Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Of moggies and pussies

In New Zealand and the UK, domestic cats - and especially outdoor cats - are called "moggies." I was curious about the etymology of the word, and a quick look-up turned into an hour reading about the historical associations amongst cats, women and (by extension) effeminate men in colloquial English.

In terms of my current research, I'm fascinated by how "moggie" has been applied to both stray cats and stray women. For example, "moggie" as slattern or slut points at a socially inappropriate woman, a woman out-of-line, a behaviour out-of-place. "Moggie" as unkempt streetwalker further conjures women out-of-bounds, lacking in both physical and social pedigree. To later apply this term to an animal isn't surprising if we believe that the earlier sense stripped a woman of her humanity. The use of "moggie" to refer to creatures not receiving care (they live on the streets) nor being worthy of care (they are sub-human) also fits with the word's earlier use. Similarly, the early historical use of "puss" and "pussy" to describe fickle, spiteful or sly women created cultural associations between women, animals and the unpleasant qualities of each. Although "puss" and "pussy" moved away from such negative connotations and became terms of endearment for gentle, pretty and playful women, they also became derogatory terms for men whose behaviour was deemed to be overly feminine.

All of which is to say that, with one exception, both "moggie" and "pussy" have most often suggested a cultural status that is hard to place, if not entirely out of place. In trying to locate or situate outdoor cats in cultural and spatial contexts, these words and histories generate interesting connections and possibilities. I'm not sure where they'll take me, but I'm pretty sure the curiosity won't kill me.

(Photo by Mel Hodgkinson)


In case word geeks want details, this is what I copied from the OED:


1. a. colloq. (orig. and chiefly Sc. and Eng. regional). Originally: a girl, a young woman. Later: an untidily dressed woman. Now rare.

1648 W. LILLY Astrol. Predict. 60 Expect not so fair an enemy as Cromwel, nor such fair quarter as now is given thee: Jockey, Jemmy, and Moggy thy she-souldier, must than all to the sword. c1680 Scotch Moggy's Misfortune (broadside), With her Chearful Hops, that Shakum Giue will bury his Wife, and then make Moggy a happy Mother. 1699 E. WARD London Spy I. VII. 15 In another Hut, a parcel of Scoth [i.e. Scotch] Pedlars and their Moggies, Dancing a Highlanders Jig. 1886 R. E. G. COLE Gloss. Words S.-W. Lincolnshire, Moggy, a slattern, dressed out untidily: ‘She did look a moggy.’ 1980 AA Bk. Brit. Villages 263/3 At Ickwell Green..the May Queen is accompanied by moggies (raggedly dressed women).

3. colloq. (chiefly Brit.) A (domestic) cat, esp. a non-pedigree or otherwise unremarkable one.

1911 J. W. HORSLEY I Remember xi. 254 Cockney slang..‘moggies’ for cats. 1958 L. LITTLE Dear Boys I. xii. 211 ‘Do you mean you actually killed them [sc. cats]?’ Sid asked disgustedly. ‘That's right,’ said Jake.., ‘that's what we did. Dozens of the bloody things... Until we ran out of moggies.’ 1966 New Statesman 27 May 788/2 He dries his hands on a moggie and uses a kitten to blot a false death certificate; ‘just a fur ball, it's nothing,’ he says. 1967 New Scientist 4 May 257/2 In the desert, there are several little wild cats superficially indistinguishable from domestic moggies. 1973 People's Jrnl. (Inverness & Northern Counties ed.) 4 Aug. 4/3 Oh, and before I leave this topic of pussies, my neighbour across the lane also had a good laugh from the moggie next door to her. 1994 Cats 5 Aug. 7/2 Some lucky owners may have a moggie which looks like a Maine Coon, or any other pedigree breed.


1. a. A conventional proper or pet name for a cat, freq. (sometimes reduplicated) used as a call to attract its attention.

a1530 J. HEYWOOD Iohan & Tyb (Brandl) 590, I haue sene the day that pus my cat Hath had in a yere kytlyns eyghtene. 1565 Kyng Daryus (Brandl) 181, I can fere the knaues with my grannams Cat. Pusse pusse, where art thou? 1568 Newe Comedie Jacob & Esau II. iv, in W. C. Hazlitt Dodsley's Sel. Coll. Old Eng. Plays (1874) II. 223 Esau left not so much [of the pottage] as a lick for puss, our cat. 1591 R. PERCYVALL Bibliotheca Hispanica Dict. s.v. Miça, The terme to call a cat, as we saie ‘pusse’. 1648 R. HERRICK Hesperides sig. L6, Foretelling..weather by our aches... True Calenders, as Pusses eare Washt o're, to tell what change is neare. 1712 E. COOKE Voy. S. Sea 214 The Spaniards, when they call them, say Miz, as we do Puss. 1792 S. T. COLERIDGE Coll. Lett. (1956) I. 25 Puss like her master is a very gentle brute, and I behave to her with all possible politeness. 1801 S. OWENSON Poems 73 View puss by fire her station take. 1897 B. STOKER Dracula vii. 89 The dog..was in a..fury..its hairs bristling out like a cat's tail when puss is on the war-path. 1956 Post-Standard (Syracuse, N.Y.) 4 Oct. 1/2 Mrs. Doctor looked out the window and poor Puss was stretched stark dead on the lawn. 2000 Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat & Chron. (Nexis) 20 May 1B There is an unwelcome silence at home now that my Puss is gone... I am planning to adopt another kitty as soon as I can. 2004 Daily Mail (Nexis) 13 We ‘know’ when the cat is out there waiting to come in. Open the doorn - Here, ‘puss, puss, puss’ - but there she is already.

b. colloq. (orig. nursery). A cat. Cf. PUSS-CAT n., PUSSY n. 2a.

1598 J. FLORIO Worlde of Wordes, Muccia..a yoong cat or kitlin or pusse to play with. 1605 G. CHAPMAN et al. Eastward Hoe IV. i, When the famous fable of Whittington and his pusse shal be forgotten. 1694 P. A. MOTTEUX Wks. F. Rabelais (1737) IV. xvii. 71 The Bite of a She Puss [Fr. chatte]..was the Cause of his Death. 1744-5 MRS. DELANY in Life & Corr. (1862) 342 Have I told you of a pretty tortoiseshell puss I have? 1818 R. HERBER Let. 31 July in A. Heber Life (1830) I. xv. 490 On being asked whether New Zealanders eat cats, he answered ‘New Zealanders eatee hog, him..eatee warrior and old woman, but him no eatee puss!’ 1835 W. COLTON Ship & Shore 192 Our unfortunate puss had been taken on board at Malaga, and since her embarkation we had not been visited by one favorable breeze. c1840 W. E. FORSTER in Reid Life (1888) I. v. 135 A most delightful black kitten..; a most refined, graceful, intellectual, amusing puss. 1935 R. GRIFFITHS Imagination in Early Childhood x. 183 The puss saw the rat, and went like this (crouching) and the rat didn't see 'im. 1993 Star-Ledger (Newark, New Jersey) 5 June 5/4 He said the puss was shot Wednesday night and was found..by workers from Irvington Animal Control the following morning.

3. a. A girl or woman, esp. 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. Cf. PUSSY n. 1a. Now rare.

1602 T. DEKKER Satiro-mastix sig. F3, Ile give thee none but Sugarcandie wordes, I will not pusse; goody Tripe-wife, I will not. 1612 B. JONSON Alchemist V. iii. sig. L3v, The baudy Doctor, and the Cosening Captaine, And Pus my Suster. 1630 T. DEKKER Second Pt. Honest Whore I. iii. 106 This wench (your new wife)..This Shee-cat will haue more liues then your last Pusse had. 1663 S. PEPYS Diary 6 Aug. (1971) IV. 264 His wife, an ugly pusse but brought him money. 1732 H. FIELDING Mod. Husband IV. 55, I think her an ugly, ungenteel, squinting, flirting, impudent, odious, dirty Puss. 1753 School of Man 95 The ingratitude, the villainy, says he, of the little Puss. 1780 C. DIBDIN Shepherdess of Alps III. iv. 62 Piqued at the little angry puss, Cried he, she sets me all on fire! Then plagues himself, and makes this fuss, Only to raise her value higher. 1846 DICKENS Battle of Life i. 13 ‘Somebody's birth-day, Puss,’ replied the Doctor. 1861 T. A. TROLLOPE La Beata I. v. 102 To think that the little puss should defend herself so coolly. 1881 W. BESANT & J. RICE Chaplain of Fleet II. ix. 173 They could not have believed their daughter so sly and deceitful a puss. 1919 R. FIRBANK Valmouth xi. 189 ‘Oh, she's a regular puss; my word she is.’ A regular civet if ever there was, Mrs Thoroughfare wickedly commented. 1940 M. SADLEIR Fanny by Gaslight I. 46 How's that, William? The puss says she will come too! 1951 G. HEYER Quiet Gentleman xii. 183 Shocked! Ay, so she might be, the naughty puss! 1978 M. M. KAYE Far Pavilions II. ix. 148 All the young fellows lining up to take his pretty little puss out riding and dancing.

PUSSY, N. and ADJ.

A. n.

1. a. Chiefly colloq. A girl or woman exhibiting characteristics associated with a cat, esp. sweetness or amiability. Freq. used as a pet name or as a term of endearment. Cf. PUSS n.1 3, PUSSYCAT n. 3.

c1557-65 in T. Wright Songs & Ballads (1860) lxxiv. 209 Adew, my pretty pussy, Yow pynche me very nere. 1583 P. STUBBES Anat. Abuses I. sig. Hv, You shall haue euery sawcy boy..to catch vp a woman & marie her... So he haue his pretie pussie to huggle withall, it forceth not. 1836 THACKERAY Let. 2 July (1945) I. 314 How have you passed the night dear Pussy? 1852 H. B. STOWE Uncle Tom's Cabin xvi, ‘What do you think, pussy?’ said her father to Eva. 1932 A. CHRISTIE Thirteen Problems xi. 193 ‘The dame de compagnie, you described, I think, as a pussy, Mrs. Bantry?’ ‘I didn't mean a cat, you know,’ said Mrs. Bantry. ‘It's quite different. Just a big soft white purry person. Always very sweet.’ 1941 A. CHRISTIE N or M? iii. 38 Old boarding-house pussies. Nothing to do but gossip and knit. 1952 M. TRIPP Faith is Windsock iv. 73 ‘Your rear gunner is a hit with the ladies.’ ‘Jake knows how to make the pussies purr; it's an old Jamaican custom.’ [1959 M. RICHLER Apprenticeship Duddy Kravitz I. ix. 50 Milty ran off crying... ‘What is it, pussy-lamb?’] 1986 D. POTTER Singing Detective II. 45 But tonight there isn't a pussy in sight. Not even a four-legged one. All good people have gone home.

2. a. nursery and colloq. A cat. Freq. used as a proper or pet name. Also used occas. as a call to attract a cat's attention (cf. PUSS n.1 1). In quot. 1873 (humorous): a tiger (cf. PUSS n.1 2).

1699 T. D'URFEY New Songs & Ballads 7 As Fleet as my Feet Could convey me I sped; To Iohnny who many Times Pussey had fed. 1726 MRS. DELANY in Life & Corr. (1862) 124 My new pussey is..white,..with black spots. 1764 K. O'HARA Midas 21 And pussey Can counterfeit sleeping, When mousey Steals tip-a-toe creeping. 1800 MR. UPTON in Myrtle & Vine III. 8 Says I, ‘Pray who's been here?’ When she, who thought me boozy, Cries, ‘Nobody, my dear, 'Twas only Tom our Pussey!’ 1821 J. CLARE Village Minstrel I. 167 Ah mice, rejoice!.. 'Tis yours to triumph, mine's the woe, Now pussy's dead. 1873 Routledge's Yng. Gentl. Mag. 535, I should have liked to have potted a pussy, particularly such a blood~thirsty brute as this one seems to be. 1889 J. K. JEROME Idle Thoughts 119 He strokes the cat quite gently, and calls it ‘poor pussy’. 1915 L. M. MONTGOMERY Anne of Island xxxviii. 297 ‘What are you going to do with Rusty?’ asked Phil, as that privileged pussy padded into the room. 1927-9 H. WHEELER Waverley Children's Dict. VI. 3486/1 Another pet name for a cat is pussy. 1960 P. WILLMOTT & M. D. YOUNG Family & Class in London Suburb ix. 107 Next door but one has pussy when we go on holiday. 1992 Los Angeles Times (Orange County ed.) 11 June O.C. Live! 4/2 They'll choose the pussy with the longest whiskers..and the splashiest color. 2006 Herald Sun (Austral) (Nexis) 26 June 16 Pussies were purring as they were snapped up for as little as $40 at the society's annual cat clearance.
B. adj. 

2 colloq. and slang. Exhibiting characteristics associated with a cat; cat-like. Also (in later use chiefly): weak, cowardly (cf. sense A. 1b).

1842 Amer. Pioneer 1 182, I walked up very carelessly among the soldiers..and concluded they could never fight with us. They appeared to me to be too pussy. 1863 C. KINGSLEY Water-babies v. 213 She was the most nice, soft..pussy, cuddly, delicious creature who ever nursed a baby. 1863 C. KINGSLEY Water-babies v. 241 Little boys..who have kind pussy mammas to cuddle them. 1930 D. L. SAYERS Strong Poison xvi. 197 Mrs. Pegler, a very stout, pussy old lady with a long tongue (!) 1977 M. TORRES in R. P. Rettig et al. Manny iii. 101/1 I'm not about to turn out. You picked on the wrong guy. I'm not pussy! 1985 E. LEONARD Glitz xx. 173 But when Weldon turned and threw his beer in Bad Isham's scarred face it surprised Isham. It seemed a pussy way to get things going. 2003 Ice Oct. 111/2 No-one dared take me on. It's why I had to start backyard wrestling - everyone was too pussy to start something.


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