Stupid Question ™
Feb. 7, 2002
By John Ruch
Q: Why are cats sometimes called “pussycats”?
A: “Pussy” means “cat.” So it’s indeed a good question why we cat lovers can often be found babbling the equivalent of “cat-cat” to passing felines.
It at least makes more sense than “kitty-cat,” which literally means “kitten-cat.” Imagine cooing “baby-person” over an infant’s crib.
In “kitty-cat,” the first word, “kitty,” is obviously a diminutive form of “kitten,” a way of making it more cute and endearing. The same thing happens in “pussycat,” wherein “pussy” is a diminutive form of “puss.”
I can’t come up with any fruitful thoughts on why it’s so satisfying to combine a diminutive with the regular form of the word. I can only observe that it happens a lot, and in many languages.
The real question for us, then, is why cats were ever called “puss” in the first place.
Cats have been called “cats” (or something essentially similar) since the dawn of our language. “Puss,” variations of which exist in almost all Germanic languages, is a more recent invention with a different purpose.
Appearing in English in the early 1500s, it was used as a “call-name” for the cat. As the “Oxford English Dictionary” so clearly puts it, a call-name is a “conventional proper name.” If I forced you to sit in a room and talk to a parrot, you’d probably start by calling it Polly. That’s the call-name of parrots in modern English.
Likewise, all cats became Puss. (Remember Puss-in-Boots and all that?) This was especially useful in a time when most cats weren’t embraced as household pets and given personal names.
The origin of “puss” is unknown, but may be based on the sound one makes when calling a cat—that percussive whisper that in modern use indeed sounds a lot like “puss.”
Lest we be too pat about it, however, it must be noted that “puss” was sometimes used as a call-name for other animals, especially hares. Cats have a near monopoly on the term today, but in Australia you can still hear rabbits referred to as “pussies.”
“Pussy,” of course, is a diminutive form of “puss,” used as baby talk or a term of endearment. It shows up later in the 1500s, when it also became applied to girls, women and then homosexuals, variously as an endearment or as an insult.
Putting “pussy” and “cat” together makes for even better baby-talk, and was therefore just a matter of time. Other languages do it, too—you can mewl “puss-katte” over German kitties if you like. “Pussycat” has probably been in English for centuries, but it became an established nursery-rhyme term around 1800.