Jason (jcreed) wrote,

OED suggests that the earliest meaning of the word that we now pronounce and spell as "pussy" was in fact "cat", as in low german "puus, puus-katte". (sorry if you don't have a subscription to OED)

Now suppose that's actually true. That means the meanings of "female pudendum" and "cowardly" either got attached through some kind of metaphorical or metonymic association, or else basically by accident. That is, we call pussies pussies (and pussies pussies) because there is some associated feature of another thing that we already at the time called a pussy, or else it was a coincidence.

As an example of what I mean by coincidence, think of "great" and "grate". Unless I'm mistaken, they're only homophones because of random sound-change processes. We didn't call grates grates because of their awesomeness.

But I can say with confidence that we call unix pipes "pipes" because they're kind of like the things in the real world made of lead and copper that stuff flows through, in that, well, stuff flows through 'em.

Anyway, I think it's a reasonable guess to guess that both the vaginal and yellow-bellied meanings of "pussy" are noncoincidental. I submit each was coined at some point in the past as an offshoot of an (emphasis on *an*) other contemporary meaning of pussy.

The question is: what branched off of what, when?

Here's a theory: cat-pussy came first. wimp-pussy branched off it. pudendum-pussy branched off cat-pussy second. Let's formalize this as CP. CP -> WP. CP -> PP.

Here's all the possibilities that start with CP:

I. CP. CP -> WP. CP -> PP.
II. CP. CP -> PP. CP -> WP.
III. CP. CP -> WP. WP -> PP.
IV. CP. CP -> PP. PP -> WP.

Now of course this is an oversimplification. Words don't enter the lexicon suddenly and universally in such a way that everyone wakes up one morning knowing the new meaning, much less are meanings discrete. The reality could be that at time t1 pretty much everyone thinks "pussy = cat", and subsequently the word gradually blossoms into a semantic haze, and at time t2, the haze has condensed into "pussy = cat, or queer, or wimp, or poon".

Still, I think this is an interesting way to schematize things, because it lets me ask the following question:

Does an answer to the question of which of I-IV best represents the history of the word "pussy" have any bearing on how offensive to women we ought to regard it?

I'm biased right from the start to be skeptical the idea of etymology carrying much weight, but when I read things like
[...] Pussy is slang for vulva. The vulva are female genitalia. (Genitalia are the external sex organs. The male genitalia are the penis and testes.)

Calling a woman a pussy says she is nothing but genitalia. Calling a man a pussy says he is a woman who is nothing but genitalia.

Calling a person a pussy is an insult. It is a sexist insult because it reduces a woman to genitalia. It is a homophobic insult because it implies a man has female genitalia.

Many people say pussy when they mean coward. That is insulting because woman or gay man is not the same thing as coward.[...] (http://desfemmes.blogspot.com/2004/09/making-it-simple.html)
it makes me wonder if it is possibly just as valid to say prima facie preposterous things like
"Pussy" is a Proto-German call-word for cats with a diminuitive ending. Calling a vulva a "pussy" compares it to a cat. This is insulting to genitalia, because it implies they are cats.

Many people say pussy when they mean coward. That is insulting because cat is not the same thing as coward.
But on the other hand, if I'm given the eminently reasonable rebuttal that etymology is a red herring here, and that there is a completely synchronic problem with modern language in allowing words like bitch and cunt and pussy and ho that have a range of meanings including some that are (among other things) very gender-specific and some that are (among other things) very insulting, then that problem seems to be well-nigh intractable. For the only form I can imagine it taking is the following: using a word like "pussy", for psychological and linguistic reasons, in many speakers of modern English, call up associations of femininity and of cowardice. If we are to shun words of that form, then our entire language, our entire worldview needs to cast off its skin. For any word can --- and will, I wager --- take on connotations just as it is used. If I believe that women are more likely to be X than Y, then I may very well use X about women more than Y, and it would not be beyond the power of a society or subsociety of like-minded individuals to nudge the meanings of X and Y into gender-specificity.

I don't have any recommendations --- I know I'm hinting at the importance of the opposite causal relationship between sexist thought and sexist language, but the facts are far from my grasp that this direction should actually be important, much less more important. I just can't come to grips with sentences of the form "Pussy. Means. This."
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