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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(2000’s | “older woman on the make or prowl,” “cradle robber,” “(old) hussy”)

The Encyclopedia of Women in Today’s World (2011) traces “cougar” to Canada right around 2000, and it does show up first in the Canadian press; the first citation in LexisNexis appears in 2002 on a Canadian news program, one year after Canadian sex and relationships expert Valerie Gibson published “Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men.” That about sums it up. Authorities may quarrel over how old a woman has to be to qualify as a cougar — most people who try to define the term say over forty — and how much younger the man has to be. Based on my limited research, the age difference has to be at least ten years, and the more the merrier. The term doesn’t seem to have taken up residence in the U.S. until after 2005; the earliest use in the New York Times dates from 2009. Writers and editors no longer feel compelled to gloss it, although as recently as two or three years ago many instances of the word in print came with an explanation. Cougars (the cats, that is) seem to be a lot more common in Canada than in the U.S., and maybe also more common in Canada than other kinds of hunting cats (not that I’m a zoologist), so it is not surprising that Canadians would have pioneered the new use of the word.

There seems to be little doubt that the word takes its new metaphorical meaning from the predatory habits of cats. Such women are conceived as hunters preying on young men. The term may be applied to women who hit the bars and bring home a new conquest every night, or who take up with one man for an extended relationship, as long as he’s noticeably younger than she. The term may be used as an insult or to express “you go, girl” solidarity. It’s a very old idea; wise young men have always understood that you can learn a lot from mature, experienced women. Today’s twist comes from the idea of older women taking public pride in, not to say gloating over, their pursuit of younger men. Cougars claim a privilege traditionally reserved for the male of the species, while celebrating their attractiveness and sex drive into middle age and beyond, staking out territory generally unavailable to women who went before.

“Urban cougar” is a common variant, the adjective probably intended to dispel any confusion with the cat prowling the woods, but most people probably grasp the word now without the elaboration, and it is likely to disappear over time. records other epithets sprung up in cougar’s wake — bobcat, jaguar, panther, puma, and a whole bunch that have nothing to do with cat names — which may distinguish age ranges, or something. Urban Dictionary does get a bit fanciful at times. Then there are “manther” and “cheetah,” which refer to older men chasing younger women. I rather like “manther,” and “cheetah” has a certain lex appeal.

Thanks through the ether to my nephew, who used “cougar” in conversation, little suspecting that my antennae were on full alert. Tell your dad to read my blog, kid.

tiger mother

(2010’s | “disciplinarian,” “slavedriver,” “strict mother”)

This term burst upon the scene with unusual speed and force in 2011, when law professor Amy Chua published “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” Partly a critique of western (i.e., American) child rearing, partly an account of the limits of her own Asian (i.e., Chinese) methods of raising children, the book seeded any number of blogospheric disturbances, with the usual fuss and bother and misunderstandings. I did not read the book, but my five-minute summary understanding based on a few blog posts and web videos suggests that what defines the “tiger mother” is making demands on her children, requiring them to work hard and resist complacency. The premise is open to debate — and since when does one set of child-rearing practices work for everybody? — but many critics seem to have taken the most extreme moments described in the book as typical of the tiger mother and set up a straw woman instead of engaging Chua’s primary points. My broad-brush analysis, based on sketchy research, is not to be taken entirely seriously, but this sort of distortion-by-simplification is pretty common in our discourse, or what passes for it these days, so I’m prone to suspect that something of the kind occurred in this instance.

Chua’s elder daughter has matriculated at Harvard, and apparently her younger daughter, who rebelled against her mother and forced her to relent to some extent, also is doing quite well. The older daughter’s achievements are often touted as vindication of Chua’s methods, but I can think of lots of explanations for the daughter of two high-powered Yale law professors getting into Harvard. Few people seem to have addressed the possibility that the offspring of two extremely intelligent, motivated, and well-connected parents would probably do pretty well regardless of how her mother treated her.

American parents with enough leisure and income to be self-conscious seem to enjoy entertaining misgivings about their child-rearing missteps, so Chua’s seeds fell on fertile ground, and the discussion continues, although instances of both “tiger mother” and “tiger mom” in LexisNexis fell off significantly in 2012 and are poised to drop again in 2013, barring a sudden revival of the topic. (“Tiger mom” may soon become the preferred form as “moms” complete their takeover of the language.) “Tiger parent” turns up now and then; “tiger father” or “dad” hardly at all. And that’s revealing: mothers more than fathers are now held responsible for how their kids turn out, and kids who don’t turn out well are blamed on failures of maternal discipline — not like the old days, when society held the father responsible (thanks, Liz!). The “tiger mom” also conjures up all too easily the all-too-familiar image of the shrewish mother hectoring and exhausting her children, a stereotype of long standing held against relatively successful immigrant groups. Used to be Jews; now it’s Asians.

In thirty years, the phrase may seem quaint or irrelevant, just one more passing fad ginned up by the media, social or otherwise. Too early to tell, of course. It’s not clear to me why Chua chose “tiger” as her epithet, but it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with tiger moths or Tiger Woods. Count me relieved.

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