hussy

OK, what word comes before this one? Yes, I know, immediately you think Olivia, but in fact the actress who starred in Zeffirelli’s 1968 Romeo and Juliet is Olivia Hussey with an e. I suppose the Montagues might have thought Juliet Capulet was a shameless hussy, though…

Oh, yes, shameless. That’s the big winner in the collocation contest. Number two is brazen. We know what a hussy is: that husband-stealer who wears deep red lipstick, the sort of woman who gives every decent housewife a hissy fit and sends her off in a huff, even as the husbands think “Huzzah!” And I won’t mention the resemblance of this word to another one that starts with a p but curiously doesn’t rhyme with this one… I won’t mention it not because I’m still on a paralipsis kick but because it would probably trip off every stupid spam and smut filter out there.

Still, I wonder if this word might be undergoing a bit of a rehabilitation. I say this because on a store window today I saw a display for Merle Norman’s Hussy Collection, a set of cosmetics (lipstick, lip gloss, lip liner, nail polish) in a truly lurid red, just the sort of thing you imagine the hourglass-shaped maneaters in film noir and hardboiled ’40s films wearing (imagine because, after all, the films were in black and white). Very Jessica Rabbit: “Get out of here. Give me some money too.” (You can see the curve and sway of her hips and bust in the ss.) Makeup for women who aren’t bad but want to be drawn that way, maybe to fly off with their mad men on Pan Am…

Well, if hussy gains a more positive tone, it’s only fair; it’s had something of a downturn in the past half-millennium. After all, it started out as a contracted form of huswyf or huswif – a word we now spell as housewife. At first hussy named a frugal domestic engineer. The prejudices of the times (not altogether gone from our own) led from that to a sense of a rural, uneducated woman. And from that to a rude one. A nasty one. A nasssssty one. Mmmm… a minx. Oh yess. A hussy. Maybe with a husky voice, and flounces all fluffy… ready to ride off on a horsey with some rural Romeo.

5 responses to “hussy

  1. Housewife / hussy is an etymological doublet: both come from the same original Old English (something like hus-wyf). But there is a third word derived from the same phrase, making an etymological triplet, namely “hussif.” When I was drafted into the British infantry for my military service in 1955, each of us was issued with a standard hussif — pronounced [huzziff] — a small pouch enclosing needles, buttons, thread and a thimble, for us to do on-the-spot repairs to clothes. The word may even be spelled ‘housewife’, according to the OED.

  2. “My hand is in my hussyfskap,
    Goodman, as ye may see…”
    I love the sound of that one: “hussyfskap,” for the busyness that pertains to housework, in the old ballad “Get up and Bar the Door.”

  3. An additional thought: The compound hus + wif has always remained transparent, updating its form as its components have, but the derivative hussy became opaque. If it had remained transparent, or formed later, it would be housey or housy. And then it would make an amusing contrast with homey.

  4. “OK, what word comes before this one? Yes, I know, immediately you think..”

    No, I got ‘Michael’ for ‘Michael Hussey’, with an ‘e’, who is an Australian cricketer!

    “We know what a hussy is: that husband-stealer who wears deep red lipstick, the sort of woman who gives every decent housewife a hissy fit and sends her off in a huff, even as the husbands think “Huzzah!” And I won’t mention the resemblance of this word to another one”

    Very well described!

    Tom Priestly’s comment is also very informative methinks!

  5. Pingback: This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words

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