"The P Word"

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Josh Dickey, "Donald Trump Called Mike Pence ‘The P-Word’ and a ‘Wimp’ for Refusing to Block 2020 Election", 6/16/2020:

Donald Trump called Mike Pence “the P-word” and “a wimp” during a phone call in which the president was trying to convince the vice president to take the unprecedented – and almost certainly illegal – step of singlehandedly refusing to certify the 2020 election, according to testimony Thursday on Capitol Hill.

In a brief clip of video testimony at the Jan. 6 committee hearings, Julie Radford, Ivanka Trump’s chief of staff at the White House, said her boss told her “that her dad had just had an upsetting conversation with the VP.”

She was asked by the questioning attorney whether she remembered what name Trump called Pence.

“The P-word,” she said.

More coverage here.

Some lexicographical background: "Pussy and pusillanimous", 2/10/2016.



32 Comments

  1. TK Mair said,

    June 17, 2022 @ 12:49 pm

    Interesting that it comes back up again. It's as if we are more interested in use of coarse language than inspiring violence and mayhem…

    I read Mark Liberman's excellent linked post, and I think he is correct that the etymology of "pussy" is originally more linked to "cat" than to vagina. However, the evolution of the word into our modern times seems to have become more synonymous with vagina. Especially when used as a pejorative to mean "cowardly."

    There is a very funny quote associated with hugely famous Betty White (who has now very recently passed on – December 2021).

    "Why do people say grow some balls? Balls are weak and sensitive. If you wanna be tough grow a <>. Those things can take a pounding!”

    Everyone thinks this is her quote – but she later denied she ever said it. And it appears it was indeed a fake social media post with her picture attached. (And yes, I took the liberty to replace vagina with pussy, it's a fake meme after all).

    Going into the origin of the joke/quote it seems to have been invented by a comedian named Hal Sparks somewhere around 2010 then popularized more by another comedian named Shen Wang in 2011.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DcM0DPH2bNo
    https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/betty-white-grow-some-balls/

  2. Bloix said,

    June 17, 2022 @ 12:49 pm

    I saw this when I was watching the testimony and I was struck by her distaste at being forced to utter even this euphemism. The sound quality in the link is not great but as I heard it yesterday, her tone of voice expressed – I don't know, what more formal word could you use for ick?

  3. TK Mair said,

    June 17, 2022 @ 12:51 pm

    To reply to myself about the very first thing I said.

    "Sex and violence sell. But sex sells more."

  4. M. said,

    June 17, 2022 @ 1:25 pm

    If Ivanka said that her father "used the P-word," in all likelihood he did not say "pusillanimous," which we would not expect to hear from someone as uneducated as he. My guess is that he said "prick."

    [(myl) It's 100% certain that he said "pussy", given the accusations of cowardice, the other epithet "wimp", etc.]

  5. Haamu said,

    June 17, 2022 @ 1:32 pm

    As we were listening to this yesterday, I had to turn to my wife for a translation. I then realized I should have been able to figure it out from context (a "wimp" synonym), but "P-word" is definitely not a fixed expression in my idiolect (AmE, Upper Midwest, middle-aged) in the way "N-word" or "F-word" are.

    I then spent a good 20 minutes running all the "X word" combos for each letter of the alphabet through the Ngram Viewer trying to figure out what else I was missing. After dropping "A word" for obvious reasons and "S word" after guessing that's a scanning issue for "sword," the only one that really stood out was "E word" — something notable is clearly going on since about 2008, but I sure don't know what it is. And it's only in the American English corpus, not British English.

  6. chris said,

    June 17, 2022 @ 1:58 pm

    @Haamu: with a spike in 2016 and being localized to the US, I would guess that the relevant e-word is "election", which may be only one letter off from what it might euphemize at other times.

    "Prick" or "penis" could plausibly be referred to as P-words in other contexts but they are clearly not what Trump called Pence.

  7. Blatherslap said,

    June 17, 2022 @ 2:16 pm

    Given the context and proximity to "wimp" I can only conclude that the "P-word" in question is "Pussy". Used in this context it means "a feeble ineffective person" and is a synonym with "wimp".

  8. Mark Raabe said,

    June 17, 2022 @ 2:44 pm

    @chris — The same idea occurred to me, but then Google should show evidence of it, and it doesn't seem to.* Nor can I imagine why people would want to euphemize or abbreviate "election," nor why they'd only start doing that in 2016.

    * Searching for

    "e word" election

    and looking at the first 10 results, the e-word is actually "election" or "elections" in only 4 of them. The other e-words are "ethics," "endorsement," "earmarks," "experience," "economy," and "evangelical."

  9. Philip Anderson said,

    June 17, 2022 @ 4:42 pm

    Around 10 years ago, references to the F-word in the context of British and European politics meant “federalism” (in imitation of the other word’s unmentionability). In our current circumstances, I can ethics becoming the E-word.
    Since Trump has form for using the P-word, it was an easy guess.

  10. Ben Zimmer said,

    June 17, 2022 @ 6:19 pm

    Worth noting that the typically demure New York Times spelled out which "P-word" was used (as noted by Daniel Radosh on Twitter).

  11. Jonathan Smith said,

    June 17, 2022 @ 9:48 pm

    upon examination inflation of "e word" seem to be from bad ocr on "The word"; "Th" is a (practical) ligature in some fonts resulting in a fair amount of "(gap) e word" in scans dating to a certain ocr tool/era

  12. VVOV said,

    June 17, 2022 @ 9:51 pm

    Yeah, the NYT seems generally to feel that Trump and his inner circle are an exception to their profanity censorship policies. Most notably, they published the words “fuck”, “bitch”, and “pussy” when reporting on the Access Hollywood tape: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/08/us/politics/donald-trump-women.html

  13. Adrian Bailey said,

    June 18, 2022 @ 6:34 am

    I'm surprised that anyone would refer to pussy as the p-word.

  14. Philip Taylor said,

    June 18, 2022 @ 7:13 am

    Adrian — "I'm surprised that anyone would refer to pussy as the p-word". I think In deference to the sensibilities of other readers of this forum, I will not spell any out in full, while noting that I personally have no problem in spelling out the N-word or the F-word in full (when necessary and appropriate [*]) but would blanch at spelling out the C-word. Like you, I have no problem at all with the P-word, which would probably not even trigger warning bells in my mind.

    In everyday e-mails, forum posts and so on, I invariably use "d@mn" in preference to "damn", and would probably do the same to "@rsehole" were I ever to need to use it in writing, yet find Canadian "shute" for "shit" intensely prissy and annoying and American "darn" for "damn" much the same, just a little less annoying.

    [*] Again, very much a personal judgement.

  15. Philip Taylor said,

    June 18, 2022 @ 8:27 am

    Some prose got lost in the above when changing the previous text to "In deference to …". It should have started along the lines of —

    I think that exactly which words one is willing to spell out in full is very much a matter of personal choice. In deference to the sensibilities of other readers of this forum …

  16. Robert Coren said,

    June 18, 2022 @ 10:18 am

    All this "X-word" talk reminds me of something that amused me a decade or two ago, during the run of FX's dark comedy series "Rescue Me", which detailed the lives of a house of firefighters in New York City. Being on a cable-only channel, this show had rather more license with the respect to the use of "strong language" than, say, a regular FOX or NBC, etc., show, and they regularly used words like "shit" and even "cock" (including as an actual reference to a penis), but they drew the line at "fuck" and "cunt".

    In one of the early seasons, a woman was added to the roster of firefighters, and the toxically masculine members were not at all happy about this, and did their best to make sure she wasn't either; at one point the lead character (played by Denis Leary) tried to make her uncomfortable by asking her "Which is more offensive, 'twat' or the C-word?" – which struck me as silly, because avoiding the actual C-word pretty much defeated the point of the line.

  17. Allan from Iowa said,

    June 18, 2022 @ 11:15 am

    John Mulaney had an answer to the question that Robert Coren quotes. From memory, it goes more or less like this: "If you are asking which of two words is worse, and you won't even say one of the words, that's the worse one."

  18. Andrew said,

    June 18, 2022 @ 1:46 pm

    Allan: Here's the Mulaney bit

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yVhIo2VgRik

  19. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 18, 2022 @ 4:26 pm

    I see that back in the 2016 thread I wrote:

    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.

    That still seems correct to me, but others' ears (AmEng native speaker ones) may vary. And we obviously don't know that Ms. Radford disagrees with that ranking of the relative tabooness of the two senses only that the first sense was taboo enough that she didn't want to utter it, at least in the fairly formal setting of giving testimony. On the other hand, Ms. Radford apparently did not hear the Trump-Pence call herself but was simply relaying Ivanka Trump's account of it. Are we sure we know whether Ivanka said "pussy" versus "the P-word" in the description of the conversation with Pence she gave to Ms. Radford and thus at which link in the chain the euphemization was introduced?

    If any of this actually mattered and the record was left no clearer than the news story suggests, that seems like sloppy lawyering by whoever was asking the questions. You can get a clearer record without making the witness need to utter the taboo word herself.

    Q. "And ma'am, just so the record is clear, am I correct that by 'the P-word' you are referring to the vulgar word "pussy"? [You could actually say "quote pussy unquote" aloud while asking the question, to emphasize the use/mention distinction and make the tone of the question more clinical.]
    A. Yes.
    Q. And when Ms. Trump was recounting her father's upsetting conversation with the Vice-President to you, did she herself use the phase "P-word" or did she use that other word that that phrase refers to?
    A. ???

  20. Philip Anderson said,

    June 18, 2022 @ 4:53 pm

    I agree with J.W. Brewer that pussy is not in itself a taboo word. To me the primary sense is still cat, although it’s likely to evoke a snigger, or to be used in double entendres; Mrs Slocombe frequently referred to her pussy” on prime-time TV.

  21. 1920 said,

    June 19, 2022 @ 3:53 am

    As someone not from North America (and English as my second language), every time they use these X-word euphemisms I am utterly baffled and have to ponder for a while until I figure out what word they're actually referring to.

    I would have just guessed the P-word is 'president' here.

  22. Robert Coren said,

    June 19, 2022 @ 9:55 am

    "Pussy" in the sense being discussed here undoubtedly is principally derived from the female-genitalia meaning with its implication of a lack of masculinity, but I suppose there might be some influence from the colloquial "pussycat" to refer to someone who turns out to be kinder and gentler than the casual observer might suppose them to be.

  23. Philip Anderson said,

    June 19, 2022 @ 2:29 pm

    @Robert Coren
    I’d say that influence from pussyfooting would be more likely; pussycat is a bit of a compliment. .

    I’ve seen one example of p****footing come up in an internet search!

  24. Joshua K. said,

    June 20, 2022 @ 12:35 pm

    There was an incident where George Steinbrenner said that a baseball player looked like "a fat pussy toad," pronouncing "pussy" with the vowel from "STRUT" rather than the vowel from "FOOT," and clearly meaning "filled with pus" as opposed to any other meanings being discussed here. The New York newspapers had to resort to various circumlocutions to communicate what Steinbrenner had said.

  25. Philip Taylor said,

    June 21, 2022 @ 10:18 am

    So odd that there is this ?common? misbelief that toads are slimy (=pus-y) creatures, when in fact they are quite dry and pleasant to the touch …

  26. Robert Coren said,

    June 23, 2022 @ 10:05 am

    In this instance, I think the "pus-y" designation referred to being swollen with pus, rather than slimy to the touch.

  27. Philip Taylor said,

    June 23, 2022 @ 3:37 pm

    Well, I cannot deny that that is a possibility, Robert, but how many toads have you ever encountered that are swollen with pus ? I have handled several tens of common toads and never encountered one that was swollen with pus.

  28. Robert Coren said,

    June 24, 2022 @ 10:14 am

    Philip, you might be over-thinking this. I doubt that Mr. Steinbrenner had any actual real0life toads in mind when he made the comment.

  29. Philip Taylor said,

    June 24, 2022 @ 11:44 am

    OK, I may be "over-thinking it", Robert, but for the life of me I cannot think why anyone would associate the idea of being pus-y with toads. And interestingly, there is at least one real-world example" of the phrase "pussy toad" being used where the sense of "pussy" has no connection whatsoever with pus — "Bunch of pussy toad whiners". So are we 100% certain that Steinbrenner was referring to pus rather than to being weak and non-assertive ?

  30. Robert Coren said,

    June 25, 2022 @ 11:09 am

    I will concede that there is a great deal of uncertainty about what Steinbrenner meant, if anything. (This applies to a large number of his public statements, by the way.)

  31. philip said,

    June 27, 2022 @ 10:24 am

    In context, is 'poof' not another possible candidate for the P-word?

  32. Peter said,

    June 27, 2022 @ 10:30 am

    In the UK, "the P-word" normally refers to a highly offensive racist epithet referring to people of South Asian descent (e.g. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh). It's much more taboo than "pussy"; in fact it's on a par with the N-word.

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