Friday, May 20, 2011

What does 'Wuss' Mean?

I sometimes download and archive podcasts but find that I don't listen to them as often as I intend. But then something will strike my fancy. And that's how I came to listen recently to a Philosophy Talk podcast dated 12/5/10.

The topic is "Disagreement" and the interview is with Jennifer Lackey of Northwestern, a social epistemologist who examines testimony as a source of knowledge. The topic is a fascinating one, and the sort of thing that I would encourage my students to think about.

But I got caught on this piece of dialogue:
"What should I do in the face of disagreement? Should I change my opinion just because you disagree? If I change my opinion just because you disagree, that seems kind of wussy. On the other hand, if I don't at least reconsider, that seems kind of arrogant. So what should I do: be wussy or arrogant? chuckle"

Lackey: nervous laughter
Why the chuckle and the nervous laughter?

Could it be because 'wuss' is a not-quite-polite word to use here? What does 'wuss' mean, anyway, and what is its origin?

I've always thought of 'wuss' as one of those words that is like the phrases 'that sucks' and 'it really blows.' They've become part of the vernacular, but we are marginally aware of their sexual origin. You wouldn't say it to your mother-in-law. At best, isn't it like substituting 'witch' for 'bitch'? The meaning is the same, and the substitute doesn't eliminate the sexist nature of the insult, or does it?

I looked up the origins of 'wuss' and found much speculation but no authoritative origin. Suggestive, though. It means 'wimp' and comes from the expression 'pussy-wussy,' meaning 'sissy.' It became popularized in the US in the 1980's. Strangely, some seem to say that 'sissy' does not have a sexual reference, and that 'pussy' in this context refers not to women's anatomy but to men who act timid, subservient, weak, and ineffectual and in this way are like women.

Either way, the term is a way of insulting a man by calling him either gay or feminine, and it plays either directly or indirectly off the slang word 'pussy.' I wonder what Jennifer Lackey, philosopher of language, thought at the time of the interview. The word gets additional power, of course, by being directed at a woman by a man, and in the context of a male-dominated profession.

I checked my instincts by asking a few of my colleagues. Some guys said that it's just a slang word, not too polite, meant to be insulting, but basically harmless. Some guys said it was insulting to gays. But women said it was sexist: "Oh, that's a way of saying 'pussy' without saying 'pussy'."


Taylor Murphy said...

You're asking for a definition?

I never hear the word anymore, but when I have heard it used, it's when someone does not want to do something masculine, like chug a beer or slide down a steep hill in front.

It's a combination of "wimp" and "puss" according to some dictionaries, hence some blend of cowardice and femininity.

Carissa said...

Interesting--I wonder if there is a generational difference at work here. I'm female and in my mid-20s, and I would not hesitate to say either "wussy" or "that blows" to my mother-in-law (on the other hand, I remember being sharply reprimanded for saying "That sucks" when I was around 11 or 12, and I had no idea of the sexual connotation). I had never considered that "wussy" had a sexual origin or that it is insulting to women (although "pussy" and "sissy" both seem obviously to be insulting both to women and to gay men). I wonder if it is a case where the original origin is no longer known among younger people, and hence the stigma/insult associated with it isn't felt any longer (for example, as I think has happened with "blows" and "sucks" in my generation).