Trend Watch


Palin's endorsement makes an old political insult spike

Pussyfoot spiked the morning of January 20th, following Sarah Palin’s use of the word the prior evening in her endorsement of Donald Trump for president. Palin made a speech at Iowa State University and, in giving praise to the candidate uttered the phrase “No more pussyfooting around!” Her choice of words, while more colloquial in tone than is typically encountered in classic rhetoric, were well suited to pussyfoot’s linguistic history, as the term began its life as a political term.

The earliest variant of pussyfoot comes in the late 19th century, in an adjectival form: pussyfooted.

It was the intriguers and compromisers, and soft-spoken, pussy-footed Union-savers who did most to bring on the war.” (New York Tribune, November 14, 1879)

The opponents of the Allison boom charge the Iowa statesman with being pussy-footed. (The Washington Post, October 25, 1895)

The Cush K. Davis Presidential boom is not afraid to make a noise. There is nothing pussy-footed about Davis. (The Washington Post, October 1, 1895)

By the early 20th century the word has expanded somewhat, and was being used as a noun and as a verb. Again, almost all of the recorded uses of pussyfoot at this point were political in nature.

The trouble with him, however, is that he doesn’t recognize the necessity of the whisper and the pussy-foot in politics. (The Decatur Herald, March 4, 1903)

The political movements of pussy-foot are like those of his compatriot in the speaker’s chair, you cannot tell by the looks of his track whether he is going or coming back. (The Saint Paul Globe, October 18, 1901)

Vice President Charles Warren Fairbanks is pussy-footing it around Washington accompanied everywhere by a presidential lightning rod reaching even above his scanty covered head. (The Atlanta Constitution, March 20, 1905)

Pussyfoot may have started its life as political jargon, but it has since moved well into the mainstream of American speech (as when John Updike, in Rabbit is Rich, wrote “So what’s he pussy-footing around whispering to his mother and grandmother now for?”) It still has connotations of dithering or indecisiveness, however, which make it well suited to be used in a campaign of any sort.

Pussyfoot had another sense for several decades, which was ‘advocating complete abstinence from alcohol’. It was based on the nickname of William E. Johnson, an American advocate of Prohibition (he was apparently given the nickname due to his stealth as a law enforcement officer). This meaning of pussyfoot is not often used today.

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