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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

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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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
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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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