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The Etymology of ‘Pussy,’ As Told by an 8th Grader

pusillanimous (adj.)

early 15c., from Late Latin pusillanimis “having little courage” (used in Church Latin to translate Greek oligopsychos “small-souled”), from Latin pusillis “very weak, little” (diminutive of pullus “young animal,” from PIE root *pau- (1) “few, little”) + animus “spirit, courage” (see animus). Related: Pusillanimously; pusillanimousness.


I was a typical thirteen years old, with a helping of anger issues and a side of the foot in my mouth. In my conservative school, I craved to be Kim Kelly but was more of a Lindsay Weir, mouthing off where I could and slipping in small rebellions between straight A’s. More than once I ended up in the principal’s office for calling my French teacher a psychotic spinster or my P.E. teacher a loser with a power complex. But what could they really do? My grades were good, my explanations calm, and my eyeballs epic.

I was often jealous of my classmates. They received positive attention from our peers and teachers. I couldn’t figure out why saying what was always on my mind was so disruptive and getting me shipped off to the hall; or, worse yet for a girl trying so hard to cover up her own insecurities and hurt, making me seem less of a demure, nice girl who the cute boys would want to ask out, vs. make fart jokes with at lunch.

Eighth grade was rough. The gains I thought I had made in seventh grade slipped before my eyes. Girls were meaner, I was meaner, and I could see the high school on the horizon, as well as the pseudo-self I desperately wanted to be. 

One positive: I loved my eighth grade English class. The kids were smart, the teacher smarter and far more resilient to the bullshit of pubescent twerps than her peers. It was always nice to be in a room with a real adult who curated an environment ripe for learning and discourse, and in my case, creating a habitat where I felt like my words and a burgeoning sense of humor were valued. 

One of my favorite units that year was the etymology of words. I love words. They’re fucking neat. I love so deeply how words can turn you into Indiana Jones, reading long-forgotten ancient runes by the light of a torch, discovering words’ classical meanings, tracing their roots back thousands of years, and finding out how words have shaped the complexity of our society and culture. It’s very fun and cool. (Does this paragraph convince you that I’m cool?)

On one day in particular, our teacher, Mrs. Good, was writing words on the whiteboard to test our knowledge of the new Greek and Latin roots we learned the day before. My best friend, Megan, the Hermione of Sheridan Junior High, easily answered Mrs. Good’s question about the word in question:

 Pusillus meaning “weak” and animus meaning “spirit,” A.K.A. having little courage, cowardly. 

Mrs. Good then asked for other words that contained “Pusillus” as a root. For once, this intelligent, talkative class didn’t have an answer. What word in everyday vocabulary could contain “pusillus?” They were stumped. I, on the other hand, thought the answer was staring everyone in the face. So in good spirits, I shouted,

 “PUSSY!”

The class went silent. I felt smiteful, biblical judgment coming from the evangelical kids who were likely still breastfed. I felt a cringe from the nice, quiet kids who were not quite ready to trade in Lizzie McGuire for Degrassi. My friend, Tess, began to giggle a little too loud making the situation even more inappropriate. Megan felt deep shame for having this wild beast as her best friend. 

Fuuuuuuccccck. “That’s not how I meant it!” I quickly tried to explain myself, truly mortified that I had just shouted the word “Pussy” at Mrs. Good with such vigor. The bridge of meaning was so clear in my head: 

PUSILLANIMOUS = weak, coward  —> PUSSY = slang for pusillanimous and for cats! meow! —> LION = a big cat, or a pussy —> COWARDLY LION = a pusillanimous pussy and brilliant wordplay choice by L. Frank Baum. 

But that’s not what I said. Instead I muttered, “I just mean, you know, cowardly lion, you’re a pussy, you know…” I petered off. I wasn’t able to explain the literary genius I felt I had just discovered through the ancient scholarship of language. Instead the class awkwardly went on, and I slumped into my sterile, fake wooden desk, feeling more ridiculous than usual. 

When the bell rang, Mrs. Good had me hold on a minute. Before she even said anything, I preemptively blabbered “That’s not what I meant!” She nodded, said okay, and let me go to lunch. Maybe Mrs. Good was over it all and saw the light of retirement at the end of the tunnel. Maybe she saw that I was growing up a little quicker than many of my classmates and it was resulting in a few weird, word vomit moments as I navigated the corridors of a community that handed out marriage licenses to young girls and assault rifles to youth pastors. Or maybe she thought the whole thing was hilarious and my embarrassment was good enough for her. Either way, I got the fuck out there, only scathed by my own idiocy. 

A week later, I was called to the counselor’s office. My loathsome French teacher, Ms. Tygeers, with whom I was in an on-going feud, reported me because I was asking how to translate too many morbid words like “death,” “blood,” “funeral,” “murder,” “Satan”….you know, the fun stuff. So she feigned concern but was really just looking to report me for anything since I had won a philosophical argument about my usage of the scotch tape while she was speaking, earlier in the week. Emma: 1. Ms. Tygeers: 0. She needed to even this week’s score.

The counselor was impatient. I could tell he didn’t really give two shits about this conversation. But since this had not been my first time to speak with a school admin, he had to pretend to take it seriously. I patiently explained that I wasn’t going to kill myself or try to summon Satan to attack Ms. Tygeers. I was just a creep who liked creepy stuff. The counselor sighed, ready for this conversation to be over so he could go back to playing Solitaire on his Gateway.

 “Okay. And Mrs. Good said you were working on Latin roots right now and that could be the reason for you asking all of this…,” he paused, struggling to find the right word. He landed on “stuff.”

“Sure, yah, that makes sense, too,” I reassured him.

“So we agree. That’s why you have been asking these questions,” he confirmed.

“Aye, aye captain.”

“Okay. Leave.”

I sauntered back to the class slowly, rolling my eyes at Ms. Tygeers’ insecurity and feeling a forever love for the empathy of Mrs. Good and her dedication to growing and cultivating teenaged roots.

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by enlaurent

Emma is a former (and sometimes) Democratic political operative. Since leaving politics, Emma is focused on writing timely pieces on culture, punk music, and other creative non-fiction and fiction. Her work can be found in New Noise Magazine, Overblown Zine, and Harness Magazine. When not writing, Emma can be found mouthing off, watching baseball, and reading Stephen King. Find her at emmalaurent.com or on Twitter: @enlaurent


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