Thoughts on a Word: Foxy

Foxy is assertive, even aggressive, maybe ready to run her claws down your back. Foxy is canine, vulpine; foxy is active, not passive. You can't quite trust a foxy lady; she's cunning, sly, a trickster, and she might just outfox you. Silver foxes aside, chances are that if you are foxy, you are a woman. More specifically, you are—ooh! a foxy lady.

Women are usually likened to cats, not dogs; from pussycats to cougars, the idea is that coy feline elusion is in keeping with the supposed essence of woman. Still, we choose a member of the Canidae family—the fox—to describe women. We like woman-as-fox so much that we assign both sexes of the Vulpes genus to her: She is both fox and vixen. Both connote a sexy trickster, but the vixen is less playful than her male counterpart, more apt to bite than to merely wink. Foxy is the only way we can refer to a woman as a dog and not be out to wound her.

We started using foxy just before the turn of the 20th century; its first recorded use is in 1895 as African American slang, though it jumped the color line in the early 1900s. It's notable that it took Americans to describe women as foxes: For centuries, cultures around the world had hinged their myths on quick-witted, cunning foxes, and much early American culture sprang from people who then hunted foxes just for kicks. But once we started using foxy, we didn't look back. It became widespread in the 1940s—curiously enough, at a time when women were wearing foxes around their shoulders—but is most associated with the 1970s. Yet it lingered beyond that: A study of top slang terms at the University of North Carolina from 1972 to 1993 reveals foxy as one of the top 40 slang words used. Its enduring appeal may be a testament to Pam Grier's blaxsploitation template Foxy Brown (1974)—or, more likely, to that perennial college-dorm favorite, Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady."

From the first psychedelic twinge of that off-kilter note, we know that Hendrix, not the foxy lady, is the predator. Its plodding, mid-tempo guitar riff tells us he's not exactly in a hurry to come get her, even as the lyrics indicate that she is soon to be possessed. She may be a wild animal—but he knows she's just a cute little heartbreaker, a sweet little lovemaker. In the end, the foxy lady isn't a fox at all, or if she is, her cunning wit is no match for this bigger, badder wolf. He's coming to get her—and what's more, when we listen to the creeping, aggressive discord that creates the song's magic, we're rooting for him to win. After all, he won't do her no harm, right? Carmen Borrero, a girlfriend who required stitches after Hendrix hit her with a bottle, and Kathy Etchingham, who endured a beating from Hendrix with the handset of a public telephone, might disagree.

We like foxy because of its mix of sly power and potential to be captured, if only you're quick enough. Foxy implies a certain amount of action, even aggression, from the person labeled as such. Foxy cannot be icy blonde or a next-door innocent; foxy knows there's a hint of musk about her. At the same time, it's no accident that we call women foxy and not wolfy—a fox might even bite you, but she won't do that much damage. Foxy gives us a knowing, smoldering trickster, not a domineering destroyer. And we return the favor to foxes: High-class Brits of yore aside, we didn't really shoot foxes. We preferred to trap them.

Foxy is a bit quaint now; even Megan Fox yields a surprisingly anemic number of puns in the press, while Michael J. Fox adopted a false middle initial in 1980 in part because of the inevitable headlines his real name, Michael Andrew Fox, could invite. We have Foxy Brown, of course, but even her handle is a callback to the 1974 film. Foxy gives us a retro appeal of an era that too many Americans remember for us to fetishize the way we do the old Hollywood broads, dames, and bombshells. In fact, I'd bet that many women known as cougars were, once upon a time, merely foxy ladies. And unlike the fox, the cougar is a bit too powerful—a bit too moneyed, a bit too sophisticated—for even someone with the prowess Jimi Hendrix to simply come get.