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Sue Ellen Ewing from Dallas spacer
figure 1

 

minx. 1. A flirtatious young woman, probably a bit sassy and provocative, perhaps promiscuous. 2. A young woman who is a ruthless social climber, willing to use all her wiles including her sexuality to fulfill her ambition. 3. A prostitute.reference 1

Until researching this project, I had—without much conscious consideration—presumed that references to minxes were either to cats (a corruption of manx) or to minks. As it turns out, a minx is a pet dog. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that it is most likely from the obsolete mynx, meaning “playful little dog.” Or it might be an alteration of the obsolete Dutch minneken, meaning “darling.” The OED offers a quotation that suggests that originally a minx was more of a lapdog: “There been litle mynxes, or puppees that ladies keepe in their chaumbers for especiall iewelles to playe withall.”reference 1

I had not let my lack of knowledge get in the way of some notion of the connotations of the term. I had inferred that there was a sensuousness and perhaps a lack of sexual inhibition associated with minxes. Clearly I am not alone in this. The most ubiquitous reference in contemporary American culture is from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. In his thoughts Austin says of the character Vanessa Kensington (figure 3) “... I bet she shags like a minx.”reference 3 However, in days of yore, say a century or so ago, the meaning was both different and much more complex.

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Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp spacer
figure 2

Mrs. Andrew Lang offers a range of case studies of minxes and minxness in her treatise Men, Women, and Minxes, published in 1912. Lang notes that when looking for literary exemplars, “It is to a [male author] and not a woman that we must look if we wish to know what a minx unveiled is really like...”reference 4 While others offer Becky Sharp (of Vanity Fair, see figure 2 for the film version of this character)reference 45 as the epitome of minxness, Lang is unequivocal in naming another Thackery character, Blanche Amory of Pendennis. Sharp, Lang notes, is sometimes moved by impulse and is prey to circumstance. In contrast, “A minx acts entirely by calculation, and manages to shape circumstances to her will.”reference 4 Lang's description is worth repeating at length:

[Minxes] cultivate surface emotions as a part of their stock-in-trade, on the same principle as the hardest-hearted people are most easily moved by a play. They have no interest in intellectual pursuits for their own sake, but only value them as a means of showing off; they are as incapable of love as they are of gratitude or of any fixed sentiment that does not tend to their own advantage. The minx is cruel for the sheer love of cruelty, and she revels in mystery, even when straightforward methods would serve her turn as well. Her ambitions are of the earth, earthy, and begin and end with money and power.... It is needless to add that minxes have no humour, or most probably they would never have become minxes.reference 7

1. The Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2005. 3d ed. Accessed from http:// dictionary.oed.com.

 

 

 

2. From Erasmus' Apophthegmes 127b, quoted in The Oxford English Dictionary.

 

 

3. Wikipedia contributors. 2008. Minx Cat. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Accessed Jul 6 2008 from http:// en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/ Minx_cat.

4. Lang, Leonora Blanche. 1912. Men, Women and Minxes. New York: Longmans, Green and Co. 43.

5. Early, Sherry. Aug 292006. Best Minxes. Semicolon. Accessed Jul 6 2008 from http:// www.semicolonblog.com/ ?p=1448.

6. Lang. 44.

 

 

 

 

 

7. Ibid. 42.

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Elizabeth Hurley as Vanessa Kensington spacer
figure 3
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Sue Lyon as Lolita spacer
figure 4
By this standard, Austin Powers' Vanessa Kensington (figure 3) is hardly a minx. The contemporary equivalent of calling someone a minx might be to call her “a Lolita,” a character in Nabokov's controversial novel of the same name. However, I think Lolita (figure 4 shows us the film version) is too much subject to the whims of others to be a true minx. On top of that, the sexual aspects of the character are far more salient than her ambition. Perhaps Sue Ellen Ewing's character (figure 1) on the television show Dallas is more apt. And, of course, Becky Sharp as played by Reese Witherspoon (figure 2) in the 2004 film version of Vanity Fair remains in the running, despite Mrs. Lang's demurrer.
 

Lang's definition invites comparisons with “bitch,” an opprobrious term for women with which “minx” shares a great deal. The use of sexuality and the self-centeredness implied by these terms is similar. The contemporary usage of “like a minx,” generated primarily by the Austin Powers faux Britishism, is nearly equivalent to “like a bitch in heat.” In his study, “Zoosemic Terms Denoting Female Human Beings,” Robert Kieltyka traces a similar trajectory of the definitions of both these terms from relatively neutral descriptors to pejorative references to women.reference 8

It may be that the change in meaning of minx reflects changes in the status of women in U.S. society. There are now other ways for an intelligent woman of limited means and boundless ambition to become a millionaire than by marrying one.

8. Kieltyka, Robert. 2005. Zoosemic Terms Denoting Female Human Beings: Semantic Derogation of Women Revisited. Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: International Review of English Studies 41:167-186.
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About the illustrations: Figure 1 is Linda Gray as Sue Ellen Ewing in the television show Dallas. Figure 2 is Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp with whatsisname from Vanity Fair. Figure 3 is Elizabeth Hurley as Vanessa Kensington. Figure 4 is Sue Lyon as Lolita from the 1962 version of the film by the same name. These images are excerpted from promotional stills, and the copyright for it is most likely owned by either the publishers or the creators of the works. I believe that the use of scaled-down, low-resolution images to provide critical commentary on the media productions in question qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.

cf bitch; poodle; like a bitch in heat; I'm not your bitch Last updated: August 22, 2008
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