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I am currently transcribing and sharing my grandparents WW2 correspondence between 1939 and 1945.

My question is in relation to this letter written on November 24th 1939.

On page 3 my grandfather mentions being issued with "a couple of wooly pussies".

(It's not "wooly pullie" (for pullover or jumper) as would make more sense in the UK. You can see from the scans that the letters are clearly 's' and not 'l'.)

Image of letter with word "pussies" marked

Some research shows that "pussy" was used to refer to anything soft. E.g.dictionaries say "pussy-cat" means soft cat.

Clearly whatever the item is it's so well known as "pussy" that no further words are needed to identify it. I'm stumped.

If you're interested in the context for the other things mentioned in the letter please look at the rest of the archive. I am posting background information in the comments following each transcription.

You can read all the letters here r/WW2letters - transcriptions are in the comments.

Though I haven't read the letters yet, I know my Grandfather served in France, North Africa and Italy and was involved in radio or radar technology.

UPDATE! The mystery is solved. It wasn't a widely used phrase. In fact it seems so narrow that it was only used this way within our family (and obviously maybe a few others) but it confused my Grandmother on receipt of the letter.

On the first page of this letter she responds "By the way, what are your wooly pussies? Vests or pullovers?"

Two weeks later, on page 9 of this letter, my Grandfather responds. "Whilst in the subject of undies our woolly pussies are vests, I thought in the family they always had been vests."

So there we have it. They are vests (which in English, as opposed to American English, means undershirt not waistcoat).

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  • 1
    What page of the letter is the phrase on?
    – Greybeard
    Commented May 7, 2023 at 19:20
  • Page 3. Someone has modified the question with an excerpt also. Commented May 8, 2023 at 18:52
  • 1
    Thanks for the answer!
    – Greybeard
    Commented May 12, 2023 at 11:29

3 Answers 3

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Green's Dictionary of Slang notes that "pussy" has been used to mean "a fur garment"; most of the examples in that dictionary come from the UK in the mid-20th century. This usage seems to have fallen out of favor, presumably because of the newer slang meaning of the word.

The letter describes the garments in question as "certainly very warm," which would make sense. Presumably, by "wooly," he meant that they had a coarse, wool-like texture, not that they were made of wool.

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  • So what do you think "a couple of wooly pussies" could be? Commented May 7, 2023 at 17:44
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    @StakerHumanoid Edited my answer to clarify a bit. It would likely mean "a couple of fur garments with a wool-like texture." The letter doesn't specify exactly what kind of garment it was.
    – alphabet
    Commented May 7, 2023 at 17:51
  • (Or alternatively he could mean that they were woolen garments that were somehow similar to fur ones.)
    – alphabet
    Commented May 7, 2023 at 17:55
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    @Duckspindle I wonder if that "newer" slang meaning influenced the "older" slang meaning. OED's earliest citation for pussy, "5b. Criminals' slang. A fur garment." is 1937. I can imagine that one furry thing might have lent its name to another...
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented May 8, 2023 at 8:20
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    Why wouldn't they be made of wool? British WW1 and WW2 uniforms were woolen cloth, and sometimes included knitted accessories. Commented May 8, 2023 at 10:24
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I would guess that they are a pair of mittens or gloves. Have a look at the etymology of mitten:

Middle English mitaine, from Old French (from mite, mitten, probably from mite, term of endearment for a female cat (a mitten being so called in reference to the cat's soft fur); akin to French minet, cat) and Provençal mino, female cat, of imitative origin.

(source: thefreedictionary.com)

This suggests that there was already a connection between the word "mitten" and soft fur and female cats, so it's only a small step from there to using the word "pussies" to refer to mittens.

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    I would not be surprised if they were referring to knitted wrist warmers - worldwarwonders.co.uk/product/… - a bit more gynecological in form than most mittens. Commented May 8, 2023 at 10:25
  • I think between you and Pete this is the answer. Partly because on the last page of the letter (visible via the link in my original post) my Grandfather requests a pair of fingerless mittens of a very specific design. Very similar to the items shown by Pete to be standard issue, just with a palm covering. I also found this showing various knitted hand covers including wristlets. worldwarknits.com/wwi-gloves-and-wristlets.html As "wristlet" is a word I've never heard used I can imagine them being called something else colloquially. Thanks for all the help. Commented May 8, 2023 at 14:18
  • The mystery is solved! Please see the update to my original question for more. Commented May 12, 2023 at 11:26
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It wasn't a widely used phrase. In fact it seems so narrow that it was only used this way within our family (and obviously maybe a few others) but it confused my Grandmother on receipt of the original letter.

On the first page of this letter she responds "By the way, what are your wooly pussies? Vests or pullovers?"

Two weeks later, on page 9 of this letter, my Grandfather responds. "Whilst in the subject of undies our woolly pussies are vests, I thought in the family they always had been vests."

So there we have it. They are vests (which in English, as opposed to American English, means undershirt not waistcoat). Most likely an A-shirt.

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