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What are they on about?

David Newnham learns a new word - the hard way.

Oh, the shame of it. Not so much the shame of being called a wuss, but the shame of not being entirely sure what a wuss was.

"What's a woos?" I asked my tormentor.

"Not woos, you wuss. W-U-S-S. It's what it sounds like. A wuss."

And then the very next morning-call it synchronicity - I was roused from a troubled dream to hear the same word emanating from the studios of the Today programme. Talk about Home Service!

It turns out that Americans have been calling each other "wuss" for nigh on a quarter of a century. They even have a verb "to wuss out". Where have I been all my life? A punk band called Ninety Pound Wuss (in America, even punks use imperial measures) has been thumping away long enough to have burned out two bass players and be well into its third (he's called Dale Yob).

"Wuss" even crops up in the title of an established drinking game, which is similar to "rock, paper, scissors", except that "wuss" replaces "rock" and the substitutes for "paper" and "scissors" would get you ejected from the saloon ba (what is a douche bag, anyway?) Even in dear old Blighty the word has a long history. For as far back as 1975, the late Colin Cowdrey supposedly called his cricketing colleague Brian Close "a wuss" in an after-dinner speech.

Trawling the internet for clues to its meaning and origins, one thing is immediately clear. "Wuss" is to the web what "begat" is to the Bible. It's everywhere. And there's no better place to find a definition (despite its great age, "wuss" doesn't appear in any of my printed dictionaries). "Cowardly andor weak individual," says one site. "Synonymous with wimp," says another."A feeble man." "A sissy." "Ineffectual."

Well, that's me sorted out, then.

The second question - that of derivation - proves harder to answer. Most sources reckon it's a combination of "wimp" and "pussy", with "pussy-wussy" tossed in for good measure. But they're not sure.

One thing is certain, however. The fact that "wuss" has finally aroused my curiosity and at the same time become current on BBC shave-time radio means that its days are well and truly numbered.

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