Email yesterday from P.O.:
Professor Liberman, we need you. You're no doubt aware of Trump's recent comment, quoting a supporter. But now TPM has gone and printed a reader email linking 'pussy' to pusillanimous'.
I had never heard this before, and I'm fairly well-read. I did some google-sleuthing, and found that it has clearly been claimed in the past to be true and is often refuted by people who can't even
Can you help get to the bottom of this?
For those not paying attention to our current political circus, Donald Trump recently called Ted Cruz a "pussy" for not strongly supporting the use of water-boarding and "a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding" in interrogating terrorist suspects. You can read The Guardian's description, or just listen to the audio (from here):
Executive summary: As languagehat observes in the comments, the pusillanimous → pussy theory is "preposterous balderdash, or if you prefer, utter bullshit".
The details: What P.O. needs to clear this up is the Oxford English Dictionary.
The OED glosses pussy 2 as (sense A.1.a.) "A girl or woman exhibiting characteristics associated with a cat, esp. sweetness or amiability", with citations back to the 15th century:
a1560 in T. Wright Songs & Ballads Reign Philip & Mary (1860) lxxiv. 209 Adew, my pretty pussy, Yow pynche me very nere.
1583 P. Stubbes Anat. Abuses sig. Hv, You shall haue euery sawcy boy..to catch vp a woman & marie her… So he haue his pretie pussie to huggle withall, it forceth not.
Then there's an extended sense, glossed as "slang (chiefly N. Amer.). A sweet or effeminate male; (in later use chiefly) a weakling, a coward, a sissy. Also: a male homosexual", with the earliest citations from the first half of the 20th century:
1904 ‘M. Corelli’ God's Good Man xxi, I shall invite Roxmouth and his tame pussy, Mr. Marius Longford.
1925 S. Lewis Martin Arrowsmith vi. 65 You ought to hear some of the docs that are the sweetest old pussies with their patients—the way they bawl out the nurses.
1934 M. H. Weseen Dict. Amer. Slang 193 Pussy, an effeminate boy.
And of course also sense A.3.a (noted as coarse slang) "The female genitals; the vulva or vagina", with citations from 1699 forwards, and various extensions and expressions thereon based.
The OED separates out the adjectival uses as subentry B., glossed "Exhibiting characteristics associated with a cat; cat-like. Also (in later use chiefly): weak, cowardly".
The etymology of pussy is fairly straightforward: the base puss is
Apparently a word inherited from Germanic. Apparently cognate with Dutch poes cat, also call-name for a cat (1683; also puis 1561), Middle Low German pūse , German regional (Low German) Puus cat (also Puus-katte , Puus-man ), Danish pus , call-name for a cat, Swedish regional pus (also katte-pus ); further etymology uncertain (perhaps ultimately simply representing a call to attract a cat); compare also Lithuanian puižė , familiar name for a cat, puž , puiž , call to attract a cat, Irish puisín (with diminutive suffix) pussy cat, (regional) puis puis , call to attract a cat.
And the diminutive/hypocoristic ending -y|-ie has been around since the early 16th century:
Used to form pet names and familiar diminutives. The forms -y and -ie are now almost equally common in proper names as such, but in a few instances one or other spelling is preferred, as Annie, Betty, Sally (rather than Anny, Bettie, Sallie); in the transferred applications of these, as jemmy, tommy, dicky, and the like, -y prevails; in general hypocoristic forms -ie is the favourite spelling after Scottish usage, as dearie, mousie.
There may be some connection to Dutch -je, but this is apparently at best conjectural.
Nowhere in all of this is pusillanimous mentioned. That word comes from French pusillanime / post-classical Latin pusillanimis < pusillus "small, insignificant" + anima "breath, spirit". And it does have a similar meaning ("Of a person: lacking in courage or strength of purpose; faint-hearted, craven, cowardly"), which has made the folk etymology seem plausible to some. But aside from the lack of evidence for any historical connection, the divergent pronunciation of the first syllables argues against any notion that pussy is just a shortened form of pusillanimous: [pʊ] vs. [pju].
So to sum up:
- There's a plausible and well documented etymology for the sense of pussy in question, namely puss + y → pussy = childish or colloquial word for "pet cat" → term of endearment for a woman → sweet or amiable woman → sweet or effeminate man→ weakling/coward/sissy, with the parallel development of pussy = female genitals lurking somewhere in the background.
- Puss is Germanic in origin, and definitely is not a shortened form of the Latinate word pusillanimous. The hypocoristic ending -y has been widely used in colloquial English for 500 years, and similarly has no connection with pusillanimous or any other Latinate word.
- There's no positive evidence for the pusillanimous → pussy derivation as a genuine historical source — it seems to be a sporadic folk etymology.
- The pronunciation difference (onset [pj] vs. [p], vowel [ʊ] vs. [u]) makes the pusillanimous → pussy derivation implausible in any case.
The idea that the "weakling" sense of pussy should be treated as a taboo word because of a connection to the slang term for female genitals seems to be almost as historically incorrect as the pusillanimous → pussy theory. When Paul Krugman wrote in 2008 "I'm a pussycat", the New York Times editorial board didn't need to intervene to enforce their policies on taboo language. Nor was any problem perceived in the recent NYT obituary for Phil Pepe, which quotes his column on Thurman Munson:
“Down deep he was a pussycat, a man of compassion and understanding and great humanity, a devoted family man who hated being away from home, from his wife and children; who hated it so much, it eventually killed him."
But the only real difference in meaning between pussy and pussycat as descriptions of (let's say) male non-torturers is that pussy has negative connotations (and a widely-accepted current association with a taboo word), while pussycat is positively evaluated. And the etymologies, as far as I can tell, are identical except for this (relatively recent) connotational separation.
[Let me forestall commenters' objections by noting that in the legal sense, Mr. Trump probably did not actually call Ted Cruz a pussy — he merely quoted an audience member, remarking jocularly that she said a terrible thing and he never wants to hear it from her again. That's his story and he's sticking to it, so far. But no normal speaker of English can listen to the exchange and not come away thinking that Trump called Cruz a pussy, in the ordinary-language sense. And I would argue that he shouldn't be any more concerned about this than about all the other insults he's been sending out — he's called Cruz in particular “lying on so many levels”, “deceptive”, “not caring for the truth”, “greatly dishonest”“, “the ultimate hypocrite”, “not believable”, etc.
Though of course the political reality is that using (or even repeating) a taboo word remains a potential negative — though not as problematic as shooting someone in the middle of Times Square.]