Broadly speaking

jennifer: How/where/when/why did the word 'broad' get used to describe a woman?

Doug: This term started out as US criminal slang. The original meaning was 'a prostitute' and when it entered mainstream usage it broadened (sorry for the pun, I just couldn't resist) its meaning to include so-called women of loose morals and later women of the uneducated or lower classes. So as you can see the term has never been what you might call respectful. It is first cited in 1914. In these days of 'enlightened behaviour' the term is considered apropos and is fast falling into disuse.

McQ: Broad certainly started as a derogatory term for women of easy virtue, as we used to say, but later it came to designate all women, albeit by careless speakers. For example, in "South Pacific" the sailors, after a couple of women-less years, sing "...and she's broad where a broad should be broad" in the song "There Is Nothing Like a Dame".
Another derogatory term that's heard with less freqeuncy. Wentworth and Flexner in their "Dictionary of American Slang" cite the following: Damon Runyon, 1932: "He refers to Miss Perry as a broad, meaning no harm whatever, for this is the way many of the boys speak of the dolls." (Still ANOTHER dated term.) And also: from an article by Paul Sann, writing in the New York Post (1958): "Mrs. Elsie Bainbridge, daughter of Rudyard Kipling, refused to approve a new Frank Sinatra (requiescat in pacem) recording of 'On the Road to Mandalay.' You see, Frankie substituted the word broad for girl."
The Sunday New York Times (5/17/98) cited two more quotations from Sinatra using "broad", in one of which he was referring to Ava Gardner, of whom he said, "I'm going to marry that broad" and of course did just that.
There is some question apparently about its etymology: some say it is derived from BAWD; others that it comes from the expression "broad in the beam", said originally I am sure of ships. Cf. the lyric above from "South Pacific." Not too great a leap to all "shes", all women with a truncating of the phrase to the single word, broad.

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