The Grammarphobia Blog

Is “pussy” a dirty word?

(Note: We’re repeating the following post because of its newsworthiness this weekend. It originally ran on Dec. 28, 2015.)

Q: Two Fox contributors were benched this month for using inappropriate language. One of them used the word “pussy,” which refers not to the female genitalia, but to a coward, from the same root as “pusillanimous.” Why can’t we use this word?

A: To recap, on Dec. 7, 2015, Ralph Peters, a Fox Business analyst, called President Obama “a total pussy,” and Stacey Dash, a Fox News cultural commentator, said, “I felt like he could give a shit” about terrorism.

Bill Shine, the executive vice president of programming at Fox, then suspended Peters and Dash for two weeks, saying “the comments were completely inappropriate and unacceptable for our air.”

As to your question, get serious. Unless you’re emailing from Alpha Centauri, you must know that the noun “pussy” can refer to a woman’s genitals as well as a coward or a sissy.

Did Fox overreact about the use of “pussy”? In our opinion, no. Dictionaries generally label the the first of these slang senses as vulgar and the second as offensive.

We’d describe the Fox decision to suspend the two contributors for using “shit” and “pussy” on the air as a matter of prudence rather than etymology.

Etymologically, the noun “pussy” has referred to a woman’s genitals for hundreds of years. And it probably comes from Germanic sources, not from pusillanimis, the Latin source of “pusillanimous.”

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is a naughty reference in A Choice Collection of New Songs and Ballads (1699), by the English writer Thomas D’Urfey:

As Fleet as my Feet Could convey me I sped; / To Johnny who many Times Pussey had fed.”

The noun “pussy” has also referred to a sweet man, or to an effeminate one, for more than a hundred years. The OED’s first citation is from God’s Good Man, a 1904 novel by the British writer Marie Corelli: “I shall invite Roxmouth and his tame pussy, Mr. Marius Longford.”

And this example is from Sinclair Lewis’s 1925 novel Arrowsmith: “You ought to hear some of the docs that are the sweetest old pussies with their patients—the way they bawl out the nurses.”

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, this sense of “pussy” evolved to mean a coward or a weakling, according to examples in the dictionary.

The earliest citation for the new sense is from Pimp: The Story of My Life, a 1969 memoir by Iceberg Slim, the street name of Robert Beck:

“Look Preston, I got lots of heart. I’m not a pussy. I been to the joint twice. I did tough bits, but I didn’t fall apart.”

And here’s an example from If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, a 1973 memoir by Tim O’Brien about his experiences in Vietnam: “You afraid to be in the war, a goddamn pussy?”

As “pussy” came to mean a coward, its sexual sense changed. Before then, the word had appeared in family publications and (in the words of the OED) referred to “a man likened to a house-cat; a dependent or ‘domesticated’ man.”

Since around 1970, the lexicographer Jonathan Lighter says in an Aug. 17, 2005, posting on the Linguist List, there’s “little doubt of its misogynistic genital origin.”

That explains why The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) labels “pussy” as “informal” if it refers to a cat, “vulgar” if it means the vulva, and “offensive” if it refers to man regarded as weak, timid, or unmanly.

When the noun “pussy” showed up in writing in the 1500s, it referred to “a girl or woman exhibiting characteristics associated with a cat, esp. sweetness or amiability,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Anatomie of Abuses (1583), an attack against the customs of the times, by the social reformer Philip Stubbes:

“You shall haue euery sawcy boy of x, xiiij, xvi, or xx yeres of age, to catch vp a woman & marie her … so he haue his pretie pussie to huggle withall, it forceth not, for that is the only thing he desireth.” (We’ve expanded the OED citation to add context.)

The dictionary says “pussy” is derived from a somewhat earlier noun “puss,” which it defines as “a conventional proper or pet name for a cat” that’s often “used as a call to attract its attention.”

The OED’s first citation is from a 1533 comedy by the English playwright John Heywood: “I haue sene the day that pus my cat Hath had in a yere kytlyns eyghtene.”

The feline meaning of “puss” is somewhat of a mystery, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

“It appears to have been borrowed from Middle Low German pus, but there the trail goes cold,” Ayto says. “Since it is basically used for calling cats, it may have originated simply in an exclamation (like pss) used for gaining their attention.”

He suggests that “pussy the slang term for ‘cunt’ may be of Low German or Scandinavian origin (Low German had puse ‘vulva’ and Old Norse puss ‘pocket, pouch.’ ”

As for the other unfortunate remark on Fox, we’ve discussed “shit” several times on our blog, including posts in 2009 and 2007. We’ve also written about “cunt” and “twat,” but not about the naughty senses of “pussy.” We did, though, discuss the feline sense of the word in 2009.

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