A Broad By Any Other Name…

It took my annual physical exam to embrace my inner “broad.” The esteemed and venerable doctor who’s been in practice as many years as I’ve been alive; the past 20 of which I’ve been his patient, knocked and entered the room. I noticed that he was in an uncharacteristically jovial mood. Trying to match his ebullience I responded to his “How are you doing?” with the saucy:  “Not bad for an old broad.”   More than likely this phrase tripped off my tongue as a nod to my father who, like many men of his generation, has always employed the “b” word. ” Indeed, Dad uses this exact phrase however, it’s meant to comment on a woman’s exterior physical attributes, not her health. “That’s one I haven’t heard in quite a while” was Doc’s amused retort. He asked me if I knew where the term came from and when I replied in the negative he mentioned both Damon Runyan (more on that in a minute) as well as the 1949 musical “South Pacific” where the sailors sing “…and she’s broad where a broad should be broad” in song lyrics to “There is Nothing Like A Dame.” Play video

It turns out that he was correct (whew, otherwise I would have had to find a new physician!) however I found several additional etymological attributions for the word. These include Abroadwife (a woman away from her husband or a slave) (see article) as well as a reference stemming from an early 20th century game of Three Card Monte; the object being to capture the Queen (a broad card). There is also a mention that a broad was a name for a ticket and by extension a prostitute (referring to a pimp’s meal ticket). Check out Wordorigins.org .

Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra

Of course, as my doctor mentioned the word was used as a colloquialism in a 1932 short story by author Damon Runyon when a character refers to Miss Perry as a broad, “meaning no harm whatever, for this is the way many of the boys speak of the dolls.” In 1950 this short story became the basis for the Broadway play “Guys and Dolls” further popularizing the term. Frank Sinatra was attributed with saying that “calling a girl a ‘broad’ is far less coarse than calling her a ‘dame'” and he famously remarked “I’m going to marry that broad” about Ava Gardner. Interestingly, Ms. Gardner used the word referring to herself in Ava: My Story (“Because I was promoted as a sort of a siren and played all those sexy broads, people made the mistake of thinking I was like that off the screen. They couldn’t have been more wrong.”) The image of a group of sailors or guys in a bar saying “Look at dem broads” signals the idea that a broad must be comely to attract their interest and that the men making the remarks were not of the highest social order. In my mind, the word ‘broad’ by itself is a fairly innocuous bit of slang; it’s the pairing with a modifier such as old, dumb, smart or classy which gives it a chameleon quality.

Gradually the word fell out of favor in the ’60s and ’70s and women’s libbers (now known as feminists, I suppose) were mostly responsible for seeking to remove ‘broad’ from the lexicon, along with many other alleged demeaning words such as chicks, dolls, dames, skirts and babes. This was illustrated in 1967 as the Olympic “broad jump” was renamed the “long jump” however it didn’t have any impact on the “broad reach” a sailing term. (See definition under Noun Nautical here . In “Womanwords: A Dictionary of Words About Women” by Jane Mills published in 1993, a ‘broad’ is defined as “a woman who is liberal, tolerant, unconfined, and not limited or narrow in scope.” It seems that women have recently been making an effort to take back ‘broad’ and own it as part of their own lexicon. It has come to denote a powerful, tough and ballsy woman who goes after what she wants; no shrinking violets here.

Bette Midler

Recent examples of a ‘broad’ resurgence are plentiful. Last April, Bette Midler re-issued her 1980 autobiographical tome “A View From A Broad.” Obviously the Divine Miss M considers herself an outspoken and gutsy woman and is not afraid to announce it to the world then or now. In Brooke Shields’ recent memoir about her mother Teri Shields (“There Was A Little Girl) she recalls her mother as “a broad in the best sense of the word” and a “tough broad who could fight.” Never mind that mom Teri (the original Momager) was a raging alcoholic, Brooke wants the world to see some of her mother’s attributes (she looked great in a leopard swimsuit) as well as the impact that her mother’s hardscrabble life growing up in Newark, New Jersey had on her ability to help make young Brooke a star, albeit controversially.

Terri Shields

The word ‘broad’ has made it into the business world as well. There is an organization called 85 Broads, formed in 1997 by CEO Janet Hanson to facilitate young female undergrads at Goldman Sachs to gain access to a wide network of female mentors in the company. The organization has 38 regional chapters around the world and 30,000 members according to its website. An organization called Broads Abroad supports solo women travelers.

Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer of Broad City

I recently discovered a television show on Comedy Central entitled “Broad City” about the misadventures of two 20-something females living in New York City. Familiar terrain (or concrete) you might say considering the more well-known show “Girls,” however BC has been dubbed the “Anti-‘Girls’ and is much funnier than its predecessor according to my 21-year-old daughter. After binge watching the entire first season (don’t be too impressed — it’s only 10 half-hour episodes) on my computer, I will admit that I enjoyed it, once I got over the initial grossness and general cringe factor which seems to be inherent in today’s TV. Incidentally, I felt the same way about HBO’s “The Comeback,” yet watched that as well. (Side note: I think “Comeback” star Lisa Kudrow is a broad however her character Valerie Cherish is not).

In regard to “Broad City,” if Laverne & Shirley and Cheech & Chong somehow got together (haha that makes my head explode) the product of that union would be Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer. The two “Jewesses,” weed lovers and besties are actually portraying somewhat fictionalized versions of their younger selves in the series and using their own names. What’s also worth noting is that the show has been hailed as containing an element of that other, less popular “F” word: Feminism. This is ironic when you consider that the word ‘broad’ was originally condemned by earlier factions and as previously mentioned is an example of modern women embracing the term. The show was developed starting with shorter webisodes and expanded to a series after fellow Upright Citizens Brigade member Ms. Amy “F–King” Poehler (see website broadcitytheshow.com/#about) took an interest in supporting and producing the project as well as appearing in the season finale. Other SNL alum such as Fred Armisen, Rachel Dratch and Amy Sedaris each make an appearance on various episodes as very distinctive (read “insanely hysterical”) characters. I would definitely recommend watching the first season before January 14 when Season Two begins. Check out this great video montage to Drake’s “Started From The Bottom” which opened a “Broad City” episode. (Play video).

Kathy Griffin and Joan Rivers

According to New Yorker Magazine article “ID Girls” Jacobson liked the name “Broad City” with its “sly reclamation of an old-fashioned term (“A broad is a full person,” Glazer says).” I decided that there are many ‘broads’ on television (many of the Real Housewives would qualify), comedians (of course, Joan Rivers and her replacement on “Fashion Police” Kathy Griffin are broads, as well as Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, Golden Globe hosts this Sunday), in films (one example of a television film was 2001’s “These Old Broads”, featuring Debbie Reynolds, Shirley MacLaine, Joan Collins and Elizabeth Taylor), in music (Barbara Streisand, Cher, Rihanna) and also as fashion designers. Just to name a few designing women who immediately come to mind: Betsey Johnson, Diane Von Furstenberg, Coco Chanel, Vivienne Westwood, Donatella Versace, Mary Quant, Katharine Hamnett, Elsa Schiaparelli and Donna Karan all pass the ‘broad’ test of being strong willed, fun-loving women.

There are, of course, broads in every walk of life, whether they want to be known as broads or not, and at every age. As for those who are no longer considered spring chickens, I intend to temper the blow of ageism by taking a quote from screen legend and noted broad Bette Davis: “If you want a thing done well get a couple of old broads to do it.”

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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