The pussy patrol

As the Russian punk band Pussy Riot has made the news recently, I was moved to wonder how the New York Times would handle the name, especially in light of the paper’s ostentatious avoidance of the title of the play Cock (reported on here), since pussy and cock both have non-taboo senses that could have allowed their appearance in the Gray Lady’s pages (despite the intentions of the punk band and the playwright Mike Bartlett to allude to taboo senses).

Turns out the Times had only a little trouble with Pussy Riot, so there are some very fine discriminations in verbal offense going on here.

The background on Cock, from my earlier posting:

But what is the play’s name? There’s the rub. As have other Royal Court dramatists before him, [Mike] Bartlett has given his work a title that cannot be printed in most daily newspapers [a link to the Times review of Shopping and Fucking, referred to in the paper as Shopping and…]. Let’s just say that the word will be instantly recognizable either as a slang reference to a portion of the male anatomy or for any of its multiple other meanings, which include a barnyard animal and also a verb that you might apply when preparing to use a gun. (The barnyard image dominates the clever Web site, cockfightplay.com [the site is actually titled “Cock at the Duke”] for the New York production…)

That’s a lot of dancing around the title, just to make it absolutely clear what that title is. You just can’t print it, except in cockfight.

In contrast, the name Pussy Riot gets through, though it’s backgrounded. From the survey by Amanda Holpuch in the Guardian (“Media take a prim view of Pussy Riot: News organizations pussy out of using controversial Russian punk rock band’s name in coverage of their convictions”:

The Washington Post has taken the most conservative stance among the top-circulating news organizations with its featured story: Russian punk rockers sentenced to two years for protest concert. There is only one mention of the band’s name in the story, buried in the fourth paragraph. It is omitted entirely from the lead paragraph and photo caption.

The New York Times, which has a history of using demure language, kept its headline chaste, with this headline for their featured story: “Russian Punk Band Is Found Guilty of Hooliganism for Anti-Putin Protest”.

The opening paragraph maintains the prim, proper and Pussy Riot-free attitude:

A Moscow judge handed down stiff prison sentences of two years on Friday afternoon for three young women who staged a protest against Vladimir V. Putin in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior last February and whose jailing and trial on hooliganism charges have generated worldwide criticism of constraints on political speech in Russia.

[but] The paper uses the not-fit-for-headlines band name in other paragraphs of its story.

The LA Times also minimized the use of the name; back in July, in fact, it avoided it entirely, referring to Pussy Riot as “a feminist punk group with a profane name”. And then:

… NBC’s Today show took a prim view early on in its Pussy Riot package. Presenter Michelle Kosinski said: “the punk rock girl band, whose name we can’t say on morning television.”

The Times nstory was reworked for the print version yesterday. The band’s title still doesn’t appear in the head (“Anti-Putin Stunt Earns Punk Band Two Years in Jail” by David M. Herszenhorn) or in the (short) first paragraph:

MOSCOW — Three young women who staged an anti-Putin stunt in Moscow’s main Orthodox cathedral, and whose jailing became a cause célèbre championed by artists around the world, were convicted of hooliganism on Friday and sentenced to two years in a penal colony.

But in the following paragraph we get:

In the most high-profile rights case here in years, the imprisonment and trial of the women, members of a punk band called Pussy Riot, drew worldwide condemnation of constraints on political speech in Russia. Rallies in support of them were held in dozens of cities around the world on Friday, including Paris, New York and London, where demonstrators appeared outside the Russian Embassy wearing balaclavas, the band’s trademark headgear.

In any case, the Times, in this case, is more receptive to pussy than it has otherwise been to cock. Maybe the judgment is that cock is higher on the taboo scale than pussy (cunt outranks pussy, but there’s no frequent item that outranks cock), or maybe the judgment is that the taboo sense of cock (versus the ‘rooster’, ‘firing lever’, and ‘stopcock’ senses) is more available than the taboo sense of pussy (versus the ‘cat’ and ‘weakling’ senses).

Granting that the ‘penis’ sense of cock has become very prominent (rooster has largely taken over the barnyard usage, and firing levers and stopcocks don’t come up a lot in most people’s daily lives), we can still look into the prominence of the taboo sense of pussy; there’s some evidence that the ‘vagina’ sense of pussy has recently become very prominent indeed.

I used a Google Ngram search on a pussy (which I judged to be biased towards the ‘cat’ and ‘weakling’ senses) vs. her pussy (which I judged to be biased towards the ‘vagina’ sense) to investigate the frequency of taboo pussy. Both expressions occur at very low frequencies until 2000, when her pussy shoots up precipitously.

Supporting the idea that vaginal pussy has recently become much more frequent is another Google Ngram search, comparing kitty and pussy. For a century or so, both  occur at modest frequencies, with pussy a bit ahead; then in roughly 1990, pussy starts taking off, and it shoots up in 2000.

These are counts from books; a shift towards vaginal pussy would have taken place earlier in informal writing and in speech. But in any case, vaginal pussy is now prominent indeed, to the extent that many people, I suspect, would prefer to avoid feline pussy. (Pussycat continues, but mostly in metaphorical uses rather in literal use.) So Pussy Riot is in fact problematic for people concerned about linguistic modesty.

Now a digression on the tangled semantic web of the word pussy, from OED3 (Dec. 2007). In outline:

A. n. 1. a. Chiefly colloq. A girl or woman exhibiting characteristics associated with a cat, esp. sweetness or amiability. Freq. used as a pet name or as a term of endearment. In later use merging with sense A. 3c. [from 16th century on]

b. slang (chiefly N. Amer.). A sweet or effeminate male; (in later use chiefly) a weakling, a coward, a sissy. Also: a male homosexual. [1904 quote with “a man likened to a house-cat; a dependent or ‘domesticated’ man”; then 1925 and on cites as above]

2. a. nursery and colloq. A cat. Freq. used as a proper or pet name. Also used occas. as a call to attract a cat’s attention [1699 on]

b. A hare (freq. used as a proper or pet name). Also (Austral.): a rabbit. … Now rare. [from 1715]

3. coarse slang.

a. The female genitals; the vulva or vagina. [1699 on]

b. Sexual intercourse with a woman. In some quots. overlapping with sense A. 3c. [1937 on]

c. A woman, or women collectively, regarded as a source of sexual intercourse. Cf. sense A. 1. [from c1947 on]

d. In male homosexual usage: the anus (or occas. mouth) of a man, as an object of sexual penetration. Also (chiefly Prison slang): a man or boy viewed in this way (cf. sense A. 3c). [clear exx from 1967 on]

5. a. nursery and colloq. Something soft and furry; esp. a willow catkin. Cf. pussy willow n. [from 1858]

B. adj.colloq. and slang. Exhibiting characteristics associated with a cat; cat-like. Also (in later use chiefly): weak, cowardly (cf. sense A. 1b).

1842   Amer. Pioneer 1 182,   I walked up very carelessly among the soldiers..and concluded they could never fight with us. They appeared to me to be too pussy.

pussy power n.U.S. power exercised by women; spec. a woman’s use of her sexual allure or femininity in order to exert influence over men (freq. used as a feminist slogan). [1968 on]

It starts with cats, and then radiates in different directions, including to women in general, then (presumably by metonymy) to the vagina and to women as sexual objects. Once the word was used for women, it was open for referring to men with feminine characteristics (effeminacy or merely weakness), and then, more or less inevitably, to gay men, though this isn’t a particularly frequent sense. Things eventually shook down to three main domains of meaning: ‘cat’, ‘weakling, coward, sissy’, and ‘vagina’.

Armed with this overview, I searched through the pussy practices of the New York Times. Some uses are unremarkable: pussy-willow, Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat”. Pussycat survives in figurative uses, as here:

INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS: “A Tiger in a Sea of Pussy Cats; Trinidad and Tobago Bids Goodbye to Oil, Hello to Gas” by Larry Rohter (9/4/98)

And pet names are reported on in the Times, as here:

Review/Art “Esthetics of Comfort”, by John Russell (1/6/89): “He [Ogden Codman] was ”Coddy” to her. She [Edith Wharton] was ”Pussy” to him.”

But plain pussy for ‘cat’ has pretty much disappeared, to the extent that a letter to the Times of April 6, 1911, from one E. Mason, now strikes us as risible: the title is “AROUSED ABOUT PUSSY”, subtitled “Vigorous Protests Against The Times’s Views on Cats”.

Meanwhile, we have the ‘weakling etc.’ sense appearing in the paper. In “The Well-Marked Roads to Homicidal Rage” by Laurie Goodstein and William Glaberson (4/10/00):

Specialist [Burl F.] Mays later testified that when he then tried to alarm superiors, the first sergeant dismissed his concerns [about Sergeant William Kreutzer Jr.], saying something like, ”Kreutzer is a pussy, he wouldn’t do anything like this.”

And in “D.I.Y. Steaks on the Battlefield in Afghanista” [on MREs] by Tim Hetherington (9/28/11):

“You’re not going to heat that up?” I asked.

“Warm food is for pussies,” he replied emphatically.

Then we come to cases (in the newspaper) where a double entendre in pussy in proper names is clear. From “The Next Wave: My Life At the Pink Puzzle Cat” by Natasha Radojcic (11/21/04):

I had seen an ad in The Village Voice for a salesperson at the Pink Pussy Cat Boutique on West Fourth Street, and the innuendo of the name having escaped me, I dialed the number.

And, most spectacularly, with the name Pussy Galore, as in a 2009 Paul Krugman column:

What’s left is a party whose national committee has just passed a resolution solemnly declaring that Democrats are “dedicated to restructuring American society along socialist ideals,” and released a video comparing Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to Pussy Galore. (link)

and in a 2011 travel book review by Joshua Hammer:

Among his less testy encounters is one with an expatriate vestige of Jamaica’s colonial past, Blanche Blackwell, who befriended Ian Fleming and was supposedly a model for the “Sapphic aeroplane pilot and martial arts expert, Pussy Galore” in “Goldfinger.” (link)

In case you’ve somehow missed P. G., here’s Wikipedia:

Pussy Galore is a fictional character from the James Bond film [1964] and novel Goldfinger. In the film, she is played by Honor Blackman. As with many of Ian Fleming’s creations, the name is a double entendre; in this case with respect to pussy, which is another word for cat, or is a slang term for vagina, while galore means an abundant or plentiful supply of something.

Until Pussy Riot came along, that’s pretty much the story of pussy in the print version of the NYT.

(An entertaining aside. A Google search on {“pussy” “nytimes.com”} seems to pull up every NYT page with vagina on it. Google is forever improving their search scheme, in ways you might not have anticipated.)

On-line, of course, there’s more, especially on information pages. A sampling:

cast list for Goldfinger [including Pussy Galore] (link)

review site for Pussy Galore’s Flying Circus, a Copenhagen restaurant [joke combo of Pussy Galore and Monty Python’s Flying Circus] (link)

review site for Nashville Pussy: Keep on F*cking in Paris!, a concert video from a hard rock band that works hard to offend (another of their albums: Let Them Eat Pussy) (link)

review site for the porn movie Pussy Talk (1975) (Alternate title: Le Sex Qui Parlez) [directly vaginal] (link)

filmography for the drag queen Pussy Tourette [another double entendre] (link)

review site for the movie Josie and the Pussycats [name of women’s rock band; another double entendre] (link)

A lot of this stuff wouldn’t be allowed to seep through to the print Times.

I assume that the Pussy Riot story was judged by the Times editors to be just too important to avoid the name — which is, as Ben Zimmer noted yesterday, “central to the band’s provocative “riot grrrl” identity”, part of its calculated affront.

Affront it did. From the Times print story yesterday:

The stiff punishment was handed down by a Moscow judge, Marina Syrova, who described the women as posing a danger to society and said they had committed “grave crimes” including “the insult and humiliation of the Christian faith and inciting religious hatred.”

Pussy Riot’s offense was an “insult crime”, disrespecting some public figure, religion, or political entity. They managed to pull off a trifecta (in the eyes of the authorities), disrespecting Vladimir Putin, Christianity (in the form of the Russian Orthodox Church), and the Russian state. And as a result  inciting others to follow them in their disrespect. So of course they had to be harshly punished.

Theirs was seen to be an offense against the public order. Mike Bartlett’s entitling his play Cock, on the other had, is merely offensive to (some) ordinary people; it is, in a sense, just a personal offense, so the media can feel free to avoid reproducing the (perceived) offense, by avoiding the offending word. That’s another reason — the third I’ve suggested now — why an American news source might choose to print Pussy Riot but not Cock: a claimed offense against the public order is more newsworthy than a merely personal offense. That’s probably what tipped the scales for the Times; the Pussy Riot story was in fact yesterday’s lead story, judged to be as newsworthy as they get. The (possibly) lesser offense of pussy than of cock and the (possibly) more salient ambiguity of pussy than of cock would just be side issues.

 

 

11 Responses to “The pussy patrol”

  1. JR Says:

    This very interesting paragraph from the Guardian I guess would have a hard time reaching readers of major newspapers in the US. It’s about the judge, Syrova, reading the verdict and the defendants’ reaction:

    Syrova repeated witness testimonies that the three women had offended Orthodox believers by wearing bright clothes inside a church, by “making sharp aggressive movements”, and by wearing their trademark balaclavas. She also read the words to the anti-Putin punk prayer they performed in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Inside their cage, the women laughed as she quoted the lyrics: “Shit, shit, holy shit!”

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/aug/17/pussy-riot-verdict-defiance?INTCMP=SRCH

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    On Facebook, Corry Wyngaarden points to Marxist Slavoj Žižek posting on the affair. Extracts:

    Pussy Riot members accused of blasphemy and hatred of religion? The answer is easy: the true blasphemy is the state accusation itself, formulating as a crime of religious hatred something which was clearly a political act of protest against the ruling clique.

    … Was the act of Pussy Riot cynical? There are two kinds of cynicism: the bitter cynicism of the oppressed which unmasks the hypocrisy of those in power, and the cynicism of the oppressors themselves who openly violate their own proclaimed principles. The cynicism of Pussy Riot is of the first kind, while the cynicism of those in power — why not call their authoritarian brutality a Prick Riot — is of the much more ominous second kind.

    Prick Riot is nice.

  3. Andre Mayer Says:

    So Codman called Edith Wharton “Pussy” … it’s interesting because Wharton, a dog-lover, hated cats, calling them “snakes with fur” I think.

  4. Ellen Says:

    To me, “pussy” means “vulva,” not “vagina.”

  5. H. S. Gudnason Says:

    Two weeks ago the NPR quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me…” asked a question about the Pussy Riot trial, which ended with them playing a montage of reporters saying the name more than a dozen times. At least certain segments of NPR clearly operate by standards other than those of print journalists.

    In fact, NPR’s reporting of the verdict last Friday invariably included the band’s name inthe first sentence of the report.

  6. “Pussy”, mot politique | La pensée du discours Says:

    […] Quelques heures après la publication de ce billet, Arnold Zwicky publie “The pussy patrol“, un intéressant billet sur les usages du mot pussy en américain, sous l’angle du […]

  7. Alex Says:

    I find I avoid the word “pussy” as much (if not more) for its derogatory connotation of “effeminate” as for the “genitalia” meaning. The homophobia and misogyny inherent in the insult is much more offensive than a crude anatomical reference.

    But “Pussy Riot” doesn’t seem to carry that same baggage at all– more like the opposite.

  8. caryatis Says:

    I’ve noticed that, although Pussy Riot describes themselves as a “feminist punk band”, the newspapers by and large cut this to “punk band”. Sometimes they will say “all-female” or as in the NBC reference “punk girl band”, but the word “feminist” is clearly being avoided.

  9. Insult crimes « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] story, but one of them has to do with the making of the film as a perceived insult crime. From my Pussy Riot posting: Pussy Riot’s offense was an “insult crime”, disrespecting some public figure, religion, or […]

  10. “A feline profanity”: Part 2 – Strong Language Says:

    […] of those strategies of taboo avoidance, wrote linguist Arnold Zwicky in a blog post titled “The Pussy Patrol,” included calling the band “a feminist punk group with a profane […]

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