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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Friday, November 22, 2013

Cat word of the month: Puss

My puss's puss

Cats rarely see eye-to-eye on anything, but apparently English, Dutch, German, Danish, Swedish, Irish, and even Lithuanian cats agree that when they hear someone calling "Puss!" they should head on over to see whether tasty treats might be on offer. How all these languages settled on this string of sounds to call a cat is unclear, but it has been thus since the Renaissance. I don't know how people addressed their cats before then. Maybe they were sensible enough to realize that calling a cat to come is often a waste of one's breath.

In light of recent events, I cannot alas gloss over the more racy sense of "puss" and "pussy", which dates from the late 1600s. 

The use of "puss" for another part of the anatomy, the face or mouth ("punched him in the puss") is unrelated. It comes from
Irish pus (lip, mouth) and has been used in English since the mid-1800s.

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About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.