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  • Valarie Jean Anderson

Scurrying After a Pussy


One of the things I love most about writing history is research. I can lose myself for hours scurrying down rat holes as I hunt for the truth. While I wait for the Naval Institute to complete their review of Pearl Harbor’s Final Warning, I’m working on its prequel. My writer’s group encouraged me to pen it as a work of creative non-fiction in first-person. I’m so glad they did. I’m having a ball getting into my character’s heads while maintaining the non-fiction creed of telling the truth.

To that end, today, I spent about an hour researching the word pussy, trying to figure out if it dated back to 1919. Off the top of my head, I recalled that I’ve heard it used to describe a cat, a vagina, an older woman’s sour face, an endearment, and to designate a coward. When and how did the word for cat transform into so many different usages?

I wanted to use pussy as a descriptor for cowardly, as said by a salty old sailor in 1919: “I won’t be a pussy about it.” My husband questioned it’s usage in my draft, asking, “Are you sure a sailor in 1919 would use that term?” He’s the best at inquiring after my sometimes too rambunctious creative writing exploits. He takes nothing for granted. Nobody ever said being an author was easy.

So, I jumped down the research hole. To my pleasant surprise, I discovered that the word dates back to at least the 1500s! Poking around the internet, I learned that in Old Norse—Vikings never disappoint—puss means pocket pouch. Hmmm. Today’s Finns use the word pus-si to mean pouch or bag. When a word works, it works! In Romania, puse (pronounced poose-se) means available. Okay, apply some imagination again, and now we’ve got an “available pouch.” You can see where this is going. With only a bit of a stretch, one can picture rough-cut Vikings using it to describe female genitalia and attributing it to females in general. Works for me. But what about its other usages?

A cat in Dutch is poes (pronounced “poos”). Cats and women embodied each other for a very long time so assigning a cat’s attribution to a warm and fuzzy woman isn’t too much of a metaphoric leap. Pussy was also used as a term of endearment in the sixteenth century: “She was a sweet old pussy.” Surely, the writer was using a soft, huggable cat as his metaphor and not something else—right? Scandinavia, Holland, and Romania are in the same neck of the words, so a bit of distortion in meaning and pronunciation is not unexpected as the terms migrated. But how did pussy morph into meaning cowardly?

Google to the rescue! I discovered that pus could have also come from the 14th century middle French word Pusillanimous which means cowardly. People love to shorten words, especially ones that are a mouth full. Pus would be a much better explicative than pusillanimous! “You are a pus,” works. “You are pusillanimous,” does not.

To my delight, pussy and its many meanings have survived the ages. Given its ripe and very long history, I’m going with it. A sailor, too long at sea, would undoubtedly have had pussy on his mind and could easily have said, “I won’t be a pussy about it!” There’s something to be said about the power of that word and its derivatives. In a weird way, it makes me proud.

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