Pussy

pussy-bow

pussy-riot

The word pussy is a noun, an adjective, and in rare uses a verb in the English language. It has several meanings, including use as slang, as euphemism, and as vulgarity. Common meanings of the noun include ‘cat,’ ‘coward or weakling,’ and ‘the human vulva or vagina.’ Because of its multiple senses including both innocent and vulgar connotations, ‘pussy’ is often the subject of double entendre, including the late-19th-century vaudeville act the Barrison Sisters, who performed the notorious routine ‘Do You Want To See My Pussy?’ in which they raised their skirts to reveal live kittens.

The etymology of the word is not entirely clear. Several different senses of the word have different histories or origins. The feline variant comes from the Modern English word ‘puss,’ a conventional name or term of address for a pet cat in several Germanic languages, including Dutch (‘poes’) and Middle Low German (pūse). The word puss is attested in English as early as 1533. Earlier etymology is uncertain, but similar words exist in other European languages, including Lithuanian (puižė) and Irish (puisín) as traditional calls to attract a cat.

The words ‘puss’ and derived forms ‘pussy’ and ‘pusscat’ were extended to refer to girls or women by the seventeenth century. This sense of ‘pussy’ was used to refer specifically to genitalia by the eighteenth century, and from there further extended to refer to sexual intercourse involving a woman by the twentieth century.

Noah Webster, in his original 1828 ‘American Dictionary of the English Language,’ defined pussy as: ‘inflated, swelled; hence, fat, short and thick; and as persons of this make labor in respiration, the word is used for short breathed.’ He gave ‘pursy’ as a ‘corrupt orthography’ or misspelling of ‘pussy.’ In 1913, however, ‘Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary’ reversed the original, suggesting that pussy was a ‘colloquial or low’ variant of pursy. That word, in turn, was defined as ‘fat and short-breathed,’ with etymology from Old French pousser ‘to push.’

The Webster’s Third International Dictionary points out similarities between ‘pussy’ in the sense of ‘vulva’ and Low German or Scandinavian words meaning ‘pocket’ or ‘purse,’ including Old Norse (pūss) and Old English (pusa). The medieval French word ‘pucelle,’ meaning ‘maiden’ or ‘virgin,’ is not related to the English word. It is attested in Old French from the ninth century, and likely derives from Latin. The precise Latin source is disputed, with either ‘puella’ (‘girl’) or ‘pulla’ (‘pullet,’ ‘young female chicken’) suggested as earlier sources.

As a homograph (words with the same spelling but different meanings), ‘pussy’ can also mean ‘containing pus.’ Another adjective is the rare or obsolete Northern English dialect form ‘pursy’ meaning ‘fat’ or ‘short-winded.’ The more recent verb form relates to the common noun senses, including ‘to act like a cat,’ ‘to act like a coward,’ or ‘to have sex with a woman.’

Both in English and in German ‘puss’ was used as a ‘call-name’ for cats, but in English ‘pussy’ was used as a synonym for the word ‘cat’ in other uses as well. In addition to cats, the word was also used for rabbits and hares as well as a humorous name for tigers. In the 19th century, the meaning was extended to anything soft and furry, such as ‘pussy willow,’ the name given to the soft buds of willow trees and shrubs. In thieves’ cant (a secret language formerly used by thieves in Great Britain) the word ‘pussy means’ a ‘fur coat.’

In the 19th and 20th centuries the term ‘pussy’ was commonly used to refer to feline behavior in women. It was used as a pet name and term of endearment. One of the main characters of E. Nesbit’s 1902 children’s novel ‘Five Children and It’ is nicknamed ‘Pussy’ by her siblings. The verb ‘pussyfoot,’ meaning to walk softly or to speak in an evasive or cautious manner, may come from the adjective ‘pussy-footed’ (‘having a cat-like foot’). This word, first attested in the late nineteenth century, is related to both the ‘cat’ and the ‘woman’ meanings of pussy.

In contemporary English, use of the word ‘pussy’ to refer to women is considered derogatory or demeaning. As a reference to genitals or to sexual intercourse, the word is considered vulgar slang. Studies find the word used more commonly in conversations among men than in groups of women or mixed-gender groups, though subjects report using pussy more often than other slang terms for female genitals.

Words referring to cats are used as vulgar slang for female genitals in some other European languages as well. Examples include German ‘muschi’ (‘house cat’), French ‘chatte’ (‘female cat’), and Dutch ‘poes’ (‘puss’). The Portuguese term ‘rata’ (‘female rat’) and Norwegian ‘mus’ (‘mouse’) are also animal terms used as vulgar slang for women’s genitals.

The word ‘pussy’ is also used in a derogatory sense to mean cowardly, weak, or easily fatigued. It may refer to a male who is not considered sufficiently masculine, as in: ‘The coach calls us pussies.’ Men dominated by women (particularly by their partners or spouses and at one time referred to as ‘hen-pecked’) can be referred to as ‘pussy-whipped’ (or simply ‘whipped’ in slightly more polite company). This may be used simply to denigrate a man who is contented in a relationship.

The hyphenated phrase is parsed as ‘whipped by pussy’ – a manipulative relationship dynamic wherein a female deliberately or subconsciously withholds sexual intercourse to coerce the male into surrendering power in other aspects of the relationship. The male’s weakness is his desire for access to female genitalia, and his willingness to weaken his position in the relationship to obtain that access, combining two uses of the word pussy.

 

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