The Latin word pusillanimous was too long, so it was shortened to "pussy" while holding its original meaning "cowardly" [feel free to edit the question and bring a longer etymological story and/or to clarify it in the answers].

However, it seems that when used in the vulgar language, as in the expression

Stop being a pu@$y

It's always charged not only with gender-based meaning, but with the underlying sexual meaning ... am I correct? Are there different local usages/understandings?

ps: This question has been triggered by the comments related to this answer to a question on another SE site.

  • 12
    I am highly sceptical of the claim that "pussy" in this sense derives from "pusillanimous". For one thing, as stated in the comments on the answer you reference, that derivation is not mentioned in the OED (I don't have access to check). For another, that seems a highly unlikely shortening (eg the vowel is wrong, and pusillanimous is only used as an adjective, and pussy is only commonly used as a noun).
    – psmears
    Jul 13 at 9:30
  • 3
    Pussy is from puss n. + -y suffix. Puss is (originally) a conventional pet name for a cat; and possibly originated as an imitative sound representing a call to attract a cat. Other senses (of both puss and pussy) are a semantic extension to describe a person showing characteristics associated with a cat.
    – ermanen
    Jul 13 at 9:49
  • 3
    For the record, pusillanimis is Latin; pusillanimous is late Middle English.
    – Gae. S.
    Jul 13 at 9:51
  • 2
    What does "It's always charged not only with gender-based meaning, but with the underlying sexual meaning...am I correct?" mean? "Pussy" has an established slang meaning, which Merriam-Webster gives as "a weak or cowardly man or boy". Calling someone a pussy doesn't mean you're literally saying they resemble female genitalia, if that's what you're asking. Or are you asking if someone hearing the phrase might think of female genitalia? Are you asking if it's sexist or homophobic or do you have some other subtext?
    – Stuart F
    Jul 13 at 11:36
  • 1
    @ermanen great comment. Please provide reference and convert it into an answer.
    – EarlGrey
    Jul 13 at 11:54

2 Answers 2


That's the first I've ever heard about 'pusillanimous' having anything to do with the etymology of 'pussy'. I'd be very surprised if there's any truth in it. 'Pusillanimous' entered the language in the 15th century (https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=pusillanimous) and would have been restricted to the educated classes who understood Latin. 'Pussy', on the other hand, appears to have been in the language ever since its Germanic beginnings, because it's related to the Dutch poes, Low German puse and Norse puss (https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=pussy). Being slang, its users are unlikely to have even been aware of the word pusillanimous.

There is definitely a major overlap between the 'cat' meaning of pussy and the more offensive anatomical meaning. In fact it's not clear when the meanings separated, and by how much. So it's possible that being 'a pussy' is conceptually related to being a scaredy-cat... or it could be a more generalised insult involving comparing someone to genitalia.


Pussy used to be a common, perfectly innocent way of referring to a domestic cat, and in Victorian times was extended to be a nickname for a little girl. c.f. Rosa, the protagonist's young fiancée in Dickens' Edwin Drood, whom he calls 'Pussy' until she decides it is rather childish and patronising.

I think it has only been since the mid-20th century (?) that the vulgar meaning has become so widely known that the word can't be used without raising a snigger .


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