The late linguist, lexicographer, and “crazy cat man” Reinhold Aman would have relished the question
SONOMA, California––Researching the etymology of the terms “pit hag,” “rescue angel,” “crazy cat lady,” “dog man” and “chicken fighter,” absent from most dictionaries yet almost universally understood within the animal advocacy world, would have fascinated Reinhold Aman, 82, who died on March 2, 2019 in Sonoma, California.
Aman, a longtime cat rescuer, feral cat colony caretaker, and promoter of online petitions seeking stiff penalties for cat abusers, was a former chemical engineer and professor of German.
But Aman was best known, and will be longest remembered, as editor of Maledicta, The International Journal of Verbal Aggression, of which 13 editions were published between 1977 and 2005.
Before Maledicta, few scholarly journals recognized research into the words and phrases that express conflict, sometimes even leading to war. Post-Maledicta, what is considered insulting or taboo, and why, has become a respectable branch of linguistic and sociological research, with particular importance to people who study conflict resolution.
After all, it is difficult to resolve a fight over someone alleging that someone else’s mother wears combat boots, without understanding why the allegation matters to either party.
Born on April 8, 1936, in Fürstenzell, Germany, Aman apparently died before finding the opportunity to investigate where “pit hags,” “rescue angels,” “crazy cat ladies,” “dog men,” and “chicken fighters” came from, or how and when they entered the pejorative lexicon of American slang.
“Crazy cat man” & worse
More than 30 years before Aman died, however, he asked ANIMALS 24-7 editor Merritt Clifton to keep his eyes and ears open for the emergence of any widely used pejorative terms that might emerge from the then relatively young animal rights movement, and these five terms seem to fit his definition, which included widespread use, specific negative connotations, and limited social acceptability despite widespread use.
Sporadically acquainted with Aman from 1977 to 2011, initially helping Aman as a freelance researcher and later when Aman called to consult about feral cat colony caretaking, Clifton imagined Aman had died when he dropped out of occasional communication by email, after years of health problems, learning of his recent death only by accident while researching “crazy cat lady.”
Aman described himself at times as a “crazy cat man.” The self-description he used in multiple languages during occasional television and radio talk show appearances, however, was that he was a “fat little foul-mouthed four-eyed jewboy kraut.”
Understanding pejorative speech
Aman used that self-description to demonstrate that pejorative speech, in any language, attacks perceived deviations from the societal norms, tending to follow a pattern so rigid and so universal from culture to culture that he imagined it might also eventually be found among other intelligent species.
The most frequent targets of pejorative speech, as Aman laboriously quantified in English, German, French, Yiddish, and Hungarian, and had other researchers quantify in a variety of Asian and African languages, tend to be aspects of appearance, behavior (especially sexual behavior), disabilities, religion, race, gender, and diet.
Aspects of Aman’s observation can be found in both the words themselves and the common use of “pit hag,” “rescue angel,” “crazy cat lady,” “dog man” and “chicken fighter”––albeit in some instances just beneath the surface rather than overtly.
27 months for cursing a judge
According to an online obituary posted by Columbia University adjunct professor Jesse Sheidlower, who from 1999 to 2005 was principal North American editor for the Oxford English Dictionary, Aman “gained fluency in several languages at a young age, and worked as a translator for the U.S. Army in Frankfurt.”
Emigrating to Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1959, Aman in 1968 earned a PhD in Medieval German from the University of Texas.
“A scholar with high standards for the work of others and higher standards for his own work,” Sheidlower recalled, Aman “following a bitter divorce, was imprisoned for sending threatening materials to his ex-wife, her lawyer, and the judge who oversaw the case. Aman claimed that verbal aggression was the method of venting anger used by ‘civilized people,’ and that he had never intended actual harm,” but the court disagreed, sentencing him in 1993 to serve 27 months in federal prison.
“Exceptionally hostile” yet “polite & often charming”
“Denizens of Usenet in the 1990s and 2000s,” Sheidlower continued, “will remember Aman’s exceptionally hostile behavior, especially in the language-related groups alt.usage.english and sci.lang, and while he would regularly post useful and informed commentary, the overwhelming amount of vituperation he directed at anyone with whom he disagreed led him to be regarded as one of the more extreme trolls of that era.”
Yet, “In person, Aman was polite and often charming,” Sheidlower mentioned. “He had deep, unqualified love and loyalty to his daughter Susan and her family. He loved feral cats, maybe above all, and would skimp on his own needs to provide for them.
“Though his legacy is tarnished by his problematic behavior,” Sheidlower finished, “it is nonetheless the case that he was willing to explore difficult topics at a time when serious, or indeed any, treatment of such language was not really possible in academia. Maledicta remains an important source for the study of offensive language.”
Forward, then, in the spirit and memory of Maledicta, to exploring the origins, evolution, and meanings of “pit hag,” “rescue angel,” “crazy cat lady,” “dog man” and “chicken fighter.”
“Pit hags” in 1862?
Searching NewspaperArchive.com indicates that “Pit hag,” probably the newest of the commonly used pejorative terms unique to animal advocacy, could actually be among the oldest. Multiple links appear to articles originally published by Bell’s Life in London & Sporting Chronicle on March 9, 1862, page 16.
Indeed, an item near the center of that page, entitled “Canine Fancy,” advertises three bulldog exhibitions, two ratting contests, and an event, apparently a dogfighting tournament, at which a “Mr. Ackerman will be prepared to match dogs, at all weights.”
But the “pit hag” reference turns out to be a typographical error in an article two columns to the left about widows and orphans of a mining disaster at the Hartley Colliery that killed 207 men and boys. The actual reference is to a line that was supposed to read, “The pit has been closed.”
First use of “pit hag” was probably by dogfighters
“Pit hag” as currently used in all probability originated soon after the rise of organized pit bull advocacy in the mid-1980s. It appears to have already been in use for some time before emerging into visibility in response to pit bull rescue/transport operations following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The earliest use of “pit hag” may have been among dogfighters, who derided and resented pit bull advocacy of a sort that downplayed, and in their eyes feminized, the prized quality of “gameness,” or readiness to fight.
Historically the only breed standard to which pit bull breeders aspired was for their dogs to be known as “dead game,” meaning willing and determined to fight to the death, even maintaining a “death grip” when deceased.
Thus “dog men,” as many dogfighters called themselves, ridiculed “pit hags” for perhaps 20 years before the emergence of organized dog attack victim advocacy, counter to pit bull advocacy, circa 2007.
Victim advocacy came late to the fray
Dog attack victim advocacy arose in response to the exponential increase in pit bull attacks, on both humans and pets, that has occurred since the arrest of football player Michael Vick in April 2007 made pit bull advocacy a focal activity of many leading humane organizations.
Though victim advocacy came late to the fray, the “top definition” of “pit hag” recognized by the online Urban Dictionary is credited to Jeff Borchardt in September 2016. Borchardt founded the victim advocacy organization Daxton’s Friends after his infant son Daxton was killed in March 2013 by two pit bulls belonging to his babysitter.
“Pit hags gained platform thanks to social media”
A “pit hag,” according to the Urban Dictionary definition, is “A female of indeterminate age who expresses a determined and voluble preference for pit bull type dogs, rather than her fellow humans. A pit hag,” the Urban Dictionary explains, “is usually either a young woman without children, or an older woman whose children have left home. Denied appropriate objects of maternal affections, these women focus on a type of dog that appears to need ‘protecting’ from media attention when they maul or kill someone (which they do rather often).
“The pit hag is subject to instant unstoppable outrage and unwise protectionism,” Urban Dictionary continues, “often to be found in news commenting sections, abusing the victim of the dog attack, blaming the owner of the dog, or various sundry and unlikely ‘catalysts’ such as the weather or the sound of a lawn-mower.
“The pit hag is a creature of modernity,” the Urban Dictionary specifies, “given her platform thanks to social media.”
The latter observation is probably also true of “rescue angel” in contemporary usage, though the term itself, with other associations, appears to predate the existence of any mass media, including printed newspapers.
“Rescue angels” in the early-to-mid-19th century rescued shipwrecked sailors, guided escaped slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad, and emulated pioneering nurse Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), the “Lady With The Lamp” who––with 38 other women she had trained––famously helped wounded soldiers of both sides during the Crimean War (1853-1856).
Early “rescue angels” in humane work included some of the children who enlisted in the Bands of Mercy clubs, organized in Britain by Catherine Smithies, beginning in 1875, and in the U.S. by Thomas Timmins in 1882.
“Rescue angel” does not appear to have come into especially common use in association with animal rescue and advocacy, however, until the advent of shelterless dog and cat “rescue” organizations in the mid-1990s.
From positive term to negative in just 20 years
Then, for about a decade, “rescue angels” were merely the mostly young, mostly female volunteers who “pulled” dogs (usually) and cats (sometimes) from animal shelter euthanasia lists, and offered them for adoption via web sites and social media.
“Rescue angel” as used during that time remained a positive and complimentary phrase, as it always had been, and a phrase that “rescue angels” themselves identified with.
“Rescue angel” began to cross over into a pejorative, increasingly often used in a sarcastic manner, after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005.
“SUV people” begat “rescue angels” in current sense
Among the major problems associated with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as after many disasters, was the convergence upon the scene of thousands of what trained professional first responders call “SUV people,” or Spontaneous Unsolicited Volunteers, who typically arrive in sport utility vehicles.
“SUV people” stereotypically are not properly trained, not team players, not inclined to follow rules and instructions, and disregard safety while trying to be heroes and heroines, to an extent putting others at risk.
Quite likely more would-be dog and cat rescuers tried to help after Katrina than tried to help the human victims, making “rescue angels” a subset of ‘SUV people.”
Why “rescue angels” lost their halos
“Rescue angels” often believed they were “rescuing” pets who were already rescued and being cared for in homes, though the animals’ owners were temporarily displaced.
Many “rescue angels” evacuated dogs and cats to far parts of the U.S. and even Canada, without participating in the official tracking system that eventually reunited thousands of animals with their families.
Moving animals before they had been properly “vetted,” some “rescue angels” spread heartworm and other diseases to regions where they had never before been seen.
Other “rescue angels,” in their zeal to “rescue,” delivered thousands of animals to hoarders who called themselves sanctuarians.
Unshakeable faith in personal goodness
The salient characteristic of a “rescue angel” in the pejorative sense is that the person believes so fervently that she, or he, is “doing good” as to disregard any warning from anyone of more experience or just plain common sense.
A “rescue angel” will therefore balk at euthanizing animals suffering from painful terminal cancer, haul large numbers of dogs in small trailers through midsummer heat, stash dozens of cats in a rented house with inadequate sanitation, and recklessly rehome pit bulls and other dangerous dogs no matter how many other animals, or humans, they kill and disfigure.
The “rescue angel” as pejorative overlaps both “pit hag” and “crazy cat lady,” but to be a bona fide “rescue angel” the perpetrator must be both brimming with good intentions and oblivious to the consequences of her actions.
“Rescue angels” come in flocks
Usually a “rescue angel” in the pejorative sense is either young, or inclined to behave in an immature and manipulative manner, like a spoiled teen.
Usually also, “rescue angels” act in small peer groups, doing whatever they do as a social activity, losing interest when friends and associates lose interest. This at times leads to mass animal abandonment.
“Pit hags” and “crazy cat ladies” by contrast tend to be middle-aged or older, and are often alienated from others to the point of acting alone and in secret.
“Cat ladies” have been with us for as long as cats
“Crazy cat ladies” are directly descended from ordinary “cat ladies,” a term which in translation probably dates far back into antiquity.
Indeed, some of the earliest evidence of cat domestication comes from a 9,500-year-old archeological site in Cyprus where an elderly woman was buried among the remains of many cats, who were apparently buried in what may have been her garden at different times over many years.
Images of women (and occasionally men) surrounded by cats, common in ancient Egypt, also predate most written culture from India and China to Scandinavia.
Throughout most of this time, and in every place, “cat ladies” by whatever name tended to fit the Wikipedia definition of “a cultural archetype or a stock character, often depicted as a woman, a middle-aged or elderly spinster, who owns many pet cats. The term can be considered pejorative, though it is sometimes embraced.”
Cat ladies, the Black Death, & witchcraft
The earliest pejorative connotations of “cat lady” appear to have emerged during the cat persecutions that occurred in Europe and parts of China during the Middle Ages.
Purging cats, who had helped to control the rodents whose fleas carried bubonic plague, coincided with the arrival of the Black Death, which killed from 75 to 200 million people between 1347 and 1351.
For approximately 400 years thereafter, keeping large numbers of cats was associated with witchcraft in Europe and the first settled parts of the U.S. and Canada.
Witch trial testimony suggests, though, that not just keeping cats, but hoarding cats under conditions that contributed to the spread of “pestilence” was often the focal issue.
This is recognized, indirectly, in the Segen’s Medical Dictionary definition of “crazy cat lady” as “A popular stereotype referring to a subpopulation of older single women who, by circumstance or choice, replace personal and social relationships and human interaction with feline companionship.
“Such cases may have a pathophysiologic substrate,” Segen’s Medical Dictionary suggests, “as such often have high antibody levels of the cerebrocentric parasite Toxoplasma gondii, suggesting a subtle brain involvement in their mental state and behavior.”
Be that as it may, the Culturomics ngram viewer online tool for tracing the cultural prevalence of words and phrases, 1800-2000, shows only intermittent use of “cat lady” in popular culture in the English language, beginning circa 1885.
“Cat ladies” in the early 20th century
There were, however, surges in “cat lady” references and activism from 1910 to U.S. entry into World War I in 1917, during the immediate years after World War I, and from 1935 to 1942.
The first of these surges came after the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared in 1910- that outbreaks of rabies, diptheria, tuberculosis, and smallpox had been traced to “alley cats” consorting with free-roaming pets.
“As much danger lurks in a cat as in a rat,” the USDA warned, touching off attempted cat purges in many of the biggest U.S. cities, vehemently resisted and denounced by “cat ladies,” who did not politically organize perhaps only because women at the time had not yet won voting rights.
The second and third surges in “cat lady” references and activism accompanied attempts by alliances of hunters and birders to make free-roaming cats a small game species, subject to year-round legal hunting.
Adlai Stevenson stood up for cats & “cat ladies”
Such legislation was repeatedly passed by one house of state legislatures, but not the other, until 1949, when a bill to allow cat-hunting was approved by both houses of the Illinois legislature, only to be famously vetoed by then-Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965).
Pronounced Stevenson, “I cannot agree that it should be the declared public policy of Illinois that a cat visiting a neighbor’s yard or crossing the highways is a public nuisance…Cats perform useful service, particularly in rural areas, in combating rodents—work they necessarily perform alone and without regard for property lines.
“That cats destroy some birds, I well know,” Stevenson continued, but added, “The problem of cat versus bird is as old as time. If we attempt to resolve it by legislation who knows but what we may be called upon to take sides as well in the age old problems of dog versus cat, bird versus bird, or even bird versus worm. In my opinion, the State of Illinois and its local governing bodies already have enough to do without trying to control feline delinquency.”
Nationwide acclaim for the Stevenson veto helped to make him a three-time candidate for the U.S. presidency, losing to Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956, and to John F. Kennedy at the 1960 Democratic National Convention.
The Adlai Stevenson veto helped to bring “cat ladies” from the fringes of society into mainstream respectability, but the 1947 introduction of granulated clay litter by Michigan entrepreneur Ed Lowe probably had even more to do with it.
“Prior to Kitty Litter,” explained Gavin Ehringer in his 2017 opus Leaving the Wild: The Unnatural History of Dogs, Cats, Cows, and Horses, “only people with an abiding affection for felines and strong stomachs for the stench of their cat boxes kept their kitties indoors. Kitty Litter gave felines carte blanche to live in people’s homes.”
(See Cats: Life in the Great Indoors, by Gavin Ehringer.)
From “cat lady” to “crazy cat lady”
Within 40 years cats came to outnumber dogs as household pets. The advent of affordable and accessible spay/neuter and keeping cats indoors at all times––more than 80% of pet cats were sterilized and more than two-thirds were “indoor only” by 1990––meanwhile eliminated most other common complaints about pet cats and “cat ladies.”
That, in turn, took the pejorative value out of the term “cat lady,” since women who kept cats were no longer widely perceived as deviant and marginally anti-social.
The Culturomics ngram viewer shows steadily increasing use of “cat lady” since the early 1960s, rising especially rapidly parallel to the rise of the animal rights movement in the 1980s and the introduction of neuter/return outdoor cat population control in the 1990s.
But searches of NewsLibrary.com show that of nearly 10,000 mainstream news media articles referencing “cat ladies” since 1976, about two-thirds were humorous or only mildly pejorative.
“Crazy cat ladies” keep all “cat ladies” suspect
Cat-keepers of the sort who fed the “cat lady” stereotype in the first place, however, continued to feed large numbers of unsterilized free-roaming cats, whose activity continued to offend neighbors.
Thus the Culturomics ngram viewer shows the word “crazy” being added to “cat lady” with increasing frequency, beginning in the late 1950s. About one third of the NewsLibrary.com references to “cat ladies” are to “crazy cat ladies,” the problematic subset tending to keep all “cat ladies” somewhat suspect.
Continuing reflections of anxiety among “cat ladies” about possibly slipping over the line into craziness include “28 Signs That You Are a Crazy Cat Lady,” an online quiz published by Louisiana author and cat enthusiast Kristine Lacoste in January 2014, and a Quora discussion of “How many cats are needed to be a crazy cat lady?” that opened in 2017, continued throughout 2018, and may still be underway.
Sexism & gender imbalance in humane work
Readers to this point will probably have noticed that the phrases “pit hag,” “rescue angel,” “cat lady,” and “crazy cat lady” all specifically target females, and as such are inherently sexist. Such terms identify the mere attribute of being female as part of the alleged social deviancy that is under attack.
“Pit hag” and “rescue angel” are sometimes applied to men too, and Reinhold Aman humorously described himself as a “cat man.” Yet the use of these terms to describe men is both rare and demasculinizing, a common pejorative approach in itself, shown for example in calling an alleged coward a “pussy.”
The sexist aspect of calling someone a “pit hag,” “rescue angel,” “cat lady,” or “crazy cat lady” reflects the historical gender imbalance in humane work.
From the earliest accessible donor lists and lists of volunteers involved in charitable activity on behalf of animals, published by the Royal SPCA and other pioneering human societies in the 19th century, through to the present, about 80% of the support base for animal advocacy has been female––at least in the western world. Such a gender disparity is much less evident in Asia and Africa, where animal advocacy has historically been more closely linked to religion.
Conversely, dogfighting, cockfighting, and gambling on the outcomes of dogfights and cockfights have been practiced, throughout history, almost entirely by men.
The linguistic mirror term for “cat lady” would be “dog man.”
“Dog men” come in several varieties, including those whose lives center on hunting dogs, dogfighters, and other commerce involving dogs.
Probably the most notorious of all “dog men” called by that name was Joseph P. “JoJo the Dog Man” O’Neill (1929-2005), who for decades collected puppies from mostly Amish farmers in Ohio and elsewhere, for resale in New Jersey.
Regardless of what specifically a “dog man” does, “dog men” have never been as socially respectable as “houndsmen” or members of the “dog fancy,” even in the mid-19th century, when “dog fancier” was synonymous with dogfighting.
“Dog man” or “Irish-American gentleman”?
To be a “dog man,” for as long as the term can be traced, is to be suspected of living with dogs, sharing dog-like habits, being rough, uncouth, and odoriferous, unacceptable to women and altogether not a person with whom gentlemen associate.
Much as “cat ladies” and even “crazy cat ladies” take some of the sting out of those names by calling themselves such, “dog men” often identify themselves by that term; for “JoJo the Dog Man,” who also often called himself “an Irish-American gentleman,” it was a badge of honor.
The counterparts of “dog men” in cockfighting are self-described “chicken fighters,” a name used by almost no one else, but commonly used by non-Latino cockfighters to identify themselves to each other.
Culturomics ngram viewer shows “chicken fighter” emerging into visibility circa 1900, but NewspaperArchive shows the Rome Daily Courier, of Rome, Georgia, identifying a local politician named W.L. Prentise as a professional “chicken fighter” as early as June 2, 1871.
“It is rumored that the radicals, scallawags, and negroes of Rome are all for him,” the Rome Daily Courier alleged. These were serious charges in the Reconstruction era South.
Since “chicken fighter” appears to be little used, if at all, by the Latinos who are today more than 95% of the cockfighters charged with criminal offenses, “chicken fighter” today appears to have essentially the same connotations of racial identity today as it had nearly 150 years ago, when to be a “chicken fighter” favored by “radicals, scallawags, and negroes” was to be at best on the margins of polite white Southern society, even if openly and defiantly so.
Correction needed, please. I wrote the meaning of Pit Hag for the Urban Dictionary during personal messages with JB a few years ago. Thank you.
Christine Heinrichs says
Great essay! Really, there’s a book in this subject. The term used for those who fight chickens is cockfighter or cocker. There may be sensitivities about those words in polite discourse. A friend tried to sell a book about elephant seals pups and found editors objected to the term weaner, which is the correct word to identify newly weaned pups.