[Ads-l] Relationship to 'pussy' - Re: Scaredy Cat - 1904; Fraidy Cat - 1889

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Sat Mar 27 03:35:55 UTC 2021

> On Mar 26, 2021, at 8:35 PM, Stanton McCandlish <smccandlish at GMAIL.COM> wrote:
> This might be really old news, but I've often wondered whether "pussy" as
> an insult ('coward', 'weakling') is closely related to this, i.e. the idea
> of cats being easily frightened.  My supposition has been that the term
> being applied to female genitals came later and was a reference to,
> basically, being fuzzy and appealing. (I suspect that sense originated as a
> non-vulgar and kind of childish term, like "wiener" for 'penis', and only
> came to be considered vulgar later.)
> I do know that "pus[sy]" as a term for 'cat' pre-dates both the 'coward'
> and 'vagina' senses by centuries, but that's as far as I've looked into it
> with materials easily on-hand.  If correct, I think this would necessarily
> mean that the objection "calling a man a 'pussy' is misogynistic" is
> linguistically and historically wrong, a folk etymology.
> Another bit of evidence is that "cunt" and "twat" in British usage, most
> often applied to men there but more clearly relating to 'vagina' than the
> word "pussy", do not have 'coward' implications but something completely
> different (and also different from the woman-targeted usage of these terms
> in American English, where they're just more vulgar variants of "bitch”).

Agreed with much of the above, but I’m not sure I buy the claim that "calling a man a 'pussy' is misogynistic” is…linguistically wrong”, even it is historically wrong, since most speakers do synchronically link this sense of “pussy” with female genitalia and not cats. (Calling someone, including oneself, a pussy-cat is quite different.) To be sure, it’s a different kind of insult when you call a man a pussy and when you call him a cunt (in the U.K., where it’s much more common, or the U.S.) or a twat. Or when you refer to a man as “she” or to male troops as “ladies", as football coaches and sergeants are wont to do.  I would claim these are all misogynistic when used now, whatever the source of these words may have been, given what Mill called the etymological fallacy.  

> Anyway, I'm hoping there's a good writeup about this stuff in a journal
> somewhere. I should have full-text access to several journal sites again
> soon through Wikipedia's GLAM program (
> https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WP:LIBRARY – worth checking out if you're a
> regular editor there but do not have ready access to paywalled
> journal-search stuff).
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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