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 The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (AHDEL), Fifth Edition (© 2011)1, lists one of the meanings of 'pussy' as:

  1. (Chiefly British) Sweetheart; dear. Used as a term of endearment.


 However, I have not come across this sense of the word in books I have read or other dictionaries. I have checked Oxford Dictionaries Online, the Collins English Dictionary — Complete and Unabridged, 12th edition (© 2014) 1, and the Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary. This sense of the word 'pussy' is also not found in the prior fourth edition of the AHDEL (© 2000). It seems like an odd addition, especially given this more common sense of the word, which is also found in the AHDEL Fifth Edition:

  1. Offensive Slang A woman, or women, viewed as a source of sexual gratification.


 Is the endearing sense of 'pussy' actually used in past or present times? If so, what kind of literature is it most commonly found in?


1These editions and dates can presently be verified at The Free Dictionary by Farlex.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Sep 10 '16 at 18:00
68

According to etymonline.com, the word pussy is a diminutive of the word puss, which means cat, and which was also used as both an insult and, subsequently, a term of endearment for women (emphasis mine):

puss (n.1)

 "cat," 1520s, but probably much older than the record, perhaps imitative of the hissing sound commonly used to get a cat's attention. A conventional name for a cat in Germanic languages and as far off as Afghanistan; it is the root of the principal word for "cat" in Rumanian (pisica) and secondary words in Lithuanian (puz), Low German (puus), Swedish dialect katte-pus, etc. Applied to a girl or woman from c. 1600, originally in a negative sense, implying unpleasant cat-like qualities; but by mid-19c. in affectionate use.

Puss gave rise to pussy which was used in the same basic way:

pussy (n.1)

"cat," 1726, diminutive of puss (n.1), also used of a rabbit (1715). As a term of endearment for a girl or woman, from 1580s (also used of effeminate men). To play pussy was World War II RAF slang for "to take advantage of cloud cover, jumping from cloud to cloud to shadow a potential victim or avoid recognition."

I remember being quite shocked as an adolescent when, while reading an Agatha Christie novel, I came across as description of a kindly old lady as "a nice old pussy" (the quote below may or may not be the one I remember, I found it in what seems to be a collected edition entitled "A Caribbean Mystery ; A Pocket Full of Rye ; The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side ; They Do it with Mirrors available in Google Books):

excerpt

I also found the following in The Detective Novels of Agatha Christie: A Reader's Guide by James Zemboy:

"A Nice Old Pussy" who lives with Ann Shapland's mother and copes most of the time.

And, in the same book, an explanation of the usage for modern readers:

excerpt from the book

I found few other examples. I'm sure there are more but, as you can imagine, my search was confounded by the other, more vulgar meaning of the word. This one is from The Life and Letters of the Right Honourable Friedrich Max Muller, Volume 1, and seems to be used to describe the author's daughter, of all people:

book excerpt

So yes, the word was indeed used as a form of endearment, at least as recently as the first half of the previous century. However, I strongly advise you not to use the word as a term of endearment. You will very likely be misunderstood unless the context is very clear.

Finally, while I have spent 4 years living in the UK, that was more than a decade ago and I can't claim to be an expert on BrE. Nevertheless, I will attest to never having heard the term used as a form of endearment for non-felines there and I would be very surprised to learn that said usage is still common.

  • 5
    That description of old pussy by Zemboy is completely wrong if you ask me. There's no implication of cattiness at all in Christie’s use of the word (usually to describe Miss Marple). Rather, it refers to a harmless, sweet, gentle old lady who sits about gossiping (non-maliciously!) about her neighbours while knitting her grandchildren a woolly scarf. The OED have this meaning (including a Marple quote) as their meaning A.1.a. and describe it as “exhibiting characteristics associated with a cat, esp. sweetness or amiability” (my emphasis), rather than cattiness. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 8 '16 at 13:33
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    (Note that catty/cattish itself only has the negative connotations we associate with it since the late 19th century—before that it just meant ‘pertaining to cats’. Pussy, conversely, is attested since the 1500s in the ‘amiable old lady’ sense.) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 8 '16 at 13:35
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    @JanusBahsJacquet: Yes - very much like calling someone a "pussycat" to imply that they're a soft-fluffy-harmless sort of person. – psmears Sep 8 '16 at 16:27
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    While the history in these answers are nice, it's current meaning should be mentioned, because I fear a non native speaker reading this page may end up saying something very inappropriate. Pussy is most often used as a vulgar insult, usually with connotations that someone is fearful. Like any vulgar insult, some may use it as a term of endearment. – Goose Sep 8 '16 at 21:15
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    I just can't help it. Stupid slangs. – whitedevil Sep 9 '16 at 0:05
14

One has to be very careful in the UK with the indiscriminate use of word "pussy". At its most innocuous, it's a harmless derivative of the word pussycat or puss, an almost child-speak reference to a cat, rather as doggie is to dog. Hereinafter its use becomes the staple of banter between adolescent males and those males whose minds have never advanced beyond adolescence and who appear to be fixated with a woman's pudendum. However, the use of pussy in this sense continues apace with those who have no wish to ratchet up profane language to the much more offensive C-word. (Countless numbers of people have no such inhibitions!) Pussy is also a familiar trigger word between comedians and their audiences in form of double entendre. One thinks of the character of the cat-loving Mrs Slocombe in the BBC's popular sitcom of the 1970's, "Are You Being Served?" Mrs Slocombe's pussy was a running gag. Then, of course, there was the movie character of Pussy Galore (played by Honor Blackman) in the cult Bond movie, "Goldfinger" (1964) All above Wikipedia)

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    For the record, the character Pussy Galore was so named in the Ian Fleming novel, which was written in 1958 and published in 1959. Fleming would not have chosen this name if the double entendre was not immediately obvious to all readers, so it was clearly common usage in the 1950s. Let's just say that if this has been a common meaning for the last 60 years, the OP should assume this is how it's going to be interpreted! – Graham Sep 8 '16 at 15:17
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    @Graham Fleming also probably would not have chosen that name if "Pussy" was not still recognizable as a female nickname. – David42 Sep 8 '16 at 17:12
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    regarding Bond, then there's "Octopussy". maybe later episodes of the franchise will get to Hexadecapussy Megapussy, Mondopussy, and of course Turbopussy. – robert bristow-johnson Sep 8 '16 at 20:52
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    @Graham "Pussy Galore" seems to be something of a single entendre... – David Richerby Sep 9 '16 at 23:39
4

There are already good answers, but I think the following links may be useful:

Pussy (from Webster's Dictionary):

(colloquial, now rare) An affectionate term for a woman or girl, seen as having characteristics associated with cats such as sweetness. [from 16th c.]

Pussy:

  • according to "Words in Time and Place: Exploring Language.." pussy was used as a term of endearment in 16th century ballads, but, citing the OED, it says that this usage reappered only in the 19th century, probably on account of the fact that in the meantime "pussy" was used mainly with reference to its more derogatory meaning.

It is no longer commonly used as a term of endearment also because of the double entrade it would easily suggest nowadays.

3

It is not unheard of in modern Britain. though it comes across as exceedingly gauche and awkward.

In the daily BBC radio soap opera The Archers, the character Matt Crawford regularly called his partner Lilian, Pussycat.

It played its part in marking Crawford (who ended up in prison and then fleeing the country) as a spiv businessman lacking in tact and sophistication, also in defining Lilian as a woman so desperate for a male companion that she would stoop to such low taste.

As @Peter Point has made clear, it carries sexual messages.

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    I don't really think that the term pussy cat is relevant here. Of course, pussy cat and pussy are connected, but the addition of cat makes the term unambiguous, and therefore not an instance of pussy being used endearingly which is what the OP is asking about. – terdon Sep 8 '16 at 12:39
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    @terdon agreed; it's also worth noting that the term "pussycat" in this context is (at least since the later decades of the 20th century) far more common, so much less likely to be misunderstood. – Periata Breatta Sep 8 '16 at 17:26
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    In the late 60s there was an artficial attempt to establish the term 'pussycat' as a cool term of endearment/chatup line. Fortunately it never took off and the only remnant of it is the Tom Jones number 'What's new pussycat?' I always thought that having Matt Crawford use it was meant as an indication of his age and smarmy impressionability. I don't think I've ever heard it used in real life. – BoldBen Sep 8 '16 at 17:48
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    @BoldBen I don't think there was anything "artificial" about using it in the 60s, any more than "groovy". It was just another piece of disposable language that slowly faded away. – Laconic Droid Sep 9 '16 at 13:11
  • @BoldBen It would have been difficult to have seen it surviving in a feminist age. – WS2 Sep 9 '16 at 13:25
2

In L. M. Montgomery's Emily of New Moon, Emily (a young girl) is called "pussy" by Cousin Jimmy. This is a Canadian novel from the 1920's.

from Emily of New Moon:

...At the door she almost fell over Cousin Jimmy, who was sitting on a chair before it, swathed in a huge, checked dressing-gown, and nursing Mike.

"S-s-h!" he whispered, patting her on the shoulder. "I heard you coming down and followed you. I knew what you wanted. I've been sitting here to keep them out if any of them came after you. Here, take this and hurry back to your bed, small pussy."

2

Another example from around 100 years ago: E. Nesbit's "Five Children and It":

This left his brothers and sisters free to work really hard, and the hole that was to come out in Australia soon grew so deep that Jane, who was called Pussy for short, begged the others to Stop.

and

'He's a dear - if people only let him alone. It's our own precious Lamb still, whatever silly idiots may turn him into - isn't he, Pussy?'

Five Children and It (Project Gutenberg ebook)

1

There is an episode of the cult TV show Arrested Development that makes fun of the odd combination of meanings that this word has in slang. It is, of course, entitled "Notapussy." It is pretty clear from the show that you are completely correct: this particular use of the word pussy is a bit dated and it is probably best to avoid this usage unless you're sure you know your audience and they will take it the right way.

protected by tchrist Sep 11 '16 at 15:24

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