HomeLanguage EducationGrammarThe Grammarphobia Blog: A wussy pronunciation

The Grammarphobia Blog: A wussy pronunciation


Q: A post of yours says “wuss” was first recorded in 1976. However, I just found this example in A Tangled Web (1931), by L. L. Montgomery: “If he’s a fool—and wuss—is that any reason why you should be?”

A: The “wuss” in that passage from A Tangled Web is a dialectal pronunciation of “worse.” If it were spelled the usual way, Big Sam Dark would be telling Little Sam Dark, “If he’s a fool—and worse—is that any reason why you should be?”

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the “wuss” pronunciation of the adjective, noun, and adverb “worse” as “colloquial or regional.” The OED has examples that date back to the mid-19th century. Here are a few:

“That’s wuss than a day’s work, that is.” From Munby, Man of Two Worlds: The Life and Diaries of Arthur J. Munby (1862), by Derek Hudson. Munby was a British poet, barrister, and civil servant.

“She’ll tell you that, wuss luck, I’ve got in co. with some bad uns.” From The Seven Curses of London (1869), by the British journalist and social critic James Greenwood.

“Nobody’s none the wuss for me knowin’ about ’em.” From A Child of the Jago (1896), by the British writer and journalist Arthur Morrison.

As we say in a 2020 post, the earliest examples in the Oxford English Dictionary for the use of “wuss” to mean a weak or ineffectual person are from a 20th-century collection of college slang:

“Come on you wuss, hit a basket” and “John’s a wuss.” From “Campus Slang,” a Nov. 6, 1976, typescript of slang terms collected by Connie C. Eble, a linguist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Eble had asked her students to contribute current slang terms on index cards.

When “wussy” showed up in print the following year, it was an adjective meaning effeminate: “Soccer! … What kind of wussy sport is that!” From the Harvard Crimson, Sept. 12, 1977.

The OED says “wussy” originated with the addition of the suffix “-y” to the noun “wuss.” And it suggests that “wuss” may have originally been a blend of “wimp” and “pussy” used to mean a cat.

However, the evidence we’ve found indicates that “wussy” originated as a rhyming term for “pussy,” and that “wuss” is simply a short form of “wussy.” In fact, as a rhyming term “wussy” showed up in English dozens of years before the first OED sighting of “wimp” used to mean a weak or ineffectual person (1920).

You can read more about the history of these terms in our 2020 post as well as in a post that we wrote in 2016.

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Rizwan Ahmed
Rizwan Ahmed
AuditStudent.com, founded by Rizwan Ahmed, is an educational platform dedicated to empowering students and professionals in the all fields of life. Discover comprehensive resources and expert guidance to excel in the dynamic education industry.
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