Pussyfoot, which means a delicate, soft step comes from the imagery of a cat’s careful tread. To pussyfoot is to proceed with caution, subtlety, and delicacy and is used pejoratively. The term is American in origin and, in adjectival form, dates to at least 1893. From Scribner’s Magazine of November of that year:
Men who were beginning to walk pussy-footed and shy at shadows.1
The verb appears by 1903. From the Atlanta Constitution of 20 March:
Vice President Charles Warren Fairbanks is pussy-footing it around Washington.2
And the noun even later. Jackson & Hellyer’s 1914 A Vocabulary of Criminal Slang glosses pussy foot as “a detective.”3 The sense meaning a sly person, one who metaphorically treads cautiously appears a few years later. From Dialect Notes of 1916:
Pussy-foot, v.i. To be sly, intriguing, or underhand. “That girl goes pussy-footing around.” Also n. “She’s a regular pussy-foot.”4
On the other side of the pond, however, pussyfoot has a different meaning—someone who advocates prohibition. A pussyfooter is a teetotaler. This usage comes from the nickname of William E. “Pussyfoot” Johnson, an American prohibitionist who traveled to London in 1916 to spread the good word. The Evening News of Ada, Oklahoma of 29 April 1908 contains the tale of how Johnson acquired his nickname:
Johnson was known throughout the Indian Territory as “Pussyfoot” a soubriquet [sic] that has already followed him to the far west. In making his appearance in the Muskogee district the governmental agent sought no advertisement, but began work on “two per cent” and bitters. The Muskogee papers referred to him as “the gent with the panther tread” and one “who steals o’er the landscape like a summer sephyr [sic].” From this it went to Pussyfoot, and the name stuck.
“I can’t get away from it,” said Johnson when here recently, “for I am now beginning to get mail addressed that way. I thought when I left Indian Territory that reputation would be left behind. Only a week ago I entered a hotel in Los Angeles, and some one called out ‘Pussyfoot, what the d—l are you doing out here?’ The speaker was a former resident of Muskogee.”
In discussing the reason for his numerous nicknames, Johnson admits that he wears rubber heels on his shoes, but no “creepers.”5
The English took the nickname and applied it as a derisive term for a prohibitionist or teetotaler. A 23 July 1919 cartoon in Punch had this caption:
Gloomy Policeman. “You’ve had enough. Better go home.”
It is often claimed that Theodore Roosevelt coined the term pussyfoot. While the Square Deal and the Big Stick are two he (or at least his speech writers) did invent, pussyfoot is not in that company. While Roosevelt did use the term, it was in existence prior to his making a name for himself in politics.
2OED3, pussyfoot, v., Dec 2008, accessed 25 Dec 2008 <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50193199>.
3Louis E. Jackson and C.R. Hellyer, A Vocabulary of Criminal Slang (Portland, OR: Modern Printing Co., 1914), 68.
4OED3, pussyfoot, adj. and n., Dec 2007, accessed 25 Dec 2008 <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50193198>.
5”Over 90,000 Bottles Liquor Confiscated,” Evening News (Ada, OK), 29 Apr 1908, 1.
6OED3, pussyfoot, adj. and n.
Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton