Sexy Erotic Etymology

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

In a shameful effort to drum up readers through any means save the provision of quality content, we've decided to up the amount of sex and violence on this grammar blog. We're not entirely sure how to unite the two (grammar + sex; grammar + violence)--much less the three (grammar + sex + violence [what would that be? BDS/MLA?])--but we figure the frequent inclusion of certain keywords (sex, violence, BDSM, syntax, watersports) will make us stand out in the search engine results like a grammarian clad in a dominatrix at a sexy syntax BDSM watersports orgy party. SEX!

But we promised some steaming hot erotic etymology, so let's get it on:

Pussy-footing

Peoplely, we find this a pretty disturbing word, like tiddling or coprophagy (neither of which, incidentally, blogspot's spellcheck picks up*--though we're not sure ourselves what the Hell "tiddling" means), and we've never seen, read, or heard it uttered with any consistency of definition. Merriam and Webster maintain that it means, "to tread or move warily or stealthily," or, failing that**, "to refrain from committing oneself." Its first appearance is in 1903.

Unfortunately, that's all Merriam and Webster were willing to spill, however this sniglet of info was confirmed by the helpful Ted Nesbitt at AllExperts.com: "
According to "The Oxford English Dictionary" [OED] -- the "bible" of the etymological world -- the word originated in the United States, first appearing in print in the 'Atlanta Constitution' in March, 1903."

He also usefully points out that OED only cites words in their first
written occurrence, and it's likely the word was used prior in everyday speech.

Written, it's cited as first appearing in this sentence: "Vice President Charles Warren Fairbanks is pussy-footing it around Washington"--which is a pretty dismal sentence--what does "it" refer to?--but seeing as how there's no inter-sentencial clarification of what "pussy-footing" means, it seems safe to assume that the
Atlantic's readership was familiar with the term, which suggests its prior common usage.

So, still curious as to "pussy-footing"'s origins,
and acknowledging the fact that we should be working, we sought out Wikipedia.org, hoping to find closure in their entry on pussy-footin' former Vice President Charles Warren Fairbanks. However, aside from the interesting fact? that the city of Fairbanks, Alaska, is named after him, Wikipedia.org offered little else and almost nothing in connection with the origin of "pussy-footing," save the dubious and unreferenced note:

Fairbanks also has the unique distinction of appearing in concurrence with the first literary written reference citation of the word "pussyfoot"; i.e. in the literary journalistic periodical magazine The Atlantic: ""Vice President Charles Warren Fairbanks is pussy-footing it around Washington"" Although the original sentence originally read "Vice President Charles Warren Fairbanks is walking around Washington all vagina-toed."
So there you have it: indisputable proof.

SEX!



*Hilariously, it also doesn't pick up either spellcheck or blogspot.
**I should also note that whenever a word has two definitions, the latter is always referred to as the "failure" or "loser" definition. Words with three or more definitions have their own naming conventions, which get horrendously complex and sexy and which we'll discuss in a later post.