Pity the poor media-standards editor in this sweary era. One can only imagine, for example, the wringing of hands and gnawing of blue pencils last month when, at a mass rally, the short-fingered vulgarian and U.S. presidential candidate Donald J. Trump repeated a supporter’s accusation that Trump’s rival Ted Cruz was “a pussy.”
Yes, the word was undiplomatic. And provocative. But was it newsworthy? Was it printable? And what did it signify?
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Variety – “the premier source of entertainment news” since 1905 – pussyfooted around the issue, using “P——” in a headline and, in the body of the story, “Trump repeated the woman’s comment, referencing female genitalia.” Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus daintily mentioned “a feline profanity” – but included a direct quote in the next paragraph. And the conservative website Daily Caller opted for coy asterisks.
Variety, Feb. 8, 2016. (Putz? Poltroon?)
Daily Caller, Feb. 10, 2016. (Pansy? Patsy?)
The Associated Press — whose stylebook is used by many newspaper copy desks in the U.S. — resorted to euphemism and buried the mention six paragraphs down: “When an audience member shouted out an insult directed at Cruz — a vulgar term for ‘coward’ — Trump repeated the term and jokingly reprimanded the woman.” A month later, AP Standards Editor Tom Kent revisited the issue: “My own feeling was that it would have been OK to use the word. A couple of weeks later, we used the actual word in a story about Trump’s speaking and tweeting style.”
Female genitalia. A feline profanity. A vulgar term for coward. What is pussy, anyway?
One thing it is not is one of the late comedian George Carlin’s famous “seven words you can never say on television.” That septad, enumerated in 1972, comprised shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, tits, and motherfucker — but not pussy. That’s partly because pussy has always played multiple roles in English, some of them neither sweary nor slangy.
Since the 16th century it’s been a synonym, mostly innocuous, for woman or girl; since the late 17th century it’s been a pet name or synonym for cat. It’s also been “coarse slang” (per the OED) since at least 1699 for the female genitals (internal or external); and, since the early 20th century, a synonym for sexual intercourse generally. (“I wouldn’t miss a second of this for all the pussy in Paris.” – Jerome Weidman, I Can Get It for You Wholesale, 1937.)
Finally, a pussy can be “an effeminate male,” a meaning it’s had since at least the first decade of the 20th century. It’s a stronger slur than “coward”: it impugns not only a man’s courage but his very masculinity. The lexicographer Hugh Rawson wrote in Wicked Words (1989):
As a quintessentially feminine word, pussy ordinarily is a great insult when applied to a man. … The masculine application of pussy is in line with a common linguistic transformation, one that mirrors society’s pecking order: while “male” words with “bad” meanings become attached to women (see HARLOT, for example), “female” words with “bad” meanings tend to be foisted off on homosexuals (see SISSY).
Just to make things really confusing, a different pussy — rhymes with fussy — is an adjective meaning “containing or resembling pus.” And puss can be both a synonym for “cat” and a slang term for “face”; the latter comes from Irish pus, meaning “mouth.”
Barbara Stanwyck as Sugarpuss O’Shea in Ball of Fire (1941), the best movie ever made about lexicography.
Pussy shows up in some idioms generally regarded as vulgar, such as pussy posse (originally police slang for a vice squad, later a reference to Leonardo DiCaprio’s devotees) and pussy-whipped (said of a man who is dominated by a woman; earlier epithets included henpecked and petticoat led).
Yet it’s also an unobjectionable and utterly printable component of pussy willow (the soft, fluffy catkin of any of various species of willow, genus Salix) and pussyfoot (to tread softly or stealthily, like a cat): the former has been with us since the mid-19th century, the latter since the early 20th. (The OED tells us that, beginning around 1911, pussyfoot was also slang for detective, from the nickname of “U.S. government Indian Affairs agent W.E. Johnson [1862-1945], in charge of suppressing liquor traffic on Indian reservations in Oklahoma, who was noted for his stealthy tactics.”)
And most mainstream publications don’t censor the fashion term pussy bow, which started life as pussy-cat bow in the 1930s: the large, floppy bow — it’s worn around the neck, not further south — is reminiscent of the bows sometimes forced upon pet cats. The style was much favored by Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female prime minister, who thought it was “rather softening and pretty.”
Still, in a 2015 poll 96 percent of Glamour magazine’s readers agreed that “it’s time to rename the pussy bow.” They preferred “Thatcher collar.” Democracy be damned: the substitution has caught on with exactly no one.
Pussy’s more salacious side got a big boost in the 1960s with the release of Goldfinger (1964), based on Ian Fleming’s 1950 novel of the same name, which featured a villainess-turned-Bond-conquest with the piquant name Pussy Galore. Pussy, played by Honor Blackman, is the personal pilot of the evil Auric Goldfinger. In the film, Pussy wears a Rolex GMT-Master watch; the model was later nicknamed the Pussy Galore. Her all-female pilot squad, Pussy Galore’s Flying Circus, is today the name of a restaurant in Copenhagen that opened in 1996 “in the heart of throbbing Nørrebro.”
“Who are you?” “My name is Pussy Galore.” “I must be dreaming.”
One Pussy wasn’t enough for Fleming, who published the short story “Octopussy” in 1966. It was the basis, more or less, of a 1983 film, also called Octopussy, starring Roger Moore as Bond and Maud Adams as the title character, “a fabulously wealthy woman who lives in a luxurious island palace, dubbed the ‘Floating Palace’, in India, surrounded by women who are members of her Octopus Cult, each recognized by a tattooed blue-ringed octopus on their bottoms.”
The Pink Pussycat College of Striptease opened in Hollywood in 1961; its decor was “pink through and through,” according to an obituary of its owner, Alice Schiller; its “dean” was Sally Marr, mother of the sweary stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce. There was a cartoon cat in the logo, but the combination of “pink” and “pussy” was a verbal leer.
Pink Pussycat matchbooks via Etsy. The matches resemble red-haired burlesque dancers, backs to the audience.
The Pink Pussycat — educational institution by day, strip club by night — was the first of many establishments bearing the name. (There is still a sex-paraphernalia shop called the Pink Pussycat Boutique in New York City.) It evolved with the times, becoming a lesbian discotheque named Peanuts in the 1970s and, in the late 1980s, Club 7969, from the street number on Santa Monica Boulevard. (For more history, see Margalit Fox’s wonderful obituary of Alice Schiller in the New York Times.)
But pussy lives on in an assortment of trademarks and other notable names. More about them in Part 2 of “A Feline Profanity.”