It probably wasn’t Eve
Ensler’s goal to authorize random chat about vaginas, but the barn
door is now open, and it isn’t likely to be closed again.
The names of two common
household items can be traced back to vaginal metaphors. Of these,
"porcelain” is unexpected, whereas "pussycat" (cf. Tom Jones) is known
During the American nineteenth
century a number of euphemisms were devised in order to avoid making
what might be thought to be sexual references. Thus, the ass became
the donkey, the cock became the rooster, the breast of a chicken
became white meat, and the chicken’s leg became a drumstick (or dark
Oddly, the word “pussy” was
not on this list. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by the respectable
abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, we read this (1852):
|“’What do you think, pussy?' said her
father to Eva”
Clearly, to Stowe “pussy” just
meant a cat, and could be used affectionately without any negative
connotation. In fact, the nasty meaning is first unmistakably
attested in print 27 years later (though of course words of this type
often are in oral use long before they are seen in written form.)
However, a look at the OED
history of the words “puss” and “pussy” shows that the uses of these
words to mean “woman”, “cat” (and also “hare”) all show up at
about the same time. “Puss” and similar words are attested in many
Indo-European languages as a proper name or as a generic
“call-word” for cats, but rarely as a synonym for “cat” (as in
English). In English the proper name "puss" is first seen in 1530 AD,
whereas its use as the common noun “cat” first appears in 1605, and
its odd (to us) use to mean “hare” in 1668. But its use as an
invidious term for “woman” is almost as early, though this usage is
definitely a cat-metaphor (1608):
|“This She-cat will have more lives
then your last Pusse had” (1608, referring to wives or
And this slightly later (1664)
appearance of “Puss”
is also thought to have the obscene meaning :
|“Æneas, here's a Health to thee, To
Pusse and to good company. And he that will not do, as I do,
Proclaims himself no friend to Dido.”
As for “pussy”, while that
word also is used to mean “cat” or “hare”, the earliest use of all is
this pretty blatant one (1583):
|“You shall have every saucy boy….to
catch up a woman & marry her... So he have his pretty pussy to
Furthermore, in the Merriam-Webster tenth
edition (though not in the OED), a further connection is suggested
between “pussy” and the Old English pusa “bag”, the Old Norse
pūss “pocket, pouch” and the Low German pūse “vulva”.
All of these examples, two of which are go back much further than the
OED examples just given, would seem to make the obscene meaning
earlier than its derivative use to mean cats (with the original root
meaning being purses and pouches).
Whether two different words
converged, or whether the purse / pocket word “puss” came to be
extended to various warm fuzzy things that you huggle with, it seems
that "pussy" always had sexual meanings. Oddly enough, then, the
Victorians, who saw derivative sexual metaphors in simple words like
"leg" and "ass", missed one which had always been there.1
The boring part of the story
of porcelain is that its name came from "porcellana", which means
"cowry shell". Like cowry shells, porcelain is hard, sleek, and white.
Because they are light, durable, relatively rare, and usable as
shells have functioned as money for thousands of years -- even into
the nineteenth century in Africa and parts of SE Asia and India. And
one of the Chinese graphs which serves as the root for words relating
to money and property, bèi
originally was a picture of a cowry shell, though shell currency
has not been used in China proper for centuries or for millenia.
Now, the Italian word for
"cowry", porcellana (sometimes porceletta), means
"little sow". There are two theories as to why the cowry shell is
called by this name. Yule's theory, conditionally accepted by Pelliot,
is that it's because the curved back of the cowry shell resembles the
curved back of a pig. The more common theory, attributed to Mahn, is
that the term is a smutty one and derives from the fact that when you
flip the cowry over, the opening underneath looks like a vulva (cf.
the Danish term kudefisk, "vulva fish", mussel). And sows have
frequently been used as images of female sexuality, and in New Guinea,
where pigs are the primary form of wealth, cowries are also called
To me it's an open-and-shut
case. The Yule-Pelliot theory assumes an alternative universe where
Italian sailors, given a chance to make a smutty remark, failed to do
so -- or even worse than that, an alternative universe where Italian
sailors inadvertently made remarks which only later were discovered by
others to have had a lewd connotation. Sorry, but I don't think of
that as a possible world.
Pussy in Saul Bellow’s ”Herzog”
Puss caterpillar: a
rather horrible-looking fuzzy caterpillar
1 Whether cats have
vaginal implications in Chinese culture I have no way of knowing.
They seem to be generally regarded as sinister rather than as warm and
Once in Taiwan
I heard a woman express a dislike for cats. What she said was, "I
don't like fuzzy things, like cats and caterpillars", so we do know
that the cat / caterpillar association is widely shared. The
word "caterpillar" máo-máo-chóng
毛 毛 虫
literally means "hair-hair-bug", but it is pronounced the same as
"cat-cat-bug" 猫 猫 虫
would be. (And while máo is the preferred pronunciation of the
Chinese word for "cat", the even more onomatopoetic
pronunciation miáo is also used.)
2 In non-commercial societies
one of the main functions of money is to store and display the
family's hoard of wealth, often in the form of women's ornaments.
Hobson-Jobson, Col. Henry Yule, Munshiram Manoharlal, Delhi: new
1903 edition (repr. 1968).
Collegiate Dictionary, tenth edition.
Oxford English Dictionary,
first and second editions.
Pelliot, Paul, Notes on
Marco Polo, Paris, 1963 (#317, porcelain).
for sending a page from the OED 2nd ed.