Monday, February 9, 2009

Anybody Know Any Hussies?

I have always loved words, even as a kid. Certain words so familiar to us back in the fifties are largely gone from our language today. Somehow they lost their cache, and can only be heard in old, black and white movies. They are still perfectly good words that stand ready to serve whenever called upon, but sadly they grow dusty on the scrapheap waiting in vain for somebody to utter them. Let's give them a chance to shine again, if only in this humble forum.

The word "homeless" has a negative connotation; we think of people who try to clean our windshields, or who sit near the subway entrance with a cardboard sign asking for money. I don't mean to be insensitive here, or to denigrate homeless people, not at all. I'm talking semantics. In the fifties we didn't have "homeless" people, we had tramps or hobos. Those words had a different, more romantic connotation. We think of the audacious tramp "borrowing" an apple pie that was cooling on a window sill, or the hobo riding the rails from town to town, subject to no one and totally his own man. The great Roger Williams song "King of the Road" captures exactly what I mean: "I'm a man of means by no means, king of the road!"

When you hear the word "housedress" (also called a smock or housecoat) you probably picture a frumpy, unexciting woman stuck in a humdrum existence while life passes her by. I don't know how this perfectly good word fell out of favor, because it describes exactly the thing it represents. Webster's definition: "A dress with simple lines that is suitable for housework and is made usually of a washable fabric". Maybe the women's liberation movement, at one of their 1960's meetings, passed a resolution banishing the term because it was too closely tied to the term "housework". The role of women was changing, and alas, the "housedress" was thrown in the fire with all those burning bras.

When was the last time someone said: "Now you stop that tomfoolery this instant! I heard this all the time from my teachers in grammar school but never had a clue what it meant. I certainly got the gist of the meaning since it was usually accompanied by a cuff behind the ear, (this was in the days before Time Outs). The literal meaning, as provided again by Webster is "playful or foolish behavior." There are other words and phrases that mean the same thing, but they don't have the same "ring" as tomfoolery. It's fun to say, but for maximum effect you have to separate the word into its component syllables and punch the middle syllable indignantly as follows: tom-FOOL-ery! Certainly a most satisfying word to chastise some beastly child who dares engage in playful behavior.

If you're a fan of old movies like I am, you have undoubtedly heard Jean Harlow or Barbara Stanwyck read a line like: Say, you're swell, or Gee, that's swell! I think there was an Actors Equity union rule that every movie script from 1928 to 1948, had to contain the word swell. Everything and everybody was swell; and it was always used in a positive context. Interestingly, Webster defines swell as: "1) to expand in size; 2) a: to become filled with pride and arrogance b: to behave or speak in a pompous, blustering, or self-important manner c: to play the swell" Considering these definitions, how did swell ever come to mean "good"? These are the things that keep me awake at night.

In the 1950's, a man who made passes at women was referred to as a "masher". The word originated in England, and I love the Oxford English Dictionary definition: “a fop of affected manners and exaggerated style of dress who frequented music-halls and fashionable promenades and who posed as a ‘lady-killer”. (World Wide Words: Masher) . The word was coined in the 1870's when relations between the sexes were very different than now. I can't think of a modern equivalent, probably because it's just as likely today that it would be the woman making the pass. Would we call her a "mashette"?

Actually we did have a word in the fifties to describe a "fast" woman; we called her a hussy. Some words are so perfect that they conjure up the exact thing they stand for, even if we don't know the meaning. If I pointed to a painted lady in tight dress and high heels and called her a hussy, you would understand just what I meant. According to Webster, a hussy is "a lewd or brazen woman". Its origins are interesting (Take Our Word For It) in that it started out simply to mean a housewife, but later took on more negative connotations. I like the word hussy and hope to be able to use it soon, if only I could meet some!

I collect old words. They served us well for many years and shouldn't be just thrown away. If you have any old words you're no longer using, please send them to me.

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1 comment:

The Whiner said...

Michele and I always laugh at this Lucy episode where she calls someone a "masher." It's a swell episode I tell ya.