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shameless pleading

Puss

Oddly enough, we happen to have a puss named Mister Boots.

Dear Word Detective: I love kitties and have two. (I know you are a kitty fan too.) I frequently call my cats “puss” (they do have actual names). “Kitty” makes sense, but how did cats get the nickname “puss”? — Val.

Cats? Yeah, we have a bunch, but I’m kinda over the whole cat thing. What I’d like is a capybara, one of those ginormous South American hamsters the size of a dog. Or maybe a llama, which are way cool. But they eat, like, fifty pounds of food a day and then spit at you. As far as “actual names” for the cats go, several of ours were originally denoted by numbers. I thought that was a pretty good system, but opinions varied, I eventually caved, and Number Six, the last holdout, became Little Girl Cat. I guess LGC (as we call her) appreciated the change, because now she hardly ever spits at me.

“Cat” itself is an interesting word. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) entry for “cat”  defines it as “A well-known carnivorous quadruped (Felis domesticus) which has long been domesticated, being kept to destroy mice, and as a house pet.” Destroy mice, eh? That entry dates back to 1889, which explains why they left out “bankrupt its owners by demanding Fancy Feast.” Our modern word “cat” first appeared in Old English, and goes back to the Latin “cattus,” which also produced the Spanish “gato,” Italian “gatto,” French “chat,” Swedish “katta” and even the Bulgarian “kotka.”

“Puss” (or “puss-cat,” “pussycat,” and similar forms) as a term (and name) for a cat first appeared in print in the 16th century, and represents another “cat-word” family tree, one that is tied to the Dutch word “poes,” meaning simply “cat.” Similar words are found in dialects of German, Danish, Swedish, Lithuanian and Irish (“puisin”). “Puss” is often used in the reduplicated form “puss-puss,” which brings us to an interesting theory of its origin. It’s thought to have originated as a “call name” for a cat (equivalent to “here, kitty kitty,” etc.), using the initial “p” and the hiss of the “s” to get the cat’s attention (“We ‘know’ when the cat is out there waiting to come in. Open the door — Here, ‘puss, puss, puss’ — but there she is already.” Daily Mail, 2004).

“Pussycat” has also been used, since the 17th century, as a term for (according to the OED) “A girl or woman, especially one exhibiting characteristics associated with a cat, as spitefulness, slyness, attractiveness, playfulness, etc. Originally used as a term of contempt; in later use also as a pet name or term of endearment.” Since the 1940s, “pussycat” has also been used, mostly in North America, to mean “a sweet or gentle man,” “an effeminate man” (OED), or “a coward.” One of the most common modern uses of this sense is in regard to someone (male or female), who might be expected to be grumpy or fearsome, but actually isn’t (“Bob couldn’t sleep the night before meeting his prospective father-in-law, but the guy turned out to be a pussycat”).

By the way, the slang term “puss” meaning “face or mouth” (“Cheese that, or I’ll give you a smack in the puss.” LA Times, 1887) has nothing to do with cats. It comes from the Irish “pus” (meaning “lips or mouth”), and first appeared in the mid-19th century. It’s also found in such terms as “sourpuss,” meaning a person who is usually either literally or figuratively scowling.

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