Q&A: Pet nicknames ‘pooch’, ‘puss’, and ‘bunny’

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're talking pet names…

Q: Hi AWC, I’ve been thinking about common pets and why we give them particular nicknames.

A: Okay. Such as?

Q: Well let’s start with dogs. “Pup” is pretty obvious, coming from puppy. But what about the nickname “pooch”? Where does that come from?

A: It seems to have risen to popularity at the start of the 20th century, although there are a few different theories for where the name came from.

Q: What are they?

A: The first one suggests the word may have come from the German word “putz” – likely to have been from “putzi”’, a common nickname in Germany for lap dogs. This itself was influenced by the adjective “putzig” – meaning funny, cute, small”.

Q: Oh yeah, I’ve been called “putz” before. I didn’t realise they were calling me cute and funny!

A: Hmmm, hate to break it to you, but that kind of usage is from the Yiddish slang term “putz” which is often an insult for a foolish or inept person.

Q: Oh.

A: Are you okay?

Q: I’ll be fine. Please continue.

A: Another theory on the origin of “pooch” states that it was in use by at least 1901 as the name of a dog owned by a pioneer of the Canadian/Alaskan Klondike region. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “pooch” was the Alaskan name for whisky – perhaps from an Irish translation akin to “pocheen”.

Q: Wait. Isn’t the whisky “hooch”?

A: Yeah, it is a head-scratcher. Because you’re right, the term “hooch” was indeed used for cheap whisky in that same Klondike region from 1897 – itself a shortened form of “Hoochinoo” – a native tribe who made the liquor that became popular with miners. So yeah, it’s a bit messy. 

Q: Any other theories?

A: Another points to the popularity of a Harvard athletic coach named WIlliam “Pooch” Donovan, who was well-known in the early years of the 20th century, although that connection seems rather thin.

Q: My cousin went to Harvard.

A: Oh really? Nice. What did they study?

Q: Oh, no, they were just passing through Massachusetts. Stopped and took a photo.

A: Right okay. So yeah, the most likely is that first “putzi” one – especially considering the large number of German migration to the USA during the late 19th century.

Q: Okay, let’s look at cats now. Where did the names “kitty” or “puss” come from?

A: “Kitty” was already a pet name for “Katherine” from as early as the 1500s, but by 1719 was also being used as “a child’s pet name for a cat” – no doubt from the existing “kitten” for a young cat.

Q: That makes sense. But what about “puss”?

A: This one actually goes back much further – at least 1500 – and is likely from either the sound a cat makes when hissing OR the sound a human makes when trying to get a cat’s attention.

Q: Oh yeah… psss psss psss!

A: Exactly. A lot of other European languages have a similar sound in their actual word for “cat”, so it makes some sense. Apparently, during the 1600s “puss” was used in a negative way when describing a female, but had flipped to be a term of endearment by the 1800s.

Q: But what about being a “sour puss”?

A: In the 1890s, a combination of boxing and Irish slang gave us “puss” for mouth. And this led to “sour puss” in the 1930s – essentially a sour-faced person.

Q: I assume “puss” is just a short form of “pussy”, right?

A: Actually, it’s the other way around. “Pussy” came from “puss” – used to describe a cat from around the 1690s. Curiously, it was also used to describe a rabbit in the early 1700s. 

Q: Oh, that’s odd – because aren’t baby rabbits called “kits”?

A: Yes they are! As for “pussy” – well, it became a catch-all term for anything “soft and furry” – which would lead to, ahem, other meanings in the 1800s.

Q: Got it. So, speaking of rabbits, let’s do one more – “bunny”. Where did THAT come from?

A: Good question! It comes from the Scottish “bun” (tail of a hare), yet actually started out in the late 1500s as the pet name for a squirrel.

Q: Wow, imagine if they had THOSE outfits at Hugh Heffner’s Playboy Club!

A: Haha, yep. By the 1680s, “bunny” had come to mean rabbit. Around this time, it was also a term for an attractive woman or child. Others suggest it came from the French “bon”, but the Scottish meaning makes the most sense.

Q: I hear people talk about “gym bunnies” etc too these days.

A: Yeah, it can get used to describe a person of a specific type. In Australia, in the early 1900s, “bunny” also came to mean slang for a victim or someone made a fool of.

Q: Like a “putz”?

A: Haha. Well, yes. Just like that.

Q: When did the “Easter Bunny” hop into the frame?

A: There is a much bigger origin story, but essentially, the earliest German folklore has “Osterhase” or “Oschter Haws” – the Easter Hare – bringing eggs for children as early as 1682. This migrated to the USA with Pennsylvanian German and Dutch in the 1700s and the term “Easter rabbit” would later replace “hare” in the late 1800s, with “Easter Bunny” following by 1904.

Q: And finally, what about “bunny boiler”?

A: Haha, ouch. Anyone who watched the 1987 film Fatal Attraction knows this term for a vengeful woman – after the character played by Glenn Close erm, showed off her culinary skills in an unfortunate way.

Q: Speaking of boiling, I think it’s time to put a lid on this one. Thanks for the answers!

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