The Grammarphobia Blog

What’s new, pussens?

Q: Watching a Pinter play recently, I was struck by the use of the word “pussens” in referring to a cat. I could not find it in the dictionary, but my wife saw the word in Ulysses. Did Joyce make it up?

A: “Puss” and “pussy” have been used for calling cats since the 1500s, and “pussycat” since the 1600s. The origin of “puss” isn’t clear, but there has been some speculation that it evolved in imitation of sounds one makes to call a cat.

There are similar cat terms in several other Germanic languages, including the Scandinavian languages (pus, puse), Low and Middle Low German (pus, puus, puse), and Dutch (poes, puis).

The word “pussens,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is an extended form of “puss” that was first recorded in 1866 in a book by the Victorian novelist Charlotte Riddell: ” ‘Oh! you dear, dear old pussens’ – and the child made a dive at the tabby.”

It next appeared in 1915 in one of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s books for girls: “‘Him was a nice old pussens, him was,’ vowed Anne, cuddling her pet defiantly.”

The OED‘s third citation for “pussens” does indeed come from James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922): “Milk for the pussens, he said.” (Here’s another example, not in the OED, from Ulysses: “I never saw such a stupid pussens as the pussens.”)

A 2007 draft revision for the OED calls “pussens” a “nursery and colloquial” usage. The addition of “ens” to “puss” seems to be arbitrary. Another form of the word, “pussums,” first recorded in 1912, may be formed by analogy with “diddums,” which began as 19th-century baby-talk.

So Joyce didn’t make up the word. God only knows where he got it. Do you think he was a fan of Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books? No, I don’t think so either. Maybe he picked it up from his governess. I seem to remember that she had the same nickname as Stephen Daedalus’s Dante.

Buy Pat’s books at a local store or Amazon.com.