English English language Etymology Slang Usage Word origin

Is “wussy” milder than “pussy”?

[Note: A May 29, 2020, post includes earlier examples for the use of “wussy.”]

Q: You might have mentioned in your recent “pussy” post that “wuss” and “wussy” are common substitutions to make the sense of a weak person more acceptable.

A: We didn’t mention “wuss” and “wussy” in our post about “pussy,” but etymologists think these words may be related.

The noun “wuss” is perhaps a blend of “wimp” and “puss,” and the noun and adjective “wussy” could be a combination of “wimp” and “pussy.”

Here “wimp,” first recorded in American slang in 1920, means “a feeble or ineffectual person,” or “one who is spineless or ‘wet,’ ” the Oxford English Dictionary says.

And, as we discussed in our earlier post, the popular slang senses of “puss” and “pussy” convey, among other things, notions of cowardice, weakness, and effeminacy.

Both the OED and Green’s Dictionary of Slang propose these senses of “pussy” as the possible sources of “wuss” and “wussy.” But while Green’s is more positive, the OED says the exact etymology remains uncertain.

It appears that “wuss” and “wussy” were products of 1970s American college slang. Oxford labels them “colloquial”—that is, found more often in speech than in formal writing.

The two words are defined similarly in the OED, but with a slight (or not so slight) difference.

“Wuss” means simply “a  weak or ineffectual person,” the OED says. But “wussy” has an extra component.

The adjective “wussy” can mean either “weak, ineffectual” or “effeminate,” according to the dictionary, while the noun “wussy” can mean “a weak or ineffectual person” or “an effeminate man.”

It strikes us that “wuss” or “wussy” is milder, and less offensive, than “pussy” because it doesn’t seem to convey the genital association of “pussy.”

The OED’s earliest citations for “wuss” are dated November 1976. They were recorded in a typescript entitled “Campus Slang,” compiled at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: “Come on you wuss, hit a basket” and “John’s a wuss.”

Later American citations include these:

“You ought to meet her first, you wuss” (from Cameron Crowe’s 1981 book Fast Times at Ridgemont High).

“Everybody thinks I’m a wuss. And I don’t impress any of the stunt women at all” (from the Washington Post, August 1984).

But the usage is exclusively American no longer. The OED includes this Australian example: “Give us y’lunch, Hooper, you great wuss!” (a caption in the Brisbane Courier-Mail, January 1996).

The OED’s citations for “wussy” begin at around roughly the same time as “wuss,” and in college slang. We’ll begin with the adjective:

“Soccer! … What kind of wussy sport is that!” (from the Harvard Crimson, September 1977).

“They [New Zealanders] really don’t have any sense of what American football is. They think it’s a wussy sport because you put on helmets and pads. They say real men play rugby” (Washington Post, January 1985).

And here are some citations for the noun, beginning with the earliest:

“Kong’s a wussy. … That wasn’t him climbing the Empire State Building; that was a stunt ape” (Washington Post, July 1981).

“Those pampered, effete, ungrateful, deodorant-averse European wussies” (Vanity Fair, March 2003).

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