4

Per Merriam-Webster Online, Pansy is defined as

1.

: a garden plant (Viola wittrockiana) derived chiefly from the hybridization of the European Johnny-jump-up (Viola tricolor) with other wild violets; also : its flower

2.

a usually disparaging : a weak or effeminate man or boy b usually disparaging : a male homosexual

I am interested as to the origin of the second definition of the word, but I have been able to yield a satisfying result as of yet. Any information that might provide a clearer understanding of this word's history would be greatly appreciated.

  • The answers below don't seem to mention it, but Pansy was used as a girl's name up until the 1940s - possibly killed off by rise of the derogatory meaning. – Neil W Jun 19 '15 at 10:43
  • @NeilW It's still found, though no longer common. Consider Pansy Parkinson from Slytherin House for example. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 24 '16 at 16:07
  • There is a vague possibility that the term is derived from "panty-waist". – Hot Licks Dec 24 '16 at 17:50
  • Perhaps Henry James character, Pansy Osmond, in "The Portrait of a Lady" is responsible for the second definition of the word "pansy." – user275734 Jan 11 '18 at 3:28
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Maybe the most famous literary Pansy is Pansy Yokum, Li'l Abner's mother. – bof Jan 11 '18 at 4:51
4

First Occurrence of the Term

Several slang dictionaries date the use of pansy as a slang term for homosexual to the 1920s. From Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang & Unconventional English, eighth edition (1984):

pansy, n. A very effeminate youth; a homosexual: from ca. 1925. Cf. Nancy (boy). Also pansy-boy: from ca. 1930; New Statesman and Nation, 15 Sep. 1934, concerning the fascist meeting in Hyde Park on 9 Sep., notes that there were, from the crowd, 'shouts about 'pansy-boys'".

With regard to Nancy, Partridge has this:

Nancy, Miss Nancy, Nancy boy. A catamite: (low) coll. C.19–20. Also as adj.: rare before C.20. Hugh Walpole, Vanessa, 1933, 'But he isn't one of those, you know. Not a bit nancy.'—2. Also, an effeminate man: C.19–20. Cf. molly [which goes back at least to 1879, with the same meaning].—3. (Only as nancy, N-.) The breech, esp. in ask my Nancy: low (perhaps orig. c[ant]): ca. 1810–1910. (Vaux.) Cf. ask mine arse!

John Ayto & John Simpson, The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang (1994) has these relevant entries:

pansy mainly derog. noun 1 An effeminate man; a male homosexual. Also pansy-boy. 1929–. [Citation from 1960 omitted.] adjective 2 Of a man: effeminate, homosexual. 1929–. [Citation from 1951 omitted.]

Robert Chapman & Barbara Kipfer, Dictionary of American Slang, third edition (1995) similarly gives a first occurrence date of 1929 for pansy. And Tony Thorne, The Dictionary of Contemporary Slang (1990) has this entry:

pansy n a male homosexual or an effeminate, effete, or weak male. A word first used in this context in the 1920s and well-established until the late 1960s. It survives mainly in the speech of the middle-aged and elderly.

The earliest Google Books match for pansy in the effeminate sense is from the Class of '09 notes in The Princeton Alumni Weekly (March 28, 1930), where it appears as an adjective:

They have installed a ping-pong table in the new addition of the Princeton Club of Ne York, and ardent devotees thus far are Larry Waterman, John Nutting, and your correspondent. We old codgers are right spry, considering our creaking joints and dimming eyesight. Incidentally, any of you birds who regard ping-pong as a pansy game are hereby challenged. We three valiants guarantee to put you in your place and alter your opinion.

Claude McKay, Home to Harlem (1928) uses the term pansies to refer to the female companions of dandies:

Brown girls rouged and painted like dark pansies. Brown flesh draped in colorful soft clothes. Brown lips full and pouted for sweet kissing. Brown breasts throbbing with love.

...

All round the den, luxuriating under the little colored lights, the dark dandies were loving up their pansies. Feet tickling feet under tables, tantalizing liquor-rich giggling, hands busy above.

...

She stopped more than usual at Jake's table. He gave her a half dollar. She danced a jagging jig before him that made the giggles rise like a wave in the room. The pansies stared and tightened their grip on their dandies. The dandies tightened their hold on themselves. They looked the favored Jake up and down. All those perfect struts for him. Yet he didn't seem aroused at all.

None of the slang dictionaries I consulted cite this usage of pansy, so it may have been McKay's own invention and not an instance of found slang. Still, it occurs at just about the time when the "homosexual or effeminate" sense of pansy was emerging.

-----------------------

Derivation of the Term

None of the reference works I've checked offers any discussion of how pansy came to be applied to effeminate or homosexual men beyond Merriam-Webster's listing it as a later definition drawn from the flower sense of pansy. The simplest explanation is essentially that a pansy is a delicate flower, and so (in the 1920s, at any rate) to call a man a delicate flower was to call him effeminate. To mix things up a bit, I suggest four additional theories, some more interesting than others, below.


Theory #1: Derived from the pansy as a 'love philtre'

T. F. Thiselton-Dyer The Folk-Lore of Plants (1889), has this brief comment on the pansy:

In very early times flowers were much in request as love-philtres, various allusions to which occur in the literature of most ages. Thus, in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Oberon tells Puck to place a pansy on the eyes of Titania, in order that, on awaking, she may fall in love with the first object she encounters.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the flower is identified as "a little western flower" that maidens call "love-in-idleness," and Oberon instructs Puck,

Fetch me that flower--the herb I showed thee once;/The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid/Will make a man, or woman, madly dote/Upon the next live creature that it sees.

Another term for the pansy was "heart's-ease." And in Hamlet, Ophelia (gone mad) says, "and there is pansies, that's for thoughts"—thereby identifying the source of the flower's name in the French pensée.

This theory suggests that a person intoxicated by pansy nectar is incapable of any discrimination in his or her amorous feeling, being compelled to love the "next live creature that it sees," whether a man with the head of an ass (in Titania's case) or someone of the lover's own gender. The strongest arguments against this theory are (1) Shakespeare doesn't explicitly connect his "little western flower" to the name pansy; and (2) there is no evidentiary link between the love-philtre sense here and the use of pansy as an epithet for homosexual.


*Theory #2: Derived from the older slang term 'Nancy' by rhyming slang or similarity

There isn't much to say about this theory except that Nancy is an older slang term with much the same meaning, and with a variant Nancy-boy that corresponds to pansy-boy. The negative here is that (as far as I know) no one has suggested such a derivation or recorded it in books of such terms.


Theory #3: Derived from the Pansy Series of books for girls*

In the late 1800s, a series of at least 50 books marketed by the publisher as being for both boys and girls but focusing on girls. An advertisement for "Pansy" books at the front of One Commonplace Day (1886) by Pansy [Isabella Alden] prefaces a list of the available volumes with this introduction:

"PANSY" BOOKS

Probably no living author has exerted an influence upon the American people at large, at all comparable with Pansy's. Thousands upon thousands of families read her books every week, and the effect in the direction of right feeling, right thinking, and right living is incalculable.

Edmund Lester Pearson, The Secret Book (1914) suggests an older boy's reaction to the Pansy books:

Its benefit [that is, the benefit of a subscription volume purchased by one's father "to help out some worthy person"] on one human boy, aged, say, about ten years, was impossible to discover. Of a certainty, that boy got his full share of books of a more interesting type at Christmas, but as these were invariably devoured from cover to cover, not later than the evening of Dec. 28th, of the same year, and as there had not been enough Christmases in his experience for him to accumulate a vast number of books, there were still reasons why he had to draw upon the common collection of the town. Some of his own private stock, moreover, had been given him five or six years earlier, and he now turned from them in loathing. They were distressingly juvenile. Some of them were the “Pansy” books—I forget exactly what that implies, but I can recall the scornful tone in which the title came to be pronounced.

The theory here would be that any boy of ten or older who continued to enjoy the wholesome girl-centric stories of the "Pansy" series must be an effeminate weakling—notwithstanding (and perhaps, in part, because of) the books' "effect in the direction of right feeling, right thinking, and right living." A child who was ten years old in the heyday of the Pansy books (1880–1900) would have been thirty-five to fifty-five years old in 1925, and might recall (as Pearson did in 1914) "the scornful tone in which ["Pansy books"] came to be pronounced."


Theory #4: Derived from 'pansy,' a popular shade of purple in the mid-1920s

The Clothier and Furnisher, volume 106 (1926) [combined snippets] notes a movement in the industry to encourage men to buy purple ties:

The flare for new colors on the part of the men, in the opinion of A. N. Lincoln, secretary of the division, is but a reflection of the color habits of women, for whom sewing silk manufacturers have issued 300 standard colors and sixty seasonal shades of which the newest is pansy. Manufacturers look for an improvement in the sale of golf suits and knickers in the Fall.

...

There have been reports of the flurry in the necktie market which may as well be nipped in the bud here and now as at any time. That is the report, occurring fairly frequently of late, that pansy should be a good color in neckwear this year. Simply because the streets have been full of women wearing this favored shade of purple is no reason to believe it will be a popular color for men, and there are a number of reasons why it should not be.

It is not, in the first place, a man's color, or one that can be expected to appeal to a man for his own wear. It is of the peculiar flamboyant, audacious type that is only seized upon by women ; moreover it has never been a really fashionable color among them. Best-dressed women of the country have never worn pansy, and they certainly will not begin at this late date; and they have excellent reasons for not joining the rush after this color. Their reasons are precisely those which will prevent it from being popular among men.

Color a Bit Too Prominent

The chief point against the color is its too great prominence. The women who set the style foresaw that what has happened would happen, and refused to wear it. What they predicted has happened: the brilliance of the color won it immediate popularity among many classes, and the streets were full of pansy dresses. Because of its prominence, it immediately made itself known, and was an old story before it was a new one. It can't be disguised because of its brilliance, and many once-proud possessors of pansy gowns are wishing now that they hadn't hadn't bought a color that dates itself so obviously. It is so prominent that it marks itself as behind the times just as plainly, and almost as quickly, as it once marked itself ahead.

Now in men's ties, the same thing would happen ; only, since pansy has already played out its welcome among the ladies, it is now an old story. Pansy ties produced right now, at the time of writing, might sell to a few not over-particular dressers ; but by the time the mills could turn the color out in quantity, perhaps by the time these words see print, pansy will be as dead as a door-nail.

But if not pansy, then what? Colors will still be bright ; but they will not be as brilliant as formerly. The light, bright red that has practically held fort alone lately will have to share the honors with several other colors. Red will be more popular in a little darker shade. Blues will also be good. Browns will follow, and some purples, but not pansy purples, will be seen.

This theory rests on the idea that when clothiers attempted to sell "pansy purple" neckwear to men, the only buyers were men who were attracted to a color of a "peculiar flamboyant, audacious type that is only seized upon by women." The timing of this sartorial episode is in line with the emergence of the slang usage of pansy.


Conclusion

I have no idea whether any of the suggested derivations is the actual one—or for that matter, whether more than one of them factored into the usage. Theories 3 and 4 have the advantage of being linked to largely forgotten historical influences, which makes them more appealing (to me), but that doesn't make either of them more likely than the others to be the correct explanation.

  • As for theory 2, the derivation from nancy is suggested also here: books.google.it/… – user66974 Jun 19 '15 at 7:25
  • @Josh61: Thank you for that link. I wonder whether the author sees Partridge's "Cf. Nancy (boy)" as a suggested derivation, or whether one of the other sources listed at the end of the article makes a more overt claim that nancy may be the source of pansy in the relevant sense. – Sven Yargs Jun 19 '15 at 7:34
  • Yes, the assonance with nancy associated to a colorful flower may have made this term popular in that context. – user66974 Jun 19 '15 at 7:50
4

I have found the following story:

Pansy: Meaning "effeminate homosexual man" is first recorded 1929. (Etymonline)

  • seems to have been first applied to gay men in America over a hundred years ago. Some gay men have always dressed in a distinctive and slightly camp feminised fashion – think about Quentin Crisp, or the stereotypical gay characters created by entertainers like Dick Emery. Perhaps the word “dandy” could apply to some of these men in a different period.

  • But at the beginning of the 20th century dressing in this manner was called “pansying up", no doubt comparing the bold colours of the clothes with those of the flower. I haven’t been able to find out if pansying up was a term created by the gay community or one given to it. It seems that effeminate younger men in particular who pansied up were called “pansified”, and from this came the name “pansy”. Since then, camp gay men have often been given the derogatory name of pansy.

  • In the 1930s during prohibition in America may illicit gay-owned bars and clubs sprang up in New York. They became popular with all sections of society who couldn’t get alcohol anywhere else. The entertainment provided for the clientele included many gay performers and drag artists. These underground bars became the centre of what was called the Pansy Craze.

(queerstoryfiles.blogspot.it)

  • 1
    That, and flowers have always been considered effeminate. – mfoy_ Jun 18 '15 at 20:28
  • 1
    I'm not sure if this has anything to do with it but as long as crossdressing is being mentioned, it's also worth noting that pansy is a pretty close rhyme to panty/panties,' which is what we presently call feminine underwear. – Tonepoet Jun 19 '15 at 1:17
3

Not sure if this is directly on point, but the decadent fin-de siecle homosexuals like Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde set a fashion for wearing green carnations, either as a recognition signal or because they were so clearly unnatural and sterile but very beautiful (I imagine it sounds better after a glass of absinthe and some opium). There was even a roman a clef, "The Green Carnation" by one Robert Hichens, which was put in evidence at Wilde's trial. Another showy, fragile flower would be a natural choice for the next generation of homosexuals.

3

First uses of the word "pansy" as a slur against homosexual men probably date from the 1920s, but it was already gaining traction for thirty years before that.

Apparently the first instance where the pansy took on a negative connotation arose in late 1892 when US representative Walt H. Butler, a Democrat from West Union, Iowa, introduced a bill that would have made the pansy the national flower. He also wanted to re-arrange the stars on the American flag into a pansy pattern. The following year he introduced a bill to radically alter the appearance of the American Goddess of Liberty icon by incorporating an oversize pansy. It's not known what his motivation for all these proposals was. Perhaps his wife or a daughter was urging him on.

The pansy is a hardy, even manly plant until the summer heat, but Victorian women were probably attracted more to its delicate petals and soft colors. Juxtaposing such traits with a congressman who was presumably manly would have looked absurd, so of course Butler's colleagues, many of them Republicans, had a little fun with it, dubbing him "Pansy" Butler. The Shoe and Leather Reporter called him a "daisy." An Iowa newspaper lamented, tongue-in-cheek, "From Boston to Chicago and even Kansas City comes up the universal hue-and-cry against Butler." Even President Grover Cleveland joked about it. The Pansy Society of America may have supported his efforts, but no one else came to his defense. None of his proposals became law. Butler left Congress in 1893 after one term, but by then the seeds of its pejorative meaning had been planted.

Although reactions to his proposals were undoubtedly in jest and not a commentary on his manhood, the controversy marks the first known instance where the word "pansy" was used to describe a man in less than manly fashion. By the first decade of the new century it came to be associated with delicate boys. It would be only a matter of time before it was also applied to grown men.

Perhaps one of the oddest examples can be found in an original story penned by Doris Palmer of Louisville that was printed in the Louisville Courier-Journal in 1908 (Feb. 9, 1908, p. 22). "Panio," the protagonist, is a little boy who was "not like the other children; they laughed at his queer fancies, mocked him so that the boy...left the boisterous children and went to the woods to find comfort in the wild flowers." He eventually stumbles upon a meadow where he discovers an unusual flower. Later he wins a prize for naming it the "pansy" and lives happily ever after with his mother and a flower garden filled with his beloved blossoms.

Most notable here is the author's use of "queer": perhaps an early indication of how the meaning of that word was also changing. It's telling that Panio was a mama's boy who never married.

In 1914 the Courier-Journal began running a column for children called "Peter Pansies," inspired by the hit play, Peter Pan. The association of pansies with the title character no doubt reinforced the conflation of pansies with pixie boys, at least in Louisville.

protected by tchrist Jan 11 '18 at 3:48

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