The Grammarphobia Blog

Melania’s pussy bow

Q: In honor of one of my fave blog topics, why is it called a “pussy bow”? PS: I long for the days when we could giggle at newscasters who had to say “Pussy Riot.”

A: “Pussy bow,” a term for a large, floppy bow at the neck of a woman’s blouse, has been in the news lately. Melania Trump wore one to her husband’s debate last Sunday with Hillary Clinton.

Did she wear it as a comment on Donald Trump’s use of the term “pussy” in a controversial video that surfaced last week? No, according to the Trump campaign. We’ll leave it at that, and get on to your question.

The “pussy” in “pussy bow” is from the feline, not the genital, use of the word. When the usage first showed up in the late 19th century, the term was “pussycat bow.”

The language researcher Peter Reitan, writing on the discussion group of the American Dialect Society, reported finding this example in the July 25, 1892, issue of the St Paul (Minn.) Daily Globe:

“Narrow velvet and little pussy-cat bows are seen on many of the summer costumes of light material.”

And we’ve found this example from an article by Mrs. Eric Pritchard in the December 1902 issue of Lady’s Realm: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine:

“Really there is something extremely fascinating in a ‘pussycat bow’; it is so feminine, frivolous, and charming, and, somehow, anything light just under the face, relieving the sombre tint of winter toilettes, is always becoming.”

The first example we’ve seen for “pussy bow” is from Business and Advertising, a 1908 book by Ashby Goodall that says an advertisement could offer suggestions for using a product.

An ad for a fabric, Goodall writes, might suggest using it to make “some pretty feminine trifle” for each of one’s friends: “Say a stock for one, a pussy bow for another, a Marie Antoinette ruch for a third, etc., etc.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has later citations for both of these terms.

The dictionary’s earliest example for “pussycat bow” is from an ad in the March 23, 1932, issue of the Winnipeg Free Press: “Easter Scarves. Linker, Lyolene, Sore Throat, or Pussy Cat Bow types, in daring dashing shades lend that riotous air Spring suggests.”

And the OED’s earliest example for “pussy bow” is from an ad in the Feb. 14, 1946, issue of the Fitchburg (Mass.) Sentinel: “Betsy Ross pussy-bow blouse, white and colors.”

Some fashion writers have suggested that the terms “pussy bow” and “pussycat bow” are derived from the tying of colorful ribbons around the necks of cats, though we haven’t found any etymologists who’ve weighed in on the issue.

We have, however, found many 19th-century pictures of cats with ribbons around their necks, including several on a page of Currier and Ives lithographs.

The use of pussy bows in women’s fashion has grown in popularity since the mid-20th century, appearing in the work of Coco Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, and other designers.

Women who’ve worn them include Margaret Thatcher, Jane Fonda, and Peggy Olsen of Mad Men, all pictured in the link at the beginning of this post.

We’ll end with this OED citation from the August 1994 issue of Sainsbury’s magazine: “Will I start foxhunting, wearing pussy-bow blouses or calling for capital punishment in schools?”

[Note: This post was updated on Oct. 13, 2016.]

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