Clawing back from disrepute
Am I the only one who feels a pang of regret when a perfectly good word is hijacked? When a new meaning arises, rendering an older one obsolete?
Today, I want to rail, rant and generally rend the heavens about one particular word, a noble word, a dignified word that has acquired what is possibly the dumbest of all modern definitions. That word is “cougar,” and the new definition is “an older, sexually aggressive woman.”
But first, let’s put this in context. This is just the latest in a long series of words that have taken on new definitions that threaten the very existence of the old meaning.
Take, for instance, twitter. About 10 minutes ago, it was a word that evoked birds singing through an open summer window. Now, if you say, “Listen to the robins twittering,” someone will look at you and say, “Oh, yeah, like they have accounts.”
But let’s head back to “Cougar Town.” That’s a TV sitcom. Few people, except for a few stubborn holdouts, tune into that show expecting it to be about a particularly wacky den in a high mountain outcropping. No, they know exactly what cougar means. This show is about a divorced mom who is thrown back into a dating scene populated by younger men.
So what we’ve done is this: We have taken a word that evokes the Kings and Queens of the Forest, and we have turned it into a punch line about women who are no longer 25.
I wonder what a real mountain lion would think about that. I can imagine a tawny puma saying something like, “Don’t drag my name into this mess.”
Now, I don’t get bugged by every word that takes on a new meaning. For instance, I can say “bug” to mean bother, and everybody still knows that it also means insect. But this new meaning of cougar is so tawdry that it threatens to override all of the earlier meanings. In other words, if I were to march into my favorite brewpub and announce “I’m going cougar hunting this weekend,” the ensuing repartee would not be about big game.
In our part of the country, we have special cause to regret this cougar hijacking. Pullman is absolutely loaded with Cougars, and the rest of the state is loaded with Cougar alumni. Now, if you happen to be a female Cougar of a certain age, you can no longer announce your allegiance except at your peril. Some lame jokester will make a remark that will cause one of you to twitter – I mean, snicker – out loud. And I’ll bet it won’t be you.
That’s because “cougar” sounds like an insult. I happen to know several cougars – sorry, several attractive older women who have much younger husbands – and they sometimes pretend to be flattered by the word. It does imply a certain strength and power. Yet they also know that it’s rarely a compliment. The very choice of the word cougar implies “predatory.” And, of course, it’s another way of calling a woman old.
Let’s hope this is the kind of slang word that disappears as quickly as it arrives. After all, we already have a perfectly good slang word that means exactly the same thing and it doesn’t threaten an entire species.
Although I suppose all of those perfectly respectable Mrs. Robinsons aren’t so thrilled with that one, either.
Reach Jim Kershner at email@example.com or (509) 459-5493.