Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Evelyn Brister - What Does "Wuss" Mean?


It's interesting to see a woman pondering the origin and meaning of a pejorative term used to belittle and shame men (particularly young men, in my experience, in that the term is more common in high school and college). Evelyn Brister heard the term "wuss" in a philosophy talk and became curious about the word. She blogged about it at her site, Knowledge and Experience.

Because this blogger is interested in feminist theory, she really doesn't "get" the way that this word - like all other terms that demean boys/men by implying they are feminine or homosexual - acts to both maintain a traditional and limiting form of masculinity and to define the feminine or the non-heterosexual as "less than." Words like these are powerful ways of maintaining traditional - and archaic - gender norms.

It seems to me, and one of the comments confirms this perspective, that many people do not even have any awareness of what the words mean or how they function. This lack of awareness is both the result of and the maintaining of those old gender norms in which most people are still embedded. We need to bring more awareness to this issue to end that lack of awareness.

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'."


Sage said...

"Oh, that's a way of saying 'pussy' without saying 'pussy'." Give me a f*cking break! That's what all the women think it means? OK, I suppose if one goes through ones life embracing nail consciousness, the entire world seems to be a hammer.

Anonymous said...

William, you say "a women" in your first sentence. I think you mean "woman". I see this error frequently and it always surprises me.

william harryman said...

Purely a typo - thanks for the heads up. I am a poor typist in daylight hours, much worse at 5:20 am or whatever that was.


Sage said...

@ anonymous, you know what surprises me is that, (to me), extremely insignificant typo appears to be the take away you got from that article. Geez.ut hey, to each his (or her) own.