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Puppets, peaches, and other womanly words


Last month, we took a tour around the world of the macho man, taking in some words in the grand tradition of beefcake on the way. We also discovered that the term beefcake, referring to muscular male physique, was formed on the model of cheesecake, a sexually alluring image of a woman.

Sugar and spice and all things nice

The use of sweet food terms for people is not uncommon in English. A honey, for example, was already a term for a beloved person in Chaucer’s day, when the poor old carpenter John married “Alisoun his hony deere”. The word is now more often used as an endearment addressed to a person (“Hi, Honey, I’m home!”), though it has not died out in its Chaucerian use as a standalone noun, such as in The Beach Boys’ song Surfin’ Safari: “Early in the morning we’ll be startin’ out | Some honeys will be coming along”.  The term is not exclusive to women, of course, although like most sweet-food terms such as cookie, cupcake, and peach, it is more commonly used of women than of men. Staying with the food theme, we also find crumpet as a somewhat less salubrious term for a woman, particularly when thought of as a sexual object, and jelly roll, which is less wholesome still. Both terms seem to have been early twentieth-century inventions; the former makes an early appearance in British slang and the latter in American, particularly in the language of blues and jazz. Surprisingly, the unassuming tomato is also pressed into service in American slang as a term for an attractive woman: in 1929, Damon Runyon wrote in a short story that “Different guys have different names for dolls, such as broads, and pancakes, and cookies, and tomatoes, which I claim are not respectful.”

Miss Polly had a dolly

Runyon’s narrator may have been turned off by food slang, but apparently doll was a more acceptable term to describe a woman. The origin of the word doll appears to have been a pet form of the name Dorothy, which was applied generically as an endearment, as in a text of 1578 which includes the line “o pleasaunt companion: O little pretie doll polle.” Incidentally, the same phonological process, whereby the “r” is changed to an “l”, is also seen in Hal as a shortening of Harry, Sal for Sarah, Tel for Terry, and so on. Later, in the 1600s, doll began to be used as a term for a plaything in the form of a person, usually a baby or a lady; this is the common modern sense of the word. By the 1700s, the term had turned full-circle and was once again being used to refer to real women. In many cases, this was not a flattering comparison: in 1778, a character in Fanny Burney’s Evelina complained of society women that they were “mere dolls” (the men didn’t do well either, being “no better than monkeys”), presumably suggesting the doll’s compliance, prettiness, and vacuity. The early twentieth century began to see the term being used as an endearment, of sorts, and more recently it is occasionally found being used in this way towards men: a 1967 novel contains the greeting (from one man to another) “Max, doll! How are you?”

Slugs and snails and puppy-dog tails

Although it is now the name of a brand of British confectionery, you might be surprised to learn that poppet has more to do with dolls than it does with sweeties. The precise etymology of the word isn’t entirely clear, but there’s a good chance that it’s related to the same Latin word that gives modern French poupée and German Puppe, both meaning “doll”. The link becomes a little clearer when we realise that puppet is actually a variant form of poppet, and that both words were historically used for a child’s doll. Although poppet is most commonly used today as a term of endearment (usually for a child or young woman), puppet was also historically used in the same way, and can occasionally even now be found as an alternative to poppet. And if the step between doll and poppet seems relatively small, let’s take another little leap into the land of small animals: puppies, to be specific. Puppy is apparently derived from French poupee, so it shares an ancestor with poppet. The original sense, first found in the late 1400s, was of a lady’s lapdog, which explains the derivation: these dogs, like children’s dolls, were sweet little playthings. The first evidence for the more common modern sense, of young dogs, comes less than a century later: in 1567, Arthur Golding described a hound “callde Greedigut with two hir Puppies by her.” And what do puppies have to do with beautiful women? Not very much, as it turns out, but we do find puppy used to mean a promiscuous woman: a 1693 translation of Rabelais refers to “Queanish flurting Harlots..and such like Puppies”. More recently, of course, puppies has become a slang term for breasts; unsurprisingly, the Oxford English Dictionary’s first example of this comes from the 1960s.

From bombshell to badass

Puppy may not have a great pedigree as a nice term for a woman or her anatomy, but do other baby animals fare any better? Chick is perhaps the most common baby animal name applied to women. Its roots, like those of so many words we’ve considered so far, seem to be in early twentieth-century American slang. In early use, it emphasized an image of women as helpless and weak (Sinclair Lewis wrote in 1927 of “this brainless little fluffy chick”), but these connotations have dropped away over time, and by now some of the top hits for adjectives linked with chick in the Oxford English Corpus are hot, hippie, rock, naked, cool, biker, and Goth. Like chick, kitten also began its career as a term for women with an emphasis on cuteness and helplessness, but it has by now become as much associated with sexual attraction and flirtatiousness, as the term sex kitten attests. Sex kitten refers to a sexually attractive young woman, and first appears in print in the 1950s, coinciding with the heyday of the blonde bombshell, a name given to various blonde celebrities in the cheesecake tradition, notably Jean Harlow. Not long afterwards, in 1960, Hugh Hefner opened the first Playboy Club, and yet another small furry animal, the bunny, became enduringly (and perniciously) associated with attractive young women.

It is a truism that our terms for women tend to differ quite drastically from our terms for men, something that Germaine Greer pointed out in her classic The Female Eunuch. The beefcake / cheesecake distinction epitomizes these differences: beautiful women are sweet and fluffy, while beautiful men are big and meaty. The later twentieth century saw some development in this area, as female versions of male heroes such as Superman paved the way for independent female icons whose worth was based on their physical prowess as well as their sexual attractiveness. Conventional standards of beauty still rule, but at least these days we can have our cheesecake with a side-order of chilli peppers.