legitimate, not classy, and not worth their time. So now when some random kid on the Xbox or the internet claims to be a pimp, I just laugh and agree.

  • Don

    It may not be politically correct to say so, but this is just one example of the ghettoization of American culture, and in my view, there’s nothing sillier than White people imitating inner city Black culture.
    It would be harmless enough, but with it comes third world social values like mistreatment of women, selfishness, lack of education, violence, undercared for children, and a really shitty standard of living–there’s nothing glamorous about it–you can have it.

  • pammy

    And what about the term “sex slave” as in “She/he is my sex slave”?? When did that become a good thing?
    Yet, somehow, the younger generation has also found this to be something that says “She/he will do anything (in bed) for me,” and they mean this in a good way, as though a compliment to their partner.
    I don’t get it.

  • Stephen Thorn

    Sean, your comment was insightful and very well written. It effectively expressed my own thoughts about normalizing “pimp” in our daily speech and culture. I am also pleased that you brought up the issue of pimps using violence to control their ’employees’ and taking most of the girl’s money (both as a means of controlling/enslaving her and to finance the pimp’s lifestyle), a facet of the term that tends to be forgotten or overlooked by persons using the term in a positive light.

    Okay, I’m nearly half-a-century old and maybe my POV is a bit set by that fact, but I will never see the value of using such an ugly word as a compliment.

  • Jade

    Aftering being on LiveJournal for a short time and started participating in icon challenges I started to see the word “pimp” and I felt stunned. But it’s not used as the original term, instead it’s used for promotion. I don’t use it myself, I stick with promotion, makes me feel comfortable.

  • Nelida K.

    @Jade: I believe that you are absolutely right. “Pimping Chelsea out” sounds to me as if used in the sense of “promoting” her. I share your view, in the sense that if there is a legitimate, non-irritant term or synonym for the word, why use a term that is undergoing a not-yet-settled shift in meaning.

    Myself, I am an oldtimer and will always ascribe a negative nuance to the term. It will remain to be seen how this fairly recent shift in meaning will play out, and whether it will be issued an admittance ticket into the world of educated/cultured writing/speech.

  • Xavier

    P.I.M.P.
    People Intentionally Manipulating People

    I think if people knew that sex trafficking was going on in the US, that there was a huge population of millions of teen boys and girls ages 11 through 18, they would realize that the word pimp is not cool to use. It is disrespectful, and speaks highly of those who try to sell the body of our children. OUR children. Because 90% of the children who are trafficked in America, especially among those being forced to sell their bodies to up to 32 clients per day, started off as US citizens.

    People, please educate yourself before you speak….

  • Mary Jones

    When was it ever any worse than being called a buisness person or entrepanure , or ,corperation , religious organization , politician some of wich are and are not makeing money doing similar things in a very sneaky and sometimes very visable way but no one Hates on or questions them.Who is to say who is dispicable.If you wanna go there you may as well say the foundation of our country is dispicable.Get real and come down off your high horse.

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