This started out as the word ‘housewife’ and suffered phonetic mutilation. By the seventeenth century it was already felt to be a separate word, with a meaning that had also lost its respectability. Male speakers seem mostly to have used it to mean a mischievous girl, a jade, or minx. Women using it to other women usually have sexual looseness or immorality in mind, and use it more forcefully. In Fielding’s Tom Jones it is equated by one speaker with ‘saucy trollop’. In the same author’s Joseph Andrews it is the word which springs to Mrs Tow-wouse’s mind when she finds her maid in bed with her husband. Eighteenth-century novels, in fact, are well-sprinkled with references to hussies, which may partly account for their being so pleasant to read.
   In Thackeray’s Vanity Fair Becky Sharp writes to Amelia and mentions that Sir Pitt Crawley has called her ‘you pretty little hussey’. One imagines that she was not too offended by the description. In Oliver Goldsmith’s The Good-Natured Man Olivia says to Croaker: ‘I’m sensible how little I deserve this partiality. Yet, Heaven knows, there is nothing I would not do to gain it.’ Croaker replies: ‘And you have but succeeded too well, you little hussy, you! With those endearing ways of yours, on my conscience, I could be brought to forgive anything.’ One would expect ‘hussy’ to be used only jokingly in modern times, but it is a serious insult, used by one black American woman to another, in The Choirboys, by Joseph Wambaugh. It is equated there with ‘bitch’.

A dictionary of epithets and terms of address . . 2015.


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