“A feline profanity”: Part 2

In Part 1 of “A Feline Profanity” I asked and answered a few questions about pussy, starting with: How offensive is it, anyway? Pretty fucking offensive when it’s a male epithet. But in other contexts, such as marketing and trademark law, pussy is a bit of a puzzler.

I first encountered the pussy paradox about eight years ago, when I researched a new “natural energy” drink called, yes, Pussy.

You may be surprised to learn that the name is not derived from puissant. Nor is it derived from pusillanimous: that theory is “preposterous balderdash, or if you prefer, utter bullshit.” (Language Hat, via Language Log)

At the time, Pussy was sold only in the U.K., where the brand had been launched in 2007 by recent university graduate Jonnie Shearer. The name, Shearer has said, was inspired by Richard Branson’s once-shocking Virgin brand; he chose it before he knew what sort of product he would use it for. “I knew [the name] would stand out, and get talked about,” he told The Standard. “I just wasn’t sure what to do with it.” When he perfected the formula—a blend of fruit juices, herbs, and sparkling water—he peddled it at first to bars. (One bartender reportedly told him, “Piss off, Pussy.”) The giant grocery chain Tesco agreed to stock the beverage, but primly and ineffectually bowdlerized the name as P***y. It helps to have friends in high places: Richard Branson’s son and daughter—longtime friends of Shearer’s—are now major investors in the company and serve on its board.

The name was chosen to shock, but it doesn’t appear to offend—at least not in the U.K. (The brand launched in the U.S. in 2012.) Shearer says that about 60 percent of his customers are women, and that “we’re … very feminine.”


Get your mind out of the gutter. Image via AdAge.


Double entendre? What double entendre? Via AdAge.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, unsteeped in the wit and whimsy of its confreres across the pond, was not amused. In 2009, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) refused to grant trademark protection to PUSSY, writing sternly:

The applied-for mark PUSSY is slang for ‘female genitalia’ or reference to women sexually and is thus scandalous because such term is described as vulgar, offensive, taboo, obscene and coarse.

And they weren’t finished, by gum:

… the continually evolving meaning of the term “pussy” has come to mean something more, (sic) than merely a cat, or a catkin, a pus wound, or even that of a weak and cowardly male. In today’s attitudes and mind set, the term “pussy” is used in a most offensive and vulgar manner. Specifically, the term “pussy” refers to female genitalia, desire for sexual intercourse with women and ultimately women as sexual objects.”

Trademark lawyer Marc Randazza commented in his blog: “I think that any man who thinks that the term ‘pussy’ is something that is ‘immoral and scandalous’ would be a good definition for a fucking pussy too.”

That was in May 2009; in September 2009, Shearer’s lawyers filed a new trademark application, this time with a slyly modified logo.

Catch that? There’s a tiny kitty-cat inside the shield, oh-so-legally described as “Cats, domestic Cats, Kittens” and “Stylized cats, dogs, wolves, foxes, bears, lions tigers.” And lo, it came to pass that the TTAB saw that pussy = cat was good, and granted the trademark registration.

The cat logo was, however, all for show. It does not appear on the U.S. website or anywhere in real life. (The critter inside the shield looks like a scorpion to me.)

Nor is this Pussy the only feline ambiguity that the TTAB has blessed. Here, for example, is the logo for Pussy cosmetics (trademark registered in 2012, but nowhere to be found).



There is, however, a pigmented powder called Pussy Face sold by a company called Bitch Slap.

Also approved by the USPTO: PUSSY POWER REVOLUTION (for clothing) and 9 DEADLY KILLER PUSSIES (for comic strips).

Still under review: PUSSY MAGNET (for magnets), PUSSY (for “chemical flavorings in liquid form used to refill electronic cigarette cartridges”), MY PUSSY LOVES YOU! (for T-shirts), RICH PU$$Y (for clothing), and PUSSY PANTIES (for undergarments).

Not the abovementioned PUSSY PANTIES. These are “Miss Galour cheeky knickers” — an obvious reference to Goldfinger — from Naja, a lingerie company based on Los Angeles.

Finally, let’s consider the case of Pussy Riot, the all-women Russian protest band that in 2012 was tried and convicted on charges of “hooliganism.” As Ben Zimmer pointed out in Language Log, the band’s name has always been rendered in English; efforts to translate it into Russian have been “tricky”:

Is there a Russian equivalent that preserves the double meaning of English pussy, as both ‘cat’ and ‘female genitalia’? It’s this double meaning that has led Anglophone news media to engage in various strategies of taboo avoidance, but it’s central to the band’s provocative “riot grrrl” identity.

One of those strategies of taboo avoidance, wrote linguist Arnold Zwicky in a blog post titled “The Pussy Patrol,” included calling the band “a feminist punk group with a profane name.”

And Jen Doll, in The Wire, pondered what it means “when ‘vulgar’ words” like pussy “become acceptable”:

By being news … Pussy Riot brought the word to all sorts of media venues that would have been far too demure to print it otherwise. And there was even some debate about how they did print the words. The New York Timesas The New York Observer‘s Foster Kamer noted on Friday, had previously been charged with being too pussy to use the word. With Pussy Riot, no longer! (In fact, though, the word had previously been printed as part of a restaurant’s name, as part of a truly obscenity-laced album review, as a part of movie titles where it happens to appear, and of course as the plant and, we’re pretty sure, cats. …)

Cats! Of course.



10 thoughts on ““A feline profanity”: Part 2

  1. Lee J Rickard March 30, 2016 / 2:19 pm

    One should note a comment by the actress Betty White, to the effect that it’s not clear why “pussy” is used to refer to weakness, as “those things can really take a pounding.”


  2. Pat March 31, 2016 / 11:03 pm

    There was an episode of Arrested Development (Season 3, Episode 4 “Notapusy”) that played with the word a little. Some uses were bleeped and others were not. If I remember rightly, the “British” characters could say it without being bleeped but most of the time the Americans could not unless it was unequivocally a cat.


      • Pat April 2, 2016 / 10:13 am

        The third series was made for Netflix so may only be available there.


      • יובל פינטר April 3, 2016 / 5:29 pm

        Pat – you’re thinking of the fourth (season, not series, ahem). The third aired before Netflix Productions was even a glint in the CEO’s eye. Incidentally, the company is based in Los Gatos, CA.


      • Nancy Friedman April 3, 2016 / 11:33 pm

        Yuval: This may be a case of UK vs. US usage. According to Lynne Murphy, a linguist who writes about British and American English, “BrE doesn’t have a series/season distinction, since there really isn’t such a thing as a television season in British broadcasting.” For more, read her post.


      • יובל פינטר April 4, 2016 / 4:29 am

        Thanks Nancy, I’m well aware of the UK/US distinction about this – my ahem was to point out to Pat that AD is an American TV show.


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