Etymological Vaginas


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 to all. 

1. Cats

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 meat).

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 probably just a cat-metaphor (1608):

This She-cat will have more lives then your last Pusse had” (1608, referring to wives or girlfriends).

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 to mean “woman” 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 huggle withall.”

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…. and vulvas).  

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 far-fetched sexual metaphors in simple words like “leg” and “ass”, missed one which had always been there.

2. Porcelain

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 jewelry2, cowry 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 “pig money”.

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 cuddly.

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.)

Dauzat’s Dictionnaire Étymologique, 1938.
Hobson-Jobson, Col. Henry Yule, Munshiram Manoharlal, Delhi: new 1903 edition (repr. 1968).

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, tenth edition.

Oxford English Dictionary, first and second editions.

Pelliot, Paul, Notes on Marco Polo, Paris, 1963 (#317, porcelain).