How does “pussy” come to mean “coward”?

No one wants to be called a “big pussy,” but how did it become a derogatory term? “Pussy” seems to be an old word. It started with the connotation of being soft or weak, and gradually acquired its cowardly meaning.

In the late 1500’s, “pussy” was a term of endearment for girls, and also referred to gay men. In 1583, ardent Puritan Philip Stubbes published The Anatomie of Abuses, calling for an end to vice, and using the term “pretie pussie.” At that time, it was also another word for “cat,” as in the nursery rhyme “Ding dong dell / Pussy’s in the well.”

By the early 1700’s, “pussy” or “puss” was a common name for a cat. Pussy willows were named because their soft, gray, fuzzy features resemble a cat’s fur. It also continued to be an affectionate name for a girl; in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, little Eva is called “pussy” by her father.

In the 20th century, “pussy’s” soft, weak connotation began to become “cowardly.” In 1905, Vice President Fairbanks was criticized for “pussy-footing around,” meaning fearing to make a commitment. By World War I, “pussy-foot” was slang for “detective,” with the implication of being a sneaky, underhanded person. “Pussy-foot” also came to mean someone in favor of Prohibition, and suspected of being a tool or informer. By the mid 1950’s, the term “pussy” for “coward” was well-established.

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