Q: The words “wuss” and “wussy” did not appear for the first time in the 1970s among college students, as you say. In 1966, when I was a junior at Bayonne High School in New Jersey, I asked the boys to use “wuss” and “wussy” because “pussy” made me feel uncomfortable.
A: Etymologists, the people who trace the history of words, generally date the origin of a usage from when the term was first recorded—in newspapers, magazines, books, radio programs, TV shows, and so on. That’s because the first recorded use of a word can be proven.
Most new words show up in speech before they appear in writing or other recorded forms. You may have inspired the use of “wuss” and “wussy” in their weak or effeminate sense at Bayonne High School in 1966. However, there’s no way of proving this, unless you can provide dated evidence of the usage. For instance, a yearbook or school newspaper from 1966. (Note: She didn’t have such evidence.)
Your email inspired us to look further into the history of these terms. As a result, we’ve found several “wussy” examples from the late 1800s, beginning with its use to mean “pussy” in the feline sense.
The earliest example we’ve found is from an English version of the “Puss in Boots” fairy tale. Here “pussy-cat” and “wussy-cat” are used as rhyming terms:
“Pussy-cat, wussy-cat, with a white foot, / When is your wedding? for I’ll come to’t. / The beer’s to brew, the bread’s to bake, / Pussy-cat, pussy-cat, don’t be too late” (Mother Goose’s Melodies or Songs for the Nursery, 1878, edited by William A. Wheeler).
The next example is from a travel book that refers to two young women with “Pussy” and “Wussy” as nicknames:
“Pussy and Wussy at once took their places on the front seat. It was a little way of theirs always to look out for themselves—at least, Pussy did it, and Wussy followed suit” (The Foreign Freaks of Five Friends, 1882, by Cecilia Anne Jones).
In the early 20th century, the term “pussy-wussy” came to be used as an adjective or noun with the sense of weak, ineffectual, or effeminate. The earliest example we’ve found uses it in the ineffectual sense.
In a speech on July 14, 1915, the American suffragist Abigail Scott Duniway used the term adjectivally to criticize prohibitionists as “white-ribboned sisters of virtue” who “depend on a pussy-wussy piece of white ribbon for protection from themselves.” (The white ribbon has been a symbol of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union since the 19th century.)
A year later, the term showed up as a noun for an effeminate man. In Drink and Be Sober (1916), a book calling for the prohibition of alcohol, Vance Thompson writes that the prizefighter Jess Willard was “unafraid of being laughed at as a ‘sissy’ or a ‘pussy-wussy’ ” for supporting the temperance movement.
We’re adding a note to our 2016 post about this early etymology. As we say in that post, the terms “wuss” and “wussy” appeared in writing by themselves in the second half of the 20th century, first in the weak or ineffectual sense, and later in the effeminate sense, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.
The earliest citation in the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, is for “wuss” used to mean a weak or ineffectual person:
“Come on you wuss, hit a basket” and “John’s a wuss.” From “Campus Slang,” a Nov. 6, 1976, typescript of slang terms collected by Connie C. Eble, a linguist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Eble had asked her students to contribute current slang terms on index cards.
When “wussy” showed up in print the following year, it was an adjective meaning effeminate: “Soccer! … What kind of wussy sport is that!” From the Harvard Crimson, Sept. 12, 1977.
A few years later, according to Oxford citations, “wussy” appeared in writing as a noun meaning “a weak or ineffectual person” as well as “an effeminate man.”
The first example uses the term jokingly in the weak or ineffectual sense: “Kong’s a wussy. … That wasn’t him climbing the Empire State Building; that was a stunt ape” (Washington Post, July 18, 1981).
The OED says “wussy” originated with the addition of the suffix “-y” to the noun “wuss.” And it suggests that “wuss” may have originally been a blend of “wimp” and “pussy” used to mean a cat.
However, the evidence we’ve found indicates that “wussy” originated as a rhyming term for “pussy,” and that “wuss” is simply a short form of “wussy.” In fact, “wussy” showed up in English dozens of years before the first OED sighting of “wimp” used to mean a weak or ineffectual person (1920).
As for “pussy,” it originated in the 16th century when the “-y” suffix was added to “puss,” a proper or pet name for a cat.
Oxford’s earliest citation for “puss” used as a cat’s name is from an early 16th-century play: “I haue sene the day that pus my cat / Hath had in a yere kytlyns eyghtene.” From Johan Johan the Husband (1533), John Heywood’s comedy about an Englishman who believes his wife is cheating on him with the local priest.
When the suffixed “pussy” first appeared, the OED says, it was chiefly a colloquial term for “a girl or woman exhibiting characteristics associated with a cat, esp. sweetness or amiability. Frequently used as a pet name or as a term of endearment.”
The first citation is from a bawdy ballad, perhaps written some time before 1560: “Adew, my pretty pussy, Yow pynche me very nere” (from Jacobite Songs and Ballads of Scotland from 1688 to 1746, edited by Charles Mackay, 1860).
In the late 17th century, “pussy” came to be used for both a cat’s name and the female genitals. The earliest example is from a risqué song in which the word is used in both senses, Oxford says:
“As Fleet as my Feet Could convey me I sped; / To Johnny who many Times Pussey had fed.” From “Puss in a Corner,” in A Choice Collection of New Songs and Ballads (1699), by Thomas D’Urfey.