The Origin of “Hussy”

Mad Men housewife Betty Draper Francis and those hussies Don fooled around with have more in common than you might think.

We all know what hussy means: “a woman considered brazen or immoral.” But did you know it actually comes from housewife? The word housewife is an old one, originating in the 13th century as a combination of, you guessed it, house and wife, which are both Old English words. While house has always meant “dwelling, shelter,” wife once meant simply woman, the sense of which, says the Online Etymology Dictionary (OnED), “is preserved in midwife [and] old wives’ tale.”

While today housewife implies a woman who doesn’t hold a traditional job but manages a household (see house husband), it also meant “the mistress of a family; the wife of a householder; a female manager of domestic affairs.” Hussy, which originated in the 1520s, began as a shortening of housewife (the Old English word for house is hus) and, says the OnED:

gradually broadened to mean “any woman or girl,” and by 1650 was being applied to “a woman or girl who shows casual or improper behavior,” and a general derogatory sense had overtaken the word by late 18c. “It is common to use housewife in a good, and huswife or hussy in a bad sense” [Johnson].

Other hussy-like words also began with other meanings. Slut, attested to the 14th century, originally meant “a careless, lazy woman; a woman who is uncleanly as regards her person or her house; a slattern.” According to the OnED, Chaucer used sluttish “in reference to the appearance of an untidy man.” In the mid-15th century, slut also referred to “a kitchen maid, a drudge” (slut’s pennies were the “hard pieces in a bread loaf from imperfect kneading”); “woman of loose character, bold hussy”; and in the 1660s was used playfully, “without implication of loose morals.”

Minx, “a girl or young woman who is considered pert, flirtatious, or impudent,” first meant “pet dog,” and is of uncertain origin. It may be, says OnED, an abbreviation of minnikin, “girl, woman,” which ultimately comes from the Middle Dutch minne, “love.” Mink, in case you were wondering, may come from the Swedish menk, “a stinking animal in Finland.”

Tit, meaning “breast,” is a variant of teat, but tit meaning “any small animal or object” (like a titmouse) may have a Scandinavian origin (the Norwegian tita means “a little bird”), and in the 1590s referred to “‘a girl or young woman,’ usually in deprecatory sense of ‘a hussy, minx.’”

A quean (not queen) is “a woman; a female person, considered without regard to qualities or position,” and came to refer to “effeminate homosexual” in the 1930s or earlier, “especially in Australian slang.” While quean and queen are related, says Word Origins, quean comes from the Old English cwene, “woman,” while queen comes from cwen, “queen, female ruler of a state, woman, wife.” According to the OnED, “the original sense [of queen] seems to have been ‘wife,’” and was “specialized by Old English to ‘wife of a king.’”

A cukquean, says Word Origins, is the female version of cuckold, while a cotquean, which originally meant “housewife of a cot” or cottage, is an obsolete term for “a man who busies himself with the affairs which properly belong to women,” and “a coarse, masculine woman; a bold hussy.”

Now try telling all of that to Betty.



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