On Monday night, after Republican frontrunner Donald Trump used the word “pussy” at a rally in New Hampshire, the media gasped in horror: Trump had truly outdone himself this time.
The billionaire demagogue—who ultimately won the New Hampshire Republican primary on Tuesday night—had been mocking his close rival, Sen. Ted Cruz, for not sufficiently endorsing waterboarding during Saturday night’s debate.
Trump’s ears perked up when a woman in the crowd shouted that Cruz was a “pussy.”
“You know what she said? Shout it because I don’t want to say it,” he said, feigning shock for his tittering audience. “OK, you’re not allowed to say that, and I never expect to hear that from you again! She said he’s a pussy.”
Moments later, Mother Jones declared that Trump had “Crossed a New Line in American Politics,” while The New York Times concluded that his use of the “vulgar” term was a “new milestone for a campaign not known for its decorum.”
Well, sure. But in the pantheon of politically incorrect Trumpisms—characterizing Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “criminals”; implying Megyn Kelly was menstruating during a debate (“You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes...blood coming out of her wherever”); calling for a ban on Muslim immigration and Muslim-American citizens returning to the country after traveling abroad; and mocking Sen. John McCain for being a prisoner of war during Vietnam (Trump prefers “people who weren’t captured”)--his use of the word “pussy” is relatively innocuous.
Of course, Trump gleefully jumped at the opportunity to repeat the provocative euphemism in front of a reported 5,000 people. He knew that his audience and the media would perceive it as naughty, even if the context was not at all sexual.
Tellingly, CNN’s Carol Costello could not bring herself to quote Trump in a segment on Tuesday, grimacing as she asked two other female panelists about “that P-word that no one can say on television but you often hear in porno flicks.”
What, pray tell, is so scandalous about Donald Trump uttering the word “pussy” as a derogatory term for a weak man beyond the fact that no presidential candidate has done so before?
Indeed, no other presidential candidate has boasted that he could “stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” either.
The 5,000 people at Trump’s rally likely have little knowledge of the etymological ramifications of “pussy,” just as they likely don’t immediately think of penises when they call someone a “dick.”
“Pussy” as an epithet is derived from the pejorative connotation of “girly,” as in a domesticated pussycat, but some experts say it is largely devoid of misogyny when delivered as a crude insult.
“I think that for most people, you can use ‘pussy’ pretty safely without having it be interpreted as a direct reference to a woman or a woman’s body part,” Michael Adams, a lexicographer and professor of English at Indiana University, told The Daily Beast.
Adams cited “sucks” as an example of profanity that many people associate with sexual activity, despite evidence that it is rooted in the platonic phrase, “That really sucks wind.”
“I think with ‘sucks,’ we were so anxious to make it into a profanity that we immediately associated it with something sexual,” said Adams, whose forthcoming book, In Praise of Profanity, is due out later this year.
A Slate podcast on the “etymological quirkiness of the word ‘pussy’” explains that the earliest documented examples of “pussy” in the English language were in the late 1500s, when it was used to describe a girl or woman exhibiting characteristics associated with a cat.
It was first evoked by the moralizing English pamphleteer Philip Stubbs in his famous Anatomy of Abuses, a rant about the debauched nature of theater, gambling, alcohol, and marrying at a young age. He argued that young husbands and wives could not afford to raise children, and that young men were seeking wives for no reason but to “have a pretty pussy to huggle.”
Linguists have said that Stubbs’ use of “pussy” here is simply a euphemism for “woman,” not her private parts. (Stubbs’s prude pamphlets would not have included such vulgarities.)
It wasn’t until the late 1600s that “pussy” became associated with a woman’s vagina, in a song by an Englishman named Thomas Murphy. Murphy’s “pussy” is a double entendre referring to both a woman’s cat and her vagina.
Not until the early 1900s did “pussy” refer to a cowardly man--as in a “wuss” or a “sissy.” Soon after, pussy made its first overtly sexual debut in a 1937 novel about the garment district in New York City, in which a character says of a union brawl, “I wouldn’t miss a second of this for all the pussy in Paris.”
Some lexicographers argue that various uses of “pussy” have become murkier over time.
While “pussy” is generally divorced from female genitalia when used to connote a coward, “these things are floating in the same space,” said Geoffrey Nunberg, a renowned linguist at the UC Berkeley School of Information and author of Ascent of the A-Word.
Indeed, Trump likely wouldn’t have drawn attention to the woman in the crowd if she’d called Cruz a “sissy.” He knows his audience.
“People tend to make a big deal out of any reference to the body,” Nunberg said.
When asked about Pussygate on Fox & Friends Tuesday morning, Trump insisted he would “never say a word like that” on his own. “The woman shouted and shouted” and Trump simply repeated her, “like a retweet.”
For a man who has embraced fascist rhetoric in his bid for the presidential election, calling Ted Cruz a “pussy” is child’s play. And considering that the most banal comments sound cartoonish when they emerge from Trump’s duck lips, it’s little surprise that his “pussy” remark was catnip for both his critics and his fans.
“By the way, the audience went crazy,” Trump added on Fox & Friends. “Five thousand people went nuts. They loved it. We’re having fun. That’s what I mean about being politically [in]correct. Every once in a while we can have a little fun, don’t you think?”
Somewhere, Thomas Murphy is raising a glass to that.