Friday, May 8, 2015

When Words Go Bad

A while ago I watched the cable “reality” program Come Dine With Me

Originating in Britain, this has four or five contestants hosting one other for dinner in turn. They rate each meal on a scale of one to ten, and the chef with the highest score gets some prize or another. 

What caught my attention, though, was when one of the contestants, a middle-aged woman, referred the pet cat of that segment’s flamboyant host. She wondering if “this is the only pussy you’ve ever had” (or something to this effect).

Except that the double-entendre was bleeped out. 

Over the course of my lifetime (and I scarcely very old) a vulgar word for the female pudendum has its assumed its primary definition, a term not to be used on TV or in polite conversation. 

When I was young, middle-aged and older folks could be heard saying “pussy” to refer to only to an animal. 

At the same time, though, I remember teenagers and youth of the slightly more delinquent variety use it to refer to women’s sexuality in a way I didn’t quite understand. 

To say “pussy” as such, satisfies the criterion of euphemism. It directs attention away from the object in question, so that no actual word for female pudenda is used. 

But an ordinary cat is so vividly hirsute, and the animal’s association with the human female so lengthy, that to use “pussy” to refer to genitalia, was recognized immediately as a vulgar term, even (or especially) by those who used it. 

As a vulgarity, “pussy” must have long existed before I was born, its understanding as such remaining within the circles of male-chauvinist culture. 

In the 1950s, James Bond novelist Ian Fleming named one of his female characters, Pussy Galore, and this was the name used in the movie adaptation a decade later. 

Sure it is.

But thereafter, the vulgarity became better-known to the generality, and the use of “pussy” in its “literal” sense went into corresponding decline. 

Still, it was possible during the late twentieth century to hear that word uttered without irony or double-entendre. This did in fact occur during a visit by an elderly relative to the family home. This woman was perhaps a centenary old, but I think even my parents were shocked initially when, looking our housecat, she asked, “Who’s pussy is that?”

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