The Grammarphobia Blog

A nocturnal cat with claws

Q: How did the word “cougar” evolve to mean an older woman who likes younger men? Yes, cougars are nocturnal cats … with claws, but what man came up with this term? The tables should be turned and we women should come up with a name for a younger man who likes older women. How about something nocturnal as well, like roach?

A: The term “cougar,” meaning an older woman who pursues younger men, may have been a male invention, but we have three women to thank for making it a household word.

Of course, as a term for a large feline quadruped, “cougar” has been around since the 18th century. It’s derived from a word in a native South American language, Tupi, and the term is synonymous with “puma” and “mountain lion.”

But as a word for a predator of the human variety, “cougar” is a much later coinage and its origins are murky.

One popular story is that it first showed up in the locker room of the Vancouver Canucks hockey team in the late 1980s. These NHL players supposedly used the term to describe groupies of a mature vintage.

Although there’s no solid evidence to support this story, linguists have tracked the use of “cougar” to western Canada in the early 1990s, when the term meant pretty much what it does now.

However it originated, the usage was popularized in 2001, when two Canadian multimedia artists, Elizabeth Vander Zaag and  Elspeth Sage, launched a tongue-in-cheek website named Cougardate.com.

The two women say they got the idea for the name when a nephew of Sage referred to them as a couple of “cougars.” It was a term he had picked up from his high school hockey team, according to the women.

The website caught on, offering not only dating services but humorous advice on such things as coping with “menopaws.”

Later in 2001, Valerie Gibson, a former dating columnist for the Toronto Sun, produced a book called Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men.

By “older,” Gibson says, she means late 30s plus. The advice in her book includes such niceties as how to “survive (or avoid) meeting his close-to-same-age mother.”

So that’s how the cat got out of the bag.

In the years since the original website and book, there have been many more books with “cougar” in their titles, as well as a reality show (“The Cougar”), a sitcom (“Cougar Town”), a movie (“Cougar Club”), cougar conventions, a cougar cruise (on the Carnival Cruise Line, no less), and dozens of online dating services dedicated to matching “cougs” with virile, adventurous “cubs.” 

Yup, “cubs.” And there’s your term for younger men in pursuit of older women!

(A brief version of this item appeared in Parade magazine, which interviewed Pat about cougars.)

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