“Grab them by the pussy,” Donald Trump idiotically proclaimed in the hot mic moment heard ‘round the world.
Few people misunderstood those now infamous words, leaked just weeks before the 2016 presidential election. Trump was using what Oxford English Dictionary cites as the second, vulgar meaning of the term “pussy.” You could paraphrase him with accuracy and translate his statement to, “Grab [women] by the vagina.”
“You can do anything,” he added, making cruel, moronic light of sexual assault.
Pussy is a strange word. Cross reference the definition with Merriam-Webster online and you’ll find the number one entry is also “cat.” You’ll need to scroll down a bit before you land on “vulva,” “sexual intercourse,” or “the female partner in sexual intercourse.” But who actually uses “pussy” in conversation about a cat? No one.
Pussy is primarily used to talk about sex ― whether it’s the sexual organ or the woman attached to it, or some conflated and generalized combination of the two. Perhaps worse, the word can be used as a slur against effeminate or cowardly men. Think: “George is scared. What a pussy!” Somehow, the term morphed from cat to genitals to sexist insult ― but how? And why?
Rolling off the tongue of a known bigot, the word “pussy” is nasty, crude and offensive.
Quora and Reddit and Agatha Christie-related forums are abuzz with these questions, where people are clamoring to know whether “pussy” is derived from “pusillanimous” (an adjective meaning “showing a lack of courage or determination; timid”)... or if that interpretation is hot garbage. (Spoiler: it likely is.)
It turns out experts are pretty perplexed with “pussy,” too.
“The etymology of ‘pussy’ isn’t known definitively,” Merriam-Webster’s Kory Stamper told The Huffington Post, “which seems odd but is somewhat common with taboo words.”
Prickly terms like “pussy,” Stamper explained, are often used in speech before they’re finally written down, so all an etymologist can do is analyze the later print evidence and use some linguistic intuition to fill in the history. And this leads to disagreement.
One such etymological leap comes from Slate’s Bob Garfield and Mike Vuolo, hosts of the podcast “Lexicon Valley.” Garfield and Vuolo cite a few examples of “pussy” usage. First, they claim one of the earliest known appearances of the word “pussy” occurred in the late 1500s, when an English pamphleteer named Philip Stubbs used it to refer to a woman in a non-sexual manner. After discussing 16th-century men’s tendency to hastily marry, Stubbs wrote:
“No, no, it maketh no matter these things, so long as he have his pretty pussy to huggle for that is the only thing he desireth.”
Here, Garfield and Vuolo note the OED’s similar “pussy” origin story: the dictionary claims that the term was used in the late 1500s to reference a girl or woman exhibiting characteristics associated with a cat, like sweetness or amiability. Puss (minus the y), the hosts point out, predates all of this as a word referring to cats.
Second, Garfield and Vuolo turn to a lewd country song from the 1600s that employs a curious double entendre, representing the first time that “puss + y” was used to refer to both a cat and a woman’s vagina. Here’s a sampling of that song by Thomas D’Urfey:
“A pretty young kitty she had that could purr. Twas gamesome and handsome and had a rare fur. And straight up I took it and offered to stroke it. In hopes I should make it kind.”
Third, they time-travel to the early 1900s to find evidence of “pussy” being used to refer to a man. An early example they could find is from a 1904 novel God’s Good Man: A Simple Love Story, in which author Marie Corelli writes: “I shall invite Rocksmith and his tame pussy, Mr. Marius Longford.”
Garfield and Vuolo go on to cite Sinclair Lewis and Jerome Weidman (”I wouldn’t miss a second of this for all the pussy in Paris.”), other literary purveyors of “pussy,” with still no clear etymological trajectory. “Pussy,” according to their history, was all over the place, but seems anchored to those Middle Low German feline roots.
Stamper, on the other hand, said she’d have taken a different route to track the meaning of “pussy,” particularly as used by Trump. “Our etymologists think that the genitalia ‘pussy’ likely came into English from a Scandinavian language,” she said. “There are words in some of the ‘grandparent’ languages to English, like Old Norse and Old English, that are very similar to ‘pussy’ and which mean either ‘vulva’ or ‘pocket.’”
A mention of “pocket” conjures visions of “Broad City,” the NYC-based comedy that features a character, Ilana, prone to proudly concealing marijuana in her vagina ― “nature’s pocket.” (The show also happened to air a Hillary Clinton cameo last season.) Taking into consideration this pop culture moment and others like it, Stamper’s explanation seems divorced of sex, situated lightyears away from the vile dripping from Trump’s mouth. In fact, without the chauvinism, pussy is a word ripe for a feminist take-back, less Urban Dictionary and more Pussy Riot. As Jessica Valenti tweeted, the word “pussy” on its own is, well, fine.
But rolling off the tongue of a known bigot, the word “pussy” is nasty, crude and offensive. In the 2005 video that leaked last week, Trump manages to both call someone “a pussy” (it’s unclear whether he’s talking about another man, Billy Bush, or another woman, Arianne Zucker) and cavalierly describe sexual assault using the word “pussy.”
Language is fickle, but thanks to men like Trump, words that have fairly innocent origins become vehicles for misogyny. And pussy’s sexist burn can linger both ways, even when it’s not connoting assault. Today, calling a man one is not so different from calling him “a girl,” Oxford’s Katherine Martin told “Lexicon Valley.” And referring to a woman as one runs the risk of reducing “women to faceless herds of sexy cattle,” Lindsay Zoladz wrote for Slate.
Like many critics have written in the aftermath of pussygate, “it’s not just a word.” Pussy’s history might be confusing, but few people were left wondering what Trump’s language implied.
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.
CORRECTION: Due to a transcription error, Thomas D’Urfey’s name previously appeared as Thomas Murphy. This post has since been corrected.