"he was really, you know. pervy," said the young woman on the bus to her friend. They were both college students, though not students of mine.
What, I wondered - not that I was listening of course - had this deviant male done to deserve the label? Pervy surely comes from perverted. So was it something interesting with a goat perhaps? Or, worse, maybe he'd been interfering with its kids?
Nothing so shocking. He'd simply been paying unwanted attention to the girl in question. As she was nubile enough, it struck me as a pretty minor perversion. But then should I have been so literal-minded? In the mouths of the young, isn't that what pervy means nowadays?
Words are like any other fashion item. The young crave novelty, embrace innovation, adopt new terms, new meanings, as easily as they adopt new outfits. The rest of us grumble, resist, drag our linguistic feet - then take the term on board anyway five years later.
Having dealt with the perv, the two promptly plugged themselves into an MP3 player and began to sing along together. The track was rap - gangsta rap.
Not that I'm an expert. And of course I wasn't listening.
Every time the rapper used the word "pussy" - which seemed like every other word - they joined in with gusto. Even the contemptuous tone was there. The emphasis on the second syllable: pus-sey!
Silly girls, I thought. Actually the reaction was stronger than that. I felt like taking hold of them and giving them a good shake. Why go along, I wanted to ask them, with all that misogynistic crap? The logic of pussy in this context is surely as follows: (1) slang term for vagina, (2) slang term for woman - thus woman defined solely by her body part, (3) slang term for weak, cowardly, effeminate man - echoing the perceived weakness of the female. Whichever way you slice it, women come out badly.
Had I not been such a pus-sey myself, I might actually have pointed this out to them. Instead I meekly took myself off to check on yet another piece of innovatory word play. But did I say innovatory? What I found - thanks to the wonders of Wikipedia - was that fashion in words, as in garments, clearly goes in cycles. As early as 1583 we find the pamphleteer Philip Stubbs, writing in his The Anatomie of Abuses, that: "the word pussie is now used of a woman".
And women, it seems, have long been prepared to play on the ambiguities of the term for their own purposes. Forget Carry On capers or Are You Being Served's Mrs Slocombe and her 1970s double entendres. Try instead the Barriston Sisters, whose suggestive song Do you want to see my pussy? was wowing them in the aisles when Victoria was on the throne.
Apparently the climax of their music-hall act, performed across Europe and the US, came when the five sisters coyly lifted up their skirts to not-so-coyly reveal five tiny kittens held between their legs. Per-vy or what?