Pussy and pusillanimous

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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.]

 



50 Comments

  1. B. P. said,

    February 10, 2016 @ 6:55 am

    I’m with you all the way up until the end — I think the affiliation of the term with female genitalia / women’s bodies has happened, the divergence of “pussy” and “pussycat” is already long since complete, and that this is exactly what makes this slur different from the other slurs that you list (although not different in category from some of Trump’s spicier racism/sexism). The point being not that Cruz is weak on foreign policy, but that he is weak /like a woman/, especially a woman who has already been synecdochally reduced to the loathsome and useless animal nature of her genitals.

    I’ll point out as a field note that at my junior high school — and I’m just about twenty younger than Trump — people could call you a lot of things, but if they called you a pussy, they were about to beat on you. It was, even back then, a term of sexualized violence and an implicit argument that men who acted like women could be abused.

    Not in the OED, though, that.

  2. Keith M Ellis said,

    February 10, 2016 @ 7:08 am

    The etymological argument is weak or irrelevant, anyway, which is why I don’t find the secondary argument about genitalia very convincing. Approximately zero speakers who use pussy as an insult have pusillanimous in mind, or have even ever heard the word, while a very large portion of speakers have the genitalia meaning in mind. The evidence for this is that its usage is gendered — it’s not an insult used against women very often. (This is mitigated by the fact that views about strong/weak are gendered, too, but I think that pussy derives a considerable portion of its sting because it’s built upon the gendered contempt for weakness and leverages the genitalia allusion to compound and underscore the insult against a man.)

    In my opinion TPM reader S.T. is doubly wrong — wrong about the etymology and wrong that its acceptability would be decided by its etymology. Not only that, but here’s what S.T. had to say about all this:

    “The idea that it must refer to female genitalia is mysogynistic and dumbing down the masses a bit too far. [..] and, it shouldn’t contribute as vastly as it is right now to your own professional understanding of the English language and its delicate intricacies.”

    So, yeah. S.T: is a typical language peever whose arrogance is only equaled by ignorance. I confess that when I read this yesterday on TPM, my own reaction was that I don’t even. I thought about writing LL, but just hoped that it would show up here. My laziness was rewarded.

  3. Ben Zimmer said,

    February 10, 2016 @ 9:08 am

    A recent Lexicon Valley podcast has more on the history of the word.

  4. languagehat said,

    February 10, 2016 @ 9:46 am

    While of course I agree with all the substantive points made in the post, I can’t help pointing out that this sort of excessively academic discourse is no help in dealing with peevers (not to mention, say, climate change deniers): “There’s no positive evidence for the pusillanimouspussy derivation as a genuine historical source — it seems to be a sporadic folk etymology.” No positive evidence for the derivation as a genuine historical source — it seems to be a sporadic folk etymology… I’m sorry, that’s just pussyfooting around, and the lay reader is likely to come away thinking “Well, the professor didn’t say it was wrong, he just said the evidence wasn’t very positive.” Why not just call it preposterous balderdash, or, if you prefer, utter bullshit?

    [(myl) Well said — I’ll quote you up front in the post.]

  5. Robert Coren said,

    February 10, 2016 @ 11:00 am

    “exhibiting characteristics associated with a cat, esp. sweetness or amiability”

    Just how many cats has the writer of this definition met?

  6. Mark P said,

    February 10, 2016 @ 11:03 am

    I like it when linguists talk dirty — “utter bullshit”. No pussyfooting around there.

  7. cameron said,

    February 10, 2016 @ 11:41 am

    I think the derivation of Germanic puss from a sound made to call a cat is probably correct. There’s a Persian word pishu, which is a call name for a cat (corresponding exactly to the original sense of English “pussy”). I very much doubt that this Persian word is cognate with the Germanic, I suspect they’re both based on the pshpshpsh sound that people make when summoning a cat.

  8. Y said,

    February 10, 2016 @ 12:44 pm

    This reminds of another folk etymology, the claim that gross (in the sense of ‘disgusting’) derives from grotesque. This is an even worse mismatch, but I heard it quoted as fact. There are probably other examples of such faux-erudite folk etymology, deriving a slangy short word from a similar-sounding longer word of elevated speech.

  9. Paul Sand said,

    February 10, 2016 @ 12:49 pm

    Hard to believe Spiro Agnew’s “pusillanimous pussyfooters” is not yet mentioned. (Apparently originated by Pat Buchanan.)

  10. Ross Presser said,

    February 10, 2016 @ 1:44 pm

    I thought the genital sense of ‘pussy’ had a connection to “purse” (Old Norse puss “pocket, pouch”).

  11. Theophylact said,

    February 10, 2016 @ 2:22 pm

    Reminds me of the etymology of “porcelain”.

  12. Gary Coen said,

    February 10, 2016 @ 3:32 pm

    In the Arabic spoken in the Levant and Hejaz, بِسة (biss) denotes “cat.” I have witnessed Arab children call a cat by reduplicating this word form. The effect corresponds to “pshpshpsh” mentioned earlier in this thread in the context of observations on Persian “pishu.” (Note: if the Arabic is a calque, then it converts the Persian unvoiced bilabial plosive into a voiced segment, as usual.)

    I have also heard the phrase زَي البِسة (zay il-biss), meaning “in the manner of a cat,” wimpy, or cowardly. This reiterates the correlation of feline attributes with timidity, as in “pussy” and “pusillanimous.” Even so, the correlation is a matter of rhetorical analogy, not etymology. I suspect that neither candidate Trump nor the TPM reader of this thread would appreciate the distinction, no matter the linguistic facts involved.

  13. Jeff Carney said,

    February 10, 2016 @ 3:33 pm

    Thank you for quoting languagehat. One of the things I like about this blog.

  14. DWalker said,

    February 10, 2016 @ 4:55 pm

    As someone mentioned recently (maybe in this blog), it’s weird that “having balls” denotes strength, while the female parts are associated with weakness.

    Yet the male parts are far more prone to pain than the female parts.

    I conclude that humans are illogical.

  15. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 10, 2016 @ 6:09 pm

    B. P.: I agree with “synecdochally reduced”, but I don’t think the idea is that a woman’s genitals are “loathsome and useless”. It’s more that some men think of them as passive and exploitable. Not to put too fine a point on it, the pussy is what gets fucked.

    This leads me to sense A. 3. d of “pussy” in the OED:

    “In male homosexual usage: the anus (or occas. mouth) of a man, as an object of sexual penetration. Also (chiefly Prison slang): a man or boy viewed in this way (cf. sense A. 3c).” A. 3c is “A woman, or women collectively, regarded as a source of sexual intercourse.”

    Since the men and boys viewed that way in prison are often those who are beaten or intimidated, I think the sense of “weakling, coward” could come from there. But the whole grouping of feminine/sweet/effeminate/used for sex/victim/cowardly is hard to separate.

    Anyway, regardless of the etymology, my feeling based on the people who I’ve heard use “pussy” for “coward” or “wimp” is that they have the “female genitals” meaning in mind. Unlike what Prof. Liberman said, I don’t think it’s just lurking in the background any more, if it ever was.

    DWalker: I can’t argue with your conclusion about people, but I take “having balls” to refer to having courage, typified by the courage to fight, and bulls, stallions, etc., are much more pugnacious than steers, geldings, etc. Or so I’m told.

  16. Rubrick said,

    February 10, 2016 @ 6:30 pm

    I’m with BP on this one: the salient point isn’t whether “pussy” meaning “weakling” derives from “pussy” meaning “female genitals”, but whether modern users/listeners associate it with cats or cunts.

    I’ll also note that the suggested dichotomy between female-gentital-associated words being negative and male-genital-associated words being positive relies on considerable cherry-picking. It’s true that “having balls” is generally regarded as positive, but I don’t think anyone has ever been called a dick as a compliment.

  17. Gregory Kusnick said,

    February 10, 2016 @ 7:11 pm

    I’m prepared to believe that pussy derives onomatopoetically from the pursed-lip sound people make to summon cats.

    But why do people of different cultures make that sound for that purpose? Because it works, perhaps? Is the etymological trail of pussy ultimately rooted in cat psychology?

  18. Xtifr said,

    February 10, 2016 @ 7:15 pm

    It seems to me that words referring to testicles are much more likely to have positive associations than words referring to the phallus itself. For this reason, when discussing women who display “balls”, I sometimes like to substitute the word “ovaries”.

    (This from an old joke: “you say she’s got balls for a woman; would you say he had ovaries for a man?”)

    I recently wrote about a young violinist (with my tongue firmly embedded in my cheek, I admit), “wow, she really plays ovaries out on this piece!” :)

  19. David Marjanović said,

    February 10, 2016 @ 7:26 pm

    Because it works, perhaps?

    Does it? Does anything? :-) You know what they say about herding cats…

    I’d say it’s a Wanderwort.

  20. Coby Lubliner said,

    February 10, 2016 @ 10:10 pm

    I am not sure that everybody pronounces the first syllable of “pusillanimous” as /pju/. There seems to be a tendency to pronounce the “long u” sound in words that one isn’t sure about as /u:/ rather than /ju/, e.g. puma, Uber and ibuprofen. Perhaps this is how the “pussy” connection came about.

  21. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 10, 2016 @ 10:55 pm

    Here’s http://blogs.chicagotribune.com/news_columnists_ezorn/2010/12/how-off-color-is-your-wussy-and-other-language-questions.html
    a prescriptivist peever who chafes at “wussy” because he thinks it’s a minced substitute for “pussy” (which seems plausible, although citing dialogue from an ’80’s teen sex comedy is maybe a bit weak in terms of etymological authority) and . . . and . . . therefore should be subject to the same taboos as the alleged taboo word that it’s a euphemistic synonym for. But that way lies madness, because we can’t have taboos against words without having socially acceptable workarounds that enable more or less the same thing to be said without violating the taboo.

    The “wimp/coward” sense of “pussy” feels a lot less taboo to me than the “genitalia” sense, whether or not they’re related, and even if the former sense does to some degree evoke the latter. Just one native speaker’s intuition. Trump’s ooh-did-you-hear-what-she-said reaction struck me as akin to that of elementary school children making a big deal about a teacher using a “naughty” word when the word was a very mildly taboo one (e.g. “damn” rather than “shit,” or “butt” rather than “ass”).

    I guess you could test my intuition empirically by seeing whether the broadcast media treat the “wimp/sissy” sense and “genitalia” sense the same in terms of bleeping the word out when they have audio of someone newsworthy uttering it in a sentence. There’s obviously some sexism embedded in the “wimp/coward” sense, just as there is for e.g. “sissy.” But the same is true for lots of other expressions that no one would object to as quasi-obscene (as opposed to merely sexist), e.g. as when one male chides another for being overcautious by saying “Don’t be such an old lady, Frank” meaning exactly the same thing (and neither more nor less insulting, to my ear) as “Don’t be such a pussy, Frank.”

  22. Sybil said,

    February 11, 2016 @ 12:17 am

    There’s starting to be a “uses I too muhc” narrative here too. So much for LL!

  23. D.O. said,

    February 11, 2016 @ 12:36 am

    Excuse me? Times Square is between 46th and 47th str. and 7th Ave and Broadway. 5th Ave has nothing to do with it. Ah, never mind, he probably can do it on Times Square as well.

  24. Adrian Bailey said,

    February 11, 2016 @ 4:22 am

    When I saw the title I thought it might be related to this video I’d just seen: https://www.facebook.com/KnowPolitical/videos/1110690185632339/ and its rather unwelcome mention of “pussy sores”.

  25. GH said,

    February 11, 2016 @ 5:48 am

    @ Keith M Ellis:

    I don’t quite see how S.T.’s statement is any indication of language peevery, apart from using an (incorrect) etymological argument to support the claim that these two senses of “pussy” are not equally taboo.

    Like J.M. Brewer, I’m not personally convinced that the “sissy” sense carries all that much taboo (or, IMO, aggressive misogyny). However, regarding evidence from broadcast media, I know that several comedy shows have played with the idea that you can say “pussy” for “pussycat” but not “pussy” for “sissy” on TV. In particular, Arrested Development had an episode “Notapusy” with this joke (although it’s not a great example because there it was bleeped in all instances, with the narrator objecting that it ruined a sweet moment).

  26. Philip Anderson said,

    February 11, 2016 @ 8:30 am

    Re gross from grotesque: it sounds to me as if someone was confusing gross with grotty, which is a slang word derived from a posher one (itself from grotto deriving from Greek kruptos.

    Re pronunciation: I do pronounce puma and ibuprofen with /ju/; uber looks too German. But maybe that’s just the UK.

  27. Lance Nathan said,

    February 11, 2016 @ 9:15 am

    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.

    Mark,

    I’m fascinated at how sharply this contrasts with Geoff Pullum’s point about what Ann Coulter did or didn’t call John Edwards in 2007, when she said “It turns out you have to go into rehab if you use the word ‘faggot,’ so I’m kind of at an impasse — I can’t really talk about Edwards”:

    She stated that use of a certain word (which she mentions but does not use) is now so destructive of one’s place in society that entering a rehabilitation facility is required afterwards (the reference is to Isiah Washington), and therefore (“so”) she can’t discuss Edwards. The remark is clever, funny, and highly indirect, and it conversationally implicates that Edwards is a faggot but does not call him that. (http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004277.html, emphasis in the original

    (The particular post stuck in my mind because I used it as part of a discussion of semantics vs. pragmatics when I was teaching undergrad semantics at Penn.)

    My take at the time was (and still is) that Coulter did not say “Edwards is a faggot”, but she nevertheless called him one by using the word and making it clear that she thought it applied to him. In this case…I was going to claim that Trump wasn’t himself suggesting that the word “pussy” applied to Cruz, but that’s an effect of how the audio ends; I wasn’t sure whether he was going to continue with “really, that’s not acceptable”. (OK, it’s Trump, I could have guessed, but there was always the chance.) But when I watched the linked video and saw the way Trump smirked and mockingly threw up his hands, to say nothing of reading the followup discussed by Vox (who also, by the way, call out the media for not repeating the word) in which Trump “polled the crowd, asking, ‘Can she stay?'” and getting (and presumably expecting) the answer “yes”, I agree that it’s clear that he “repeated” the word because he wanted it applied to Cruz.

    In any case, I thought it was striking to see the difference in opinion on what counts as “calling” someone something.

  28. Terry Hunt said,

    February 11, 2016 @ 10:05 am

    I’ve read a suggestion somewhere (not necessarily academically based) that “Puss” ultimately derives from Bast / Bastet / Pasht, the name of the cat- (earlier lion-) headed goddess. I regard this as too good a story to disbelieve.

  29. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 11, 2016 @ 10:43 am

    Just re GH’s point on evidence from broadcast media, what words are so taboo that a major-network sitcom probably can’t use them in a script that’s been preapproved by the network’s censors is a different (and more restrictive/uptight) standard from what words are so taboo that video footage of a politician or sports figure or whatever using the word in a newsworthy context will have the word bleeped, and my thinking was that the standard applied in the latter context would be more illuminating. And obviously the former standard has itself evolved over time, may be a little looser on Fox than the older networks, may permit “meta” dialogue where comical attempts to avoid uttering the “naughty word” end up emphasizing the thing-you’re-not-allowed-to-say more than a single passing use of it would have, etc. But wordplay based on the homophony between the totally-innocent puddy-tat sense and the definitely-taboo genitalia sense is common (e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZfvCDyVlVIw ) , so doing the same with the wimp/coward sense (of some intermediate degree of tabooness) is unsurprising.

  30. BZ said,

    February 11, 2016 @ 12:53 pm

    I bet most people read pusillanimous somewhere and wondered how to pronounce it, but this is not the case with me. The first (and only until now) time I’ve heard the word was in a song lyric by The Rutles (a Beatles parody band), “You’re so pusillanimous, oh yeah”. Of course, the song provides little context to puzzle out the meaning, much less the spelling, except that it’s an insult of some sort. My internal spelling of the word in my head has been “pucillanimous” because I linked it to the word “puke” and imagined it meant something like “nausea inducing”. This may have been helped by the next line of the song “nature’s calling and I must go, yeah”. Of course, now that I looked it up “puke” never had a form with a c in place of the k, and the color puce is also completely unrelated despite my earlier beliefs.

    I guess my point, if I had one, is that pusillanimous is pronounced unexpectedly for its spelling, not so much the “ju” sound, but the unvoiced “s”. Also how readily people make up etymologies without justification.

  31. Keith Ivey said,

    February 11, 2016 @ 11:32 pm

    Philip Anderson, I remember hearing someone on the BBC talking about “Yuba”, which it took me far too long to figure out was Uber.

  32. Keith M Ellis said,

    February 12, 2016 @ 10:40 am

    @GH

    I think that S.T.’s email has several hallmarks of language peevery. The main thing is that the argument is prescriptivist and based upon the etymological fallacy. In this case, it’s a folk etymology and S.T. is doubly foolish, but the truth value of a peever’s assertion is not actually important. The claims that peevers appeal to are variously true or false — the important thing to the peever is that they believe they are aware of some intrinsic truth that universally determines whether a usage is correct or incorrect.

    The secondary evidence is S.T.’s view that the objection to pussy is normatively harmful. S.T.’s etymological argument is a springboard for S.T. to decry usage that is “dumbing down the masses” and an associated failure to appreciate the “delicate intricacies” of English. Peeving is always or almost always essentially an expression of a kind of snobbery and an implicit/explicit value judgment about other people.

    I’m a bit surprised that Mark doesn’t mention that S.T.’s argument is an example of the etymological fallacy and therefore fundamentally broken, regardless of whether S.T.’s etymology is correct. That’s why when I read this on TPM I was so taken aback by it. There should be a name for this sort of thing — it’s perhaps the opposite of “not even wrong”. Which is to say, something that is wrong in several ways, on multiple levels, that it’s like some sort of mathematical exercise in being as wrong as possible.

  33. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 12, 2016 @ 11:13 pm

    I should have checked this before, but as has been noted on LL on multiple prior occasions the N.Y. Times is rather notably uptight about taboo vocabulary even in direct quotes and will sometimes use odd euphemisms or circumlocutions when other U.S. newspapers would just quote whatever the newsworthy language had been. Here, it turns out they were willing to directly quote Trump as using the word “pussy” (while noting he was repeating what the woman in the audience had said), despite an earlier coy reference to an unspecified “vulgar term” that made one wonder whether they were going to actually tell you what the term was or not. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/09/us/politics/new-hampshire-voters-hear-candidates-final-appeals-before-primary.html. OTOH, a more recent times story simply referred to his use of a “pungently vulgar word” without specifying what it was, although a link back to the earlier story that did so specify was provided. So the NYT seems to treat it as borderline but not completely subject to mandatory avoidance, which at least mildly suggests, given the prior evidence that the NYT is at the uptight end of the range of attitudes toward taboo vocabulary in general, that it’s really not all that taboo a word for those with median sensibilities.

  34. GH said,

    February 14, 2016 @ 4:31 am

    @ Keith M Ellis:

    I’m not persuaded that we should take the etymological fallacy to mean that any reference to etymology is irrelevant in debates about meaning. When people are arguing that a word is offensive because it’s based in misogynistic, homophobic or racist assumptions, such as contempt for female genitalia or prejudices against certain ethnic groups, surely it matters whether those are in fact the origins of the term in question? Or at minimum, refuting it on etymological grounds is no more invalid than the folk-etymological arguments it contradicts.

    Would you say that pointing out to people up in arms about “niggardly” that its similarity to a racial slur is coincidental is an example of the etymological fallacy? I would not. (Though certainly it’s not the last word of the discussion, since we must recognize that words can become confused with or influenced by similar-sounding words.)

    From that point of view, I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with a plea that the paper’s editorial decisions should be based on correct linguistic knowledge rather than folk etymology, although of course the whole argument is rendered embarrassing by the fact that S.T.’s claim is itself patently false. In fact, to me the aspect of the letter that most suggests the language peever is the confident assertion of something as fact when a quick check should have easily proven it wrong, along with the Muphry’s Law misspelling of “pusillanimous.”

  35. Keith M Ellis said,

    February 17, 2016 @ 12:22 am

    @ GH

    “Would you say that pointing out to people up in arms about ‘niggardly’ that its similarity to a racial slur is coincidental is an example of the etymological fallacy?”

    I would. As in this case, whether the purported etymology is correct changes nothing about what both speaker and listener believe the word means. The offense and appropriateness of a word depend upon how it is actually used, not upon its etymology.

    There are quite a few words which have contemporary meanings and usages that are utterly unlike most of their etymological histories precisely because past speakers were confused in ways similar to the niggardly example. Your argument would imply that one would be right to correct contemporary speakers about such (mis)usages — and, in particular, if such a word were used in a way to deliberately cause offense, that offense oughtn’t be taken because the etymology doesn’t support that meaning. This is a conclusion I think patently absurd.

    The niggardly example is ambiguous because it’s not clear at all how many speakers, and how many listeners, associate the word with the slur. In contrast, I think it’s clear that almost all speakers and listeners understand pussy to be a gendered insult. The correct etymology of niggardly is supporting evidence in the case that the word wasn’t intended to give offense — but only supporting evidence. What matters most is how the word is understood by the linguistic community within which the usage occurred. In that case, the speaker and part of the audience were in different communities where the word’s connotations differed. That implies that a usage might be offensive in one context but not another.

    Regardless, no such ambiguity exists with pussy — S.T.’s folk etymology is extremely idiosyncratic to the point of being unique and possibly disingenuous and therefore such an argument applies only when S.T. is speaking to themselves, perhaps in their car or possibly while sedated in a mental institution.

  36. languagehat said,

    February 17, 2016 @ 8:37 am

    I’m not persuaded that we should take the etymological fallacy to mean that any reference to etymology is irrelevant in debates about meaning.

    But that’s what it means! If etymology was relevant in debates about meaning, there wouldn’t be an etymological fallacy. Words often continue to mean more or less what their etyma have meant, of course, but that’s simply a fact about the world, not a logical necessity. When meanings change, it is because people have started using the words differently, and it is that use which determines meaning. The etymology is irrelevant, though it is interesting to folks like us.

  37. GH said,

    February 17, 2016 @ 10:23 am

    @languagehat:

    But that’s what it means!

    Not according to any reference I can google.* Most define it as the belief that a word must mean what its etymological roots once meant, or that the oldest meaning of a word is the “truest” in some sense. You don’t have to believe either of those things to hold that debates about meaning (or other characteristics such as the emotional charge or aesthetic beauty of a word) can sometimes be helpfully informed by etymology.

    In fact, I would argue that to deny any relevance of etymology to such debates, you would have to take the position that the meaning and emotional power people ascribe to a word is entirely unaffected by their beliefs about its etymology, or that their beliefs cannot be changed by new information. That strikes me as self-evidently false.

    It’s also worth noting that critiques of words held to embody sexist, homophobic, racist or otherwise bigoted attitudes often lean heavily on historical and etymological analysis. For example, consider John E. McIntyre’s recent discussion of “slut”:

    In these two words, slut and wench, we see very clearly the ugly cultural baggage that words can carry. A young servant girl is presumed to be sexually available, and once men have exploited her, she is dismissed as sexually voracious, an object of contempt.

    Not nice.

    Is this simply making an interesting observation to “folks like us”, or is it an appeal to “cultural baggage” as a relevant factor in assessing the implications of using these words? I would say it’s a little of both.

    On a semi-serious note, it occurs to me to ask how much difference there really is between the language peever and the person offended by salty language (putting aside slurs that denigrate whole groups of people). Both have a visceral negative reaction to certain expressions or constructions, both are apt to consider people who use them uncouth and quite possibly deficient, and both often see their appearance in print or speech as evidence of the declining standards of our culture.

    __
    * Jackson (2002), Lexicography: An Introduction, does argue that etymology is irrelevant to meaning, but only cites the etymological fallacy as an example of how it can mislead.

  38. languagehat said,

    February 17, 2016 @ 12:17 pm

    debates about meaning (or other characteristics such as the emotional charge or aesthetic beauty of a word) can sometimes be helpfully informed by etymology.

    I don’t know what that means; specifically, I don’t know what you mean by “helpfully.” Of course people drag in all sorts of logically irrelevant material in their evaluations of words or anything else, but that doesn’t mean that what they drag in is relevant in any but a personal/emotional way; it makes no sense to say that because “slut” (to take one of your examples) has a certain etymology it therefore carries “ugly cultural baggage.” What McIntyre is doing is essentially rhetorical: he is using a random and irrelevant fact (the etymology) to try to get people to avoid the word, just as one might use a random and irrelevant fact about a candidate (he cried in public! she said something unfortunate about a country-music star!) to get people not to vote for them. While I understand the impulse, I think it’s misguided and a defeat for clear thinking. What’s important about the word “slut” in this context is that women don’t like it and resent its use, and that should be good enough reason to avoid it. Look at the absurd controversy over the word “squaw,” which comes from an Algonquian word for ‘woman.’ People felt compelled to invent offensive etymologies for it to bolster the case that it shouldn’t be used. It reminds me of Claud Cockburn’s pride in having lied about the military situation during the Spanish Civil War in order to spur help for the Republican side. I’ll take truth with a side of honesty, thanks.

  39. languagehat said,

    February 17, 2016 @ 1:40 pm

    I call to your attention this quote from the new “hissy fit” thread:

    When I was about ten (i.e. about 1970) I used this expression. My father took me aside and explained that it was not a proper one to use in polite company, as the “hissing” referred to is actually the sound produced by involuntary voiding of liquified bowel contents and urine. In other words, the person throwing the fit has become so distraught as to cause his body to produce this instinctive response.

    Let us assume for the sake of argument that the absurd “etymology” offered by the father was somehow correct and that was the origin of the phrase, forgotten by everyone but him. Would that actually be a reason to avoid the phrase (for anyone but his son, who didn’t want to offend him)?

  40. Keith M Ellis said,

    February 17, 2016 @ 2:10 pm

    It seems to me that etymology is relevant and can be used as supporting evidence in understanding what a word means to a given community. What it cannot do is tell us what a word “really” means in contradiction to the meaning of a word to a given community. The latter is usually how the etymological fallacy is deployed. And the former is merely filling in the nuance about a usage that’s already presumed or demonstrated. How a word is actually used is always essential; etymology may or may not clarify this but it is never decisive and it is rarely, if ever, persuasive by itself.

    The hissy fit example is illustrative — I think that if you carefully examine its usage, you’d find that it is gendered in some respects and part of the speculative etymology supports how that would come to be. That etymology doesn’t tell us what it “really” means and it certainly isn’t decisive about, say, whether it is or isn’t polite. But it can help us to understand, to provide some nuance, about contemporary usages. It’s shouldn’t be utilized to argue for a connotation/association that isn’t otherwise evident, but rather to clarify and explain a connotation/association that is.

  41. languagehat said,

    February 17, 2016 @ 2:47 pm

    It seems to me that etymology is relevant and can be used as supporting evidence in understanding what a word means to a given community.

    I’m not sure how carefully you’re distinguishing between etymology and popular word-origin stories. When I talk about etymology I mean the actual, historically documented origin of a word, and this is irrelevant to meaning even on the generous terms you propose because it is unknown to the general public. Sure, we can say that popular understanding of where a word came from is relevant to the public’s use of, or reaction to, that word, just as we can say that popular understanding of history is relevant to the public’s attitude toward current events. But one must carefully distinguish between history in the proper sense — wie es eigentlich gewesen, to the extent historians can figure that out — and popular understanding of history, which is often (usually) wildly inaccurate. (9/11 was an inside job! Jews caused the Russian Revolution! Aliens built the pyramids!)

  42. Keith M Ellis said,

    February 17, 2016 @ 3:49 pm

    “When I talk about etymology I mean the actual, historically documented origin of a word, and this is irrelevant to meaning even on the generous terms you propose because it is unknown to the general public.”

    I see what you’re saying about folk etymologies and such, but that seems to me to be separate from the point I was making.

    Etymology is not irrelevant (which I think is a strong word to use in this context) to a word’s meaning because the etymology is the history of its usage, it’s the history of how a word’s meaning has changed over time. As you say, words mean what speakers think they mean, regardless of whether anyone knows the etymology — but what I’m arguing is that the etymology can be evidence of how a word has come to mean what it means, how its usage is what it is. In the hissy fit example, I’d first have to demonstrate that its usage is actually gendered; but having demonstrated this, then I could use one of those speculative etymologies to strengthen my case.

    That’s not really a good example because the etymology is unknown — pussy is better example. Regardless of what S.T. or anyone else thinks the etymology of pussy is, and regardless of what it actually is, the word means what it means to various communities and it’s used the way it is used. However, if you argue that it is gendered, and you’ve demonstrated that its usage is gendered, then the etymology can be helpful in understanding why the usage is gendered and, I think, probably provide some (speculative) insight into the nuances of the various ways in which it is gendered. Likewise, if you argue, as a slightly more competent version of S.T. might argue, that the usage of pussy isn’t actually gendered, then you might support this with the kind of etymology that S.T. (incorrectly) asserts. Or, more persuasively, as in the niggardly example. One can point to many usages of niggardly which are not racial and then use the actual etymology to explain how it has come to pass that those usages aren’t racial. Nevertheless, in the end the actual usage is what matters.

    Put differently, I see this as being analogous to the presence of an infectious disease within a population and epidemiology. What is fundamental is whether the disease is present, and its scope — nothing you discover about an outbreak’s history is going to change the truth of what is actually happening. However, this can greatly inform us about the presence of a disease and its scope, it can give us hints about places to look where we otherwise wouldn’t have, it can fill in some blanks, and so on. So if someone is looking at the evidence of current reported infections, they might argue that knowing something about how an outbreak spread in the past, and specifically about some of the history of this outbreak, might point to some undiagnosed cases among some populations. Or, conversely, that some reporting is actually an overestimate because of a likely number of false positives.

    An etymology can provide us with a greater understanding of usages we already have evidence for — it cannot substitute for that evidence. This is why I’m arguing that it’s relevant, but it’s not essential.

  43. languagehat said,

    February 17, 2016 @ 3:56 pm

    what I’m arguing is that the etymology can be evidence of how a word has come to mean what it means, how its usage is what it is.

    Sure, I have no problem whatever with that formulation.

  44. GH said,

    February 17, 2016 @ 4:46 pm

    @ Keith M Ellis:

    I agree with most of what you say in your last post (as of writing). What I would emphasize is that there is in fact dispute over what the word pussy “means”, if we take that to include its level of offensiveness or taboo when used as an insult. Apparently, everyone does not agree about the extent to which it is misogynistic or vulgar. How you feel about it is very likely influenced by whether you consider it an extension of pussy as a derogatory reference to female genitalia, or a separate concept that only happens to remind people of this other meaning, and your beliefs about its etymology in turn influences how you are likely to analyze it.

    @languagehat:

    Of course people drag in all sorts of logically irrelevant material in their evaluations of words or anything else, but that doesn’t mean that what they drag in is relevant in any but a personal/emotional way

    I think this argument is flawed because it requires us to treat “this word is offensive because some people find it offensive” as a given, not to be further analyzed. But these conventions or consensus judgments don’t just pop up arbitrarily out of nowhere, and they are neither fixed (after all, the whole point of declaring something an “etymological fallacy” is that these judgments change over time) nor always universally shared.

    So it’s wrong to say that any argument aside from “a certain percentage of people consider this offensive to such-and-such a degree” is irrelevant to the discussion. People form their views of the offensiveness of words in a rich cultural context, which includes their beliefs/knowledge (correct or incorrect) about their origins and history. And these views can be changed, with activists actively lobbying to put certain words beyond the pale and promote alternative terminology.

    So when I say that etymology can be “helpful” in such a discussion, I mean that it addresses the kinds of reasons I believe in fact influence whether people find a word offensive or not, and does so by correcting misconceptions and injecting sound facts.

    There was a reference to Cabin Pressure in a recent comment thread, so let me give an example from that show, a discussion of whether certain names are “evil-sounding”. Clearly this is an entirely subjective, aesthetic question (much like our recent discussion of butterfly names in different languages), but that does not mean it cannot be informed by relevant arguments:

    CAROLYN: Oh, all right. Ah! Calista Flockhart.

    DOUGLAS: No, no, I don’t think so. […] there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s, er, well – ‘Calista’ is from the Latin* for ‘beautiful’; and ‘Flockhart’ – what could be nicer than a flock of hearts?

    CAROLYN: ‘Calista’, suggesting calluses and blisters; ‘Flock’, suggesting ‘flog’, ‘pluck’ and ‘pick’; ‘Calista Flockhart’, the callused, blistered one who comes to flog and pluck your heart.

    * Greek, actually.

    For some other examples where I think etymology has influenced or does influence perceived offensiveness, let’s take gyp and ass. I believe gyp was once considered quite inoffensive, but with increased sensitivity to ethnic slurs, the fact (or at least the belief; dictionaries don’t seem entirely certain of the etymology) that it derives from anti-Romani stereotypes has made it unsavory. With ass (as in “you’re making an ass of yourself”), on the other hand, there’s definite confusion between the (earlier?) sense jackass/donkey and the homonymous variation of arse/shortening of asshole. I daresay the latter sense is the first (and perhaps only) one that comes to mind for most people these days, but that the (fading) awareness of the other etymology still contributes to soften its taboo power (e.g. helping it get by TV censors).

  45. languagehat said,

    February 17, 2016 @ 5:18 pm

    So it’s wrong to say that any argument aside from “a certain percentage of people consider this offensive to such-and-such a degree” is irrelevant to the discussion. People form their views of the offensiveness of words in a rich cultural context, which includes their beliefs/knowledge (correct or incorrect) about their origins and history. And these views can be changed, with activists actively lobbying to put certain words beyond the pale and promote alternative terminology.

    Sure, but I never said their beliefs were irrelevant, only the (actual) etymology. And sure, these views can be changed, but that’s a matter of rhetoric, not science. The accuracy of the etymology has no relation to the effectiveness of the rhetoric. Activists are not scientists. (I say this not to put down activists, for whom I have respect, but to draw a necessary distinction.)

    The fact that the offensive etymology of “gyp” happens to be correct is as irrelevant to its impact as the fact that the offensive etymology of “niggardly” happens to be incorrect; popular perception is all.

  46. Sweary links #18 – Strong Language said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 1:01 am

    […] of pussy: no, it isn’t derived from pusillanimous, says Language Log’s Mark […]

  47. GH said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 4:19 am

    If folk etymology were entirely divorced from reality (or from scholarly accounts) I would agree, but I don’t think it is. Individuals of course hold a range of misconceptions, but I think the public as a whole is influenced by evidence and authority. To put it in your terms, those are important factors that can make rhetoric more or less effective. The objections to niggardly drew widespread ridicule (although the sound association and the taboo are so strong that it probably won’t save it), and the belief that pussy comes from pusillanimous is never going to gain any real traction, because lots of people can smell a rat and are able to look it up.

    As a personal anecdote, for a long time I was uneasy with the word shyster, suspecting it of an anti-Semitic origin and connotations (considering stereotypes of Jewish lawyers, similarity to Shylock, and its vaguely Yiddish sound – though how a Yiddish origin would make it anti-Semitic I could not account for). Since I found out this was not the case I’m much more comfortable with it, though still aware that others have had the same misconception and could impute those overtones to it. So that’s an example of how evidence overruled my mental folk etymology and made me feel differently about a word. The truth is not irrelevant (or at least expert accounts of the truth aren’t).

  48. Keith M Ellis said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 5:02 am

    “Since I found out this was not the case I’m much more comfortable with it, though still aware that others have had the same misconception and could impute those overtones to it.”

    Well, this is an example of where LH and I disagree with you. And I think you feel the same way about niggardly. But what matters is what people actually think the word means and what associations and connotations it has for them. If an audience feels that a word is offensive — because they believe it is related to antisemitism or racism — then that’s just a fact of what the word means to that audience. It’s what the word means (to that community), and your etymology, true or false, doesn’t change that.

    And moving away from the more fraught examples of offensiveness and toward easier examples, this argument applies generally. I’m personally still attached to the technical usage of begs the question, but it’s silly and confusing for me to use the expression now in everyday language and expect that people will understand it as petitio principii. To most contemporary native anglophones, begging the question means raise the question. That its etymology until recently is otherwise makes no difference. It means what people think it means.

    Is the etymology relevant at all? Well, imagine that I was with a group of people familiar with philosophy, one of us used the expression in its technical sense, and another person was confused or objected to that sense because they insist that it means raise the question. The rest of us might respond that, no, in its technical sense to an audience that is familiar with this usage, it refers to a form of circular reasoning. Imagine our interlocutor is disbelieving — that this doesn’t make any sense (and, frankly, he’s right to claim it doesn’t make much sense). And then we could explain the phrase’s etymology, hopefully providing some authoritative source documenting it. So, as evidence for an argument that a usage does mean X to a particular audience, the etymology is relevant. But it only matters if there actually is a community to whom the word/expression truly has that meaning. Asserting the etymology as authority in correct usage without evidence of actual usage is a kind of dumb prescriptivism — it’s merely an assertion that somehow something “really” means X regardless of what people actually believe it means.

    I don’t deny that I temperamentally am inclined to this to some degree. It’s why I’ve had to force myself to give up begs the question in everyday conversation. More illustrative is what I’ve done since I’ve been using a Kindle for the last few years. I mostly don’t encounter unfamiliar words at this point in my life (at least outside of technical subjects), but what I’ve been doing with the Kindle has been to highlight and pull up the definitions and etymologies of various words just out of curiosity. It’s so easy! (It came with Oxford Dictionary of English and The New Oxford American Dictionary, but I’ve also purchased the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.) What I find — which I’m sure is common for most LL readers, most of whom have probably been inveterate dictionary-looker-uppers their entire lives — is that etymology tends to inform my own usage, it colors it.

    There’s something kind of compelling or hard to resist about an etymology, one is very tempted to form conclusions about the essential meaning of a word based upon its origin. That’s why it’s a common fallacy. I’ve never learned Latin, but I did learn classical Greek, and I found that this had a strong influence on how I understood many words and I had to be disabused of the etymological fallacy on this basis — notably by languagehat ten years ago. So I understand why you’d really, really want to assert that whatever anyone thinks, niggardly isn’t offensive. Or shyster isn’t offensive. But it’s offensive if it’s offensive, an etymology doesn’t change that.

  49. languagehat said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 8:36 am

    GH: Keith has done the heavy lifting, and I have little to add to his admirable response (as a possible point of interest, I too am temperamentally inclined to the etymological fallacy and have had to train myself out of it). I’ll add only that your personal anecdote is just that, a personal anecdote, and has no bearing on how users of English as a body understand words. If you really think “lots of people can smell a rat” when it comes to etymology, you haven’t been exposed to as many people’s linguistic intuitions as I have. Trust me, a good story is always preferred to a boring truth, except among the statistically insignificant outlier group that includes you, me, and many of the folks who frequent the Log.

  50. GH said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 9:55 am

    Well, this is an example of where LH and I disagree with you. And I think you feel the same way about niggardly. But what matters is what people actually think the word means and what associations and connotations it has for them. If an audience feels that a word is offensive — because they believe it is related to antisemitism or racism — then that’s just a fact of what the word means to that audience. It’s what the word means (to that community), and your etymology, true or false, doesn’t change that.

    I think you’re jumping a bit quickly to conclusions here. Yes, what matters is what people think a word means, but as I already mentioned, and as the example was meant to illustrate, that is not necessarily a fixed thing. An individual (and a community of speakers is composed of individuals) may change their mind or adjust their attitude on learning new information.

    So I understand why you’d really, really want to assert that whatever anyone thinks, niggardly isn’t offensive. Or shyster isn’t offensive. But it’s offensive if it’s offensive, an etymology doesn’t change that.

    I am not trying to assert that at all. Clearly if everyone agrees it’s offensive, it’s offensive, no matter whether the reasoning that led to it being considered so was sound and factually correct or not. But in all the examples we’ve been discussing, I think there is, or was, a genuine lack of consensus about the degree (or indeed presence of) offensiveness. Sure, you can say “It’s offensive to people who find it offensive”, but I would argue that it matters whether such a view is an individual, idiosyncratic aversion, an eccentric fringe position, a widely spread view among some significant community of speakers, or the mainstream understanding.

    The editorial that objected to shyster didn’t just assert “I/we find this word offensive”: it made positive claims about the possible etymology, historical use and currently understood connotations of the word in “polite company” and the general journalistic community. Those claims were convincingly refuted. I don’t know whether this changed the minds of the editorial writers at all, but if they did not, what they are left with is only the assumption that there are other people somewhere out there who’ve jumped to the same incorrect assumptions, and that the word will be offensive to them. Fine, but that is a much weaker basis on which to construct a claim that the word is to be avoided: it’s really not very different from the idiosyncratic belief that hissy fit is offensive because somehow scatological (though presumably somewhat more wide-spread). Or, returning to my earlier point, from the language peever’s insistence that no one shall split an infinitive or end a sentence with a preposition.

    As for niggardly, I would speculate that there probably is no significant community of speakers who have a firm opinion of what it means and feel that it’s offensive. Rather, there’s a community of speakers who don’t know the word at all, and in hearing it are apt to mishear it and assume an offensive meaning. And there’s a (these days probably much wider than it used to be) community of speakers who do know the word, don’t consider it to be offensive in content, but realize that it’s likely to lead to misunderstanding or bring up negative associations due to its sound, and therefore avoid it. (And a third group of people who, realizing those same things, still choose to use it, either out of stubbornness or as a deliberate provocation.) Crucially, these attitudes have, I believe, been shaped by information about the etymology of the word: Had it turned out to be somehow derived from the slur in question, the attitude of the second group in particular would be entirely different. We see this with gyp: As late as 2000, Andrew Sihler could cite “that gyp ‘cheat’ is derived from Gypsy (probably), and therefore its use in any context is de facto an ethnic slur” as an example of the etymological fallacy, but the view seems to have prevailed nevertheless.

    Again, in both these examples we see that arguments based on etymology are relevant to and influential on how people view the “meaning” and emotional associations of a word. Which has really been the full extent of my argument from the beginning: that etymological arguments have bearing on discussions such as these.

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