To “pussyfoot” is to proceed with caution, to move warily but steadily or to sidestep an issue as to not take a side.
It is almost always used in a pejorative sense and, as such, its synonyms include equivocating, hedging, or even using weasel words.
Someone who pussyfoots around an issue does not want to express an opinion about the issue, usually because it could be controversial and could lead to a problem.
Origin of “Pussyfoot”
The term dates back to at least 1893; that’s when Scribner’s Magazine wrote about “men who were beginning to walk pussy-footed and shy at shadows.”
The expression comes from the soft steps of a cat. President Theodore Roosevelt popularized the term around 1905, using it to refer to men he believed were excessively cautious and sneaky.
At the same time, one member of Theodore Roosevelt’s own administration may have done even more to popularize the term “pussyfoot.”
William Johnson, who helped to fight against bootlegging and illegal alcohol sales in Indian Territory, was better known as Pussyfoot Johnson. He was charged with ending all liquor sales in the territories, and, predictably, the job won him enemies all over. That’s why Johnson started doing his work at night.
He apparently crept around at night much like a cat, with great stealth, earning the nickname “Pussyfoot.”
Johnson was an ardent Prohibitionist, and his fellow prohibitionists came to be known as “pussyfooters” as well.
The term is almost never used in that sense today.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter pledged his support for Polish workers who were in the midst of organizing. Carter’s administration vowed to help Polish labor unions, but they also worried about upsetting the balance of power between Polish workers and Soviet authorities.
Meanwhile, Lane Kirkland, the head of the AFL-CIO, vowed to move forward with a fund to help labor unions in Poland. Kirkland said, “the free trade union movement cannot advance on little cat feet. I will not accept the suggestion that we pussyfoot about it at all.”
Decades later, in 2016, Sarah Palin used the term “pussyfooting” when she endorsed Donald Trump for president.
Palin, the one-time vice presidential candidate and Alaska governor, said that with Trump there would be “no more pussyfooting around!”
Use of “Pussyfoot” in a sentence
- Critics argue that the president has been pussyfooting around the issue of climate change, refusing to take decisive action despite mounting evidence and public concern.
- Rather than pussyfoot around the topic of healthcare reform, the senator made it the focal point of her campaign, promising to enact bold changes.
- Given the urgency of the economic crisis, many have called for the government to stop pussyfooting and make the hard decisions needed to stabilize the situation.
Taegan Goddard is the creator of the Political Dictionary.
Goddard spent more than a decade on Wall Street as managing director and chief operating officer of a prominent investment firm in New York City. Previously, he also served as a policy adviser to a U.S. Senator and Governor.
Goddard is also co-author of You Won – Now What?: How Americans Can Make Democracy Work from City Hall to the White House, a political management book hailed by prominent journalists and politicians from both parties.
His essays on politics and public policy have appeared in dozens of newspapers and magazines across the country.
Goddard earned degrees from Vassar College and Harvard University.
He lives in New York with his wife and three sons.