Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Mrs Slocombe, Cats and Pussies

Caution: risque subject matter follows...

I was driving to work t’other day when an ad came on the radio for Are You Being Served, the classic Brit sitcom that aired between 1972 and 1985.  For those unfamiliar with it, the show was set in a department store and featured a diverse range of characters, some that would not be considered PC today.  The characters included Mrs Slocombe, the head of the ladies department; Mr Humphries, a mincing effeminate, camp chap and Captain Peacock, the manager who never actually saw service.  A chief characteristic of the show was its sexual innuendo and double entendres, which would also be non-PC today.  Mrs Slocombe was renowned for changing her hair colour and her devotion to her cat, which she always referred to as her “pussy”.  That is what caught my attention to the car radio ad:  Mrs Slocombe calling out “Has anyone seen my pussy?”  See another example at:

Which started me thinking:  Why is the female genitalia referred to by that word?  What is there in common with a feline?

It appears that pussy as a slang term for the female pudenda is thought to have derived from Low German puse (pronounced puss ee) meaning "vulva", or from the Old Norse puss, meaning "pocket, pouch".  It may also have originated from the Old English pusa, meaning “bag”.
 The word was used for women in general from the 16th century and didn't arise in English with a sexual meaning until the 19th century.  Today it has the Triple C meaning:  cat, crotch and coward.
Funnily enough, Mrs Slocombe’s double meaning use of the word pussy is not new, such double entendre having been in use for over one hundred years.  As an example, the Barrison Sisters, a vaudeville act who performed between 1891 and 1900 (and who were five actual sisters, billed as "The Wickedest Girls in the World") achieved notoriety through ingenious use of double entendres.  In their most famous act, the sisters would dance, raising their skirts slightly above their knees, and ask the audience, "Would you like to see my pussy?" When they had coaxed the audience into an enthusiastic response, they would raise up their skirts, revealing that each sister was wearing underwear of their own manufacture that had a live kitten secured over the crotch. 

The Barrison Sisters, c 1890’s, reveal kittens beneath their skirts
The use of the term in film, most notably Pussy Galore and Octopussy in the James Bond films and the name of the car, “Pussy Wagon” in Kill Bill, have a much earlier predecessor that somehow slipped by the Hays Office.  In the 1940 W C Fields movie The Bank Dick, the saloon which he frequents is known as the Black Pussy Cat, with the words “Black Pussy” arched over the word “Cat”. 
One final note:  a company in England has released a drink called Pussy, sold in Tesco, Selfridges and other stores.  According to the company’s website “The name Pussy shocks and demands attention - that's the point. Inhibition is a recipe for mediocrity. This is a premium energy drink named with confidence.”  See:

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