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shameless pleading

Hussy

That’s a long way to tip a werewolf.

Dear Word Detective:  We have ancestors with the last name Hussey. The Husseys were a rather prominent family from Dingle, Ireland. My mother was rather proud to be related to them and use to brag that her grandmother was a Hussey, sometimes to the amusement of others. I have long wondered how this word came to be associated with a loose woman. Do you have any idea? — Gerald Sharkey.

Hey, this is pretty neat. I assume you already know this, but there are several web pages devoted to the Hussey family and their role in Irish history. According to one site in Canada (www.hussey.ca), the Husseys were originally Scandinavian. They moved south to France (who wouldn’t?) and then joined William the Conqueror for the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. They then supposedly ended up in Bath, from where they wandered over to Ireland and eventually became big shots in Dingle, County Kerry. Then they all became prostitutes… Just kidding! Then they became pillars of the Dingle community, and to this day the entrance to Dingle Bay is dominated by a massive stone tower called “Hussey’s Folly,” thought to have been erected by one of your ancestors as a “stimulus project” to give employment to the locals during the Great Famine of the mid-19th century. And none of this has anything at all to do with the use of “hussy” as an antiquated pejorative term for a woman considered “loose” or immoral.

The portion of the definition of “hussy” in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) relevant to your question is “[A] woman of low social status. Also: a disreputable woman of improper behavior, or of light or worthless character; a badly-behaved, pert, or mischievous girl; a minx.” When “hussy” was more commonly heard (prior to 1950 or so), it was usually accompanied by an intensifier such as “brazen,” “shameless” or “bold” (“That bonnetless, bold hussey round that corner,” 1889).

The use of “hussy” as a pejorative arose in the mid-17th century, but the word “hussy” itself (in a variety of spellings including “hussey,” “hizzie,” and “huzzie”) had already been kicking around in common usage since the early 1500s. Originally, the word “hussy” meant simply “The mistress of a household; a thrifty woman” (OED) and a “hussy” was a good thing to be (“Her being so good a Hussy of what Money I had left her,” Daniel Defoe, 1723). That’s because “hussy” was simply a shortening (or “phonetic reduction”) of the word “housewife.” Who knew?

“Housewife” itself is an interesting word, appearing around 1225 in the form “husewif” and derived from the Old English “huse” meaning “house” (also the source of our modern English “house”) plus “wif,” meaning “woman” (also the source of “wife” and “woman,” which was originally “wifman,” the “man” at the time meaning simply “human being”).

Interestingly, although the connotation of “housewife” was originally, as it is now, neutral and often fairly laudatory, there was a time, shortly before “hussy” came to be used to mean “tramp,” that “housewife” was used in that same derogatory sense of “A frivolous, impertinent, or disreputable woman or girl” (OED). That makes sense, since they are, after all, literally the same word.

Elsewhere in the domestic universe, the Old English “huse” (house) found yet another home in “husbonda,” from the Old Norse “husbondi,” from “huse” and “bondi,” meaning a peasant who owned his own house and land. Anyone who hasn’t already figured out that “husbonda” became “husband,” see me after class.

“Husband,” however, didn’t really become popular until the late 13th century. Prior to that time, the term of preference was the Old English “wer,” which meant simply “man” (and made a nice match with “wif,” woman). The only place you’re likely to meet “wer” today is in “werewolf,” literally “man-wolf” or “wolfman.”

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