Saturday, March 12, 2016


Pamela Shows Mr. Williams A Hiding Place For Their Letters, Joseph Highmore, 1743-4

You may have the wrong idea about why I got interested in this word. That's because my attention was snagged by a secondary meaning. I was reading Samuel Richardson's Pamela recently, which,in the unlikely event you were planning to do so too, I won't spoil for you. But suffice it to say that at a certain point our eponymous heroine is detained against her will. Seeking freedom, she needs to divert one of her minders and comes up with this:

So I went towards the pond, the maid following me, and dropt purposely my hussy.

This single sentence doesn't exactly reveal what a hussy is, but it's clear it isn't our common usage, which is usually a derogatory term for women. We'll get to that. I tried to come up with what a hussy in this instance might be, and thought well, maybe it's some kind of scarf. I mean what else would you be able to drop without the person you were walking around with noticing? 

But I was wrong. A hussy turns out to be a needle case. Similar, I think, to the borrowed French word, etui. Although this interesting looking blog, Costume Historian, tells us that a hussy was usually more of a rolled up cloth with little compartments for tool, while an etui was a more generalized case which could carry an assortment of small objects. Here's a modern day reconstruction of a hussy from Nehelenia Patterns:

The interesting thing is that hussy as a needle case doesn't either precede the other use for hussy or follow it. In Pamela the word appears in both its senses. And this gets us into the other definition of the word, the one we're all more familiar with, meaning either a brazen or promiscuous woman or a saucy or impudent girl. 

But hussy originally didn't have such a pejorative meaning. In the 1520s, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it simply meant the mistress of a household or a housewife. (Our needle carrying hussy also derives from this sense, I suppose the task of the housewife and her tools becoming conflated.) Housewife was pronounced  "huzzif" which made it more of a match with "husband", but in the sixteenth century, it began to be thought that there should be a bit of separation between the good housekeeper and the bad one, and so "housewife" became the more accepted way to describe the venerable matron, while hussy, well, you know where that led. 

I've come across this slow slide that words relating to females make from perfectly respectable to not respectable at all a time or two before and wonder if, in our still benighted times, anything related to the feminine simply slides toward the derogatory. "You throw like a girl," being a  more modern day example. 

It's worth quoting once again from a post on the OUP blog by linguist Anatoly Liberman called "A Flourish of Strumpets", which I quoted sometime ago in a post on the word "slattern":

The author of an old dissertation (a Swiss researcher named Margrit Keller) examined British dialectal dictionaries and found about 600 words and phrases meaning “girl” and “woman.” Most of them are derogatory and harp on a few familiar notes: slovenly, lazy, garrulous, flighty, ugly, and too accessible for men’s pleasures. One or two are interesting to a linguist.  

*The picture from the novel Pamela is from a marvelous series by Joseph Highmore an 18th century portrait painter. I found the whole series on a fascinating blog called A Most Beguiling Accomplishment, which among other things, analyses costume in paintings. I have to own that I find the painted series much more charming than I found the book, and begin to understand what its contemporary readers may have seen in it.

Joseph Highmore, self-portrait


  1. That was amazing, but I wonder why I instantly suspected Pamela dropped her sewing kit.

  2. Perhaps you are just too clever by half, Nancy. I really couldn't anything but an infinity scarf, perhaps because I got one for Christmas, which I will probably inadvertently choke myself with one day.

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  4. My favorite examples have always been "homely" and "plain," which were not originally pejorative.

    But this does not apply only to descriptions of women. "Retarded" has increasingly been replaced by "developmentally challenged" or "developmentally delayed" or some such, even though "retarded" means held up or slowed down--"delayed," in other words. And, famously, idiot, moron, and imbecile were once clinically accepted descriptions of degrees of mental disability (or challenge or delay). I would not shock me if "delayed" or "challenged" come in their turn to be regarded as insults.

  5. I am sure they will, Peter, if they haven't already.

  6. Happily, the construction "differently ____ed" seems not to have caught on.

  7. I do think that all these attempts do mean that people are trying to see people they may have looked down on or felt superior to in the past in a more equal light. Whether they are clumsy in their constructions or even their attempts are different problems.