David Cameron was overheard by microphones saying that 'the Queen purred' when he gave her the result of the Scottish Referendum vote.

This is surely not literal, but a figurative use of purr.

I did notice that Oxford Dictionaries records a meaning 'speak in a low, soft voice, especially when expressing contentment...'.

But that is not the same as 'purring', the early 17th century origin of which word was imitative of the contented sound a cat makes.

Would people be pleased or offended at having been said to have made a sound usually reserved for cats?

closed as primarily opinion-based by user66974, Chenmunka, choster, FumbleFingers, Hellion Sep 30 '14 at 18:04

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    David Cameron’s smug imputation of that smugness is indeed a ghastly case of rhetorical lèse-majesté after all. When did people start ‘purring’? theguardian.com/uk-news/shortcuts/2014/sep/24/… – user66974 Sep 25 '14 at 21:23
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    I would like to be a fly on the wall next time he goes to the Palace for an audience! – WS2 Sep 25 '14 at 21:33
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    Another consideration here is the gender tilt in usage of the verb when it is applied to human beings. Though I'm too lazy to run a thorough Google Books search (which would entail winnowing out all of the cat and other nonhuman animal instances of purred), I'll bet that the "she [a human being] purred" matches far outnumber the "he [a human being] purred" matches. Any such tilt in usage adds a complication to assessing whether the word is or is not being used in a flattering way. – Sven Yargs Sep 26 '14 at 0:21
  • Do read the Guidelines for Great Subjective Questions in an SE blog post. Questions shouldn't simply ask for opinions. – Andrew Leach Sep 26 '14 at 6:02
  • @SvenYargs Very good point. – WS2 Sep 26 '14 at 10:08

That use of purr compares a woman to a cat. It is not flattering. It is old-fashioned, sexist and familiar rather than respectful. Kitten is a mid-20th Century pet name a man would use to address his sweetheart. Purr like a kitten implies that the woman is pleased with the man's attention, and specifically, that she is sexually satisfied.

Here is a figurative use from Irving Berlin's The Girl That I Marry, featured in the 1946 musical Annie Get Your Gun:

Her nails will be polished and in her hair She'll wear a gardenia and I'll be there 'Stead of flittin', I'll be sittin' Next to her and she'll purr like a kitten.

The man singing this song is telling Annie that he does not find her attractive, because she is not submissive ---- part of the old-fashioned ideal of femininity.

The Queen is of an age to remember this song and the intimate connotations of purr.

  • It's interesting that you mention the mid-20th century as the heyday of "Kitten" as a "pet" name for a girl or woman. The only instance I ever noticed of someone using "Kitten" as a pet name for a person was on the TV show Father Knows Best, which ran on TV from 1954 through 1960 and in syndication perpetually thereafter. The father in that show had two daughters: a teenager whom he nicknamed "Princess," and a preteen whom he nicknamed "Kitten." It is a fairly infantilizing nickname, isn't it? – Sven Yargs Sep 27 '14 at 5:21
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    Not to mention the term pussycat. (ft. Tom Jones) – Crosscounter Sep 27 '14 at 23:39

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