After Several Years Of Casual Use, The Word `Chick' Is, Well, Chic

Like it or not, the '60s word "chick" is back on the scene. Other bits of hippie slang - like "stone fox" - may languish in the retro-chic ragbag. But chick is chic.

Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders says she likes being called a chick. So do the Dixie Chicks.

A baby shower invitation for Mary Matalin of CNBC's "Equal Time" said, "Chicks Only."

Hillary Rodham Clinton laughed when the media called her trip to Asia a "chicks' trip."

PBS ran an all-female movie-reviewer show called "Chicks on Flicks," and a new summer movie, "A Little Princess," is now being dubbed a "chick-ette movie" for young girls.

Some credit Hollywood with resurrecting the dead-and-buried chick.

"Chick flick was used for the first time in `Sleepless in Seattle,"' says Jack Nachbar, professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University.

"We really liked the Tom Hanks character very much, so the term `chick,' which is sexist, takes on a kind of lightly satirical tone. . . . We understand that he means it playfully."

This time around, chick is hip, cool, and oh-so-controversial.

Some say they're offended by chick. But others say it's a great word - a word with an edge and an outlaw feeling that babe and doll never had.

"It's like a jazz term, like the word `cool' or the word `beat,' " says Joseph Boskin, a professor of history at Boston University who specializes in the beat generation and African-American issues.

Chick was first used in the black community in the 1920s, according to "Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang." It says that chick, "meaning woman or female, has been a word used most frequently among black speakers."

A '40s jazz word

Chick became popular in the '40s jazz world, then crossed over into beatnik chic. The word first appeared in popular slang, says the "Oxford English Dictionary," in a 1959 magazine that described "beatniks and their chicks - palefaced girls wearing ponytails and toreador pants."

By the early '60s, almost every female was a chick. There were genres of chicks: surfer chicks, biker chicks, beatnik chicks. On television, the ultimate chick was Peggy Lipton in "The Mod Squad," with her long hair and go-go boots.

In the late '60s, however, feminists pointed out a little problem: The chick was always the sidekick. She got power only from standing in the shadow of a man.

But today, chick is stripped of that tired baggage: Just look at "Thelma and Louise," the saga of two '90s chicks on a bizarre road trip. Chick is most often used as an in-group word by women, a term of endearment or friendship. Most men, in this politically correct world, say the word would never cross their lips.

"If it's used by an outsider, it's presumed to be pejorative," says Boskin. "But if women use it to describe other women, it can be powerful. The minute any group takes over power of its own words, it can use them and shape them."

Both sexes agree it's an informal word, not to be used in public talks or places. Age seems to have no bearing. Some women in their 20s hate the word, and some in their 40s love it.

Still, controversy will always surround a word that's survived so many evolutionary twists in the world of slang. Context, most agree, is everything.

Recently, Jill Kotvis of the Dallas legal firm Hughes & Luce heard a story about two women attorneys having lunch with a male attorney. One of the women was the only female lawyer at her firm.

"The token chick"

"The guy was kidding her, saying that she was `the token chick.' She said, `I'm not a token anything.' She took offense at the word token, not chick, but the person telling the story thought she should have taken issue with the word chick."

In the modern tangle of words and meanings, some people muse on the meaning of neo-chick:

Karen Denard, former KERA talk-show host:

"I use chick all the time. It's something in my vocabulary that I never thought about one way or the other. ... People who get worked up about it need to get a life and get some real issues to deal with. The things women have to deal with are not about semantics like that."

Tomina Edmark, creator of Topsy Tails hairstyling tool:

"If a woman called me a chick, it would be a sisterhood thing. If a guy that I just met called me a chick, it would rub me the wrong way. But if I knew someone for quite a while, and he said, `You're quite a chick,' that would be complimentary, in my opinion."

Leigh Ann Williams, owner of 24 FPS frame shop:

"I always thought the word was kind of stupid - like dudes and chicks. I would never use it anyway, and I certainly wouldn't get upset about someone referring to me or a group of women as chicks. I'd assume they weren't using it in a derogatory manner."

Melissa Cooper, an artistic associate at the Dallas Theater Center:

"I love slang. I love colorful words and appreciate them in the language. The word seems fairly harmless to me. I don't like language being policed, and some of the gusto and expressivity being taken out of our slang and daily usage."

Jill Kotvis, chairwoman of the environmental practice group at Hughes & Luce:

"Personally, I'd prefer not to hear the word. It's old-fashioned, part of the old issues of days gone by. We've gotten beyond it. It's like girls. When an older male is using it, it implies, `I have some strength over you, I've got something over you.' "

Bill Armstrong, publicist:

"I think men would be scared to say it. You don't know how people would take it. I would never in my wildest dreams say chick, any more than I'd say gal or any of those horrible things. I got something recently that said female, and that even bothered me. Female says something biological, and to me that's a very minor part of what a woman is."

Cheryl Wattley, attorney:

"It doesn't have the connotations that babe and bimbo do. It's more flippant, more partyish, more lighthearted. Babes and bimbos are a more derogatory, demeaning kind of thing. Chick has a more playful connotation."

Donna Blumer, Dallas City Council member:

"In the pre-feminist period, women generally did not take offense at being regarded as an attractive woman apart from their brains. Chick would not indicate that a girl had any great brain power. It wasn't a hot-button issue. Now maybe it's that women like to be equated more with men in terms of stature and mentality. Perhaps it separates men from women a little more than some like to be separated."

Annette Beeler, art director at DDB Needham advertising agency:

"Being called a chick doesn't offend me at all. It makes me feel young and hip. Being called ma'am really throws me off. It makes me feel like I'm your elder, and I don't feel that way."

Jane Dolkart, associate professor of law at Southern Methodist University:

"To call women babes, chicks, girls and honey is to sexualize and infantilize them - to not take them seriously as grown-ups and peers. But when women use it with each other, it doesn't have that connotation. It's more that both are in the in-group. It's more a word between equals."

Oliver Selwyn, salesman at Forbidden Books and Videos:

"I don't hear the word much anymore. Sometimes guys will say, `Me and my chick are going out.' Personally, I use `woman' more. The rare times I hear it, it's in a casual, relaxed, friendly sense."