With a burgeoning market of cougar-themed books, TV shows, movies, clubs, cruises, Web sites and more, it’s clear the term “cougar” is not going away any time soon. But where did it come from?
A number of sources concur that the appellation originated in western Canada, and that it dates back to the late 1980s. Valerie Gibson, a Toronto-based sex columnist and author of Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men, says she first heard the term used in an older women/ younger men context by a friend visiting from Vancouver, British Columbia. “I don’t think [the origin] will ever be proven, at least by the standards of a dictionary editor,” says lexicographer Grant Barrett, a slang specialist and co-host of the public radio program A Way with Words. But he did graciously point me in the direction of Doug Coulson, former owner of Merlin’s Cabaret, in Victoria, British Columbia, the bar that appears to be the birthplace of cougar coinage.
According to Coulson, it happened during the winter of 1987-88; a typical rainy, foggy night in Victoria. Alan Danyleyko, aka “Big Al,” was working the door at Merlin’s for the popular weekly Ladies Night event, emceed by Patricia Mumford. “She would circle the dance floor throughout the show,” says Coulson. “One night, she came in late for work. She was all flustered, her hair damp and flattened. Al said she looked like a cougar prowling around the club. He used the term affectionately—Al was kind of sweet on Patty, in a big brother sort of way.”
Mumford, who was in her mid twenties at the time, agrees: “Al was kind of like a big teddy bear, always watching out for everybody, a really wonderful man. When I was emceeing, I was constantly interacting with the crowd, on and off the dance floor. I would talk to people and make sure everyone felt like they were involved. I’ve always had a tendency to be kind of mothering. That night, I was running late and it was very busy. I was probably pacing a little bit more than normal. I was about to go on and Al was watching me talk to a couple of ladies and a bunch of very young guys, and he said, ‘You’re just like a cougar looking after your little kids, on the floor making sure everybody is OK.’ It wasn’t taken as an insult. It was a joke. Actually, I took it as a compliment.”
The term became a running joke among the staff and got tossed around quite a bit. “We played on it,” says Mumford. “ ‘Hey cougar, what are you stalking tonight?’ We were just joking. It was never meant to take on the form that it did, that negative image.”
In Victoria, Merlin’s was the place to be in the late eighties and early nineties. The Edmonton Oilers and the Vancouver Canucks trained there in the winter. Players like Mark Messier, Wayne Gretzky and the Courtnall brothers frequented the club, along with numerous U.S. sailors passing through town—all of whom probably helped spread the term, say Coulson and Mumford.
Coulson sold Merlin’s to his business partner in late 1996; the name changed soon after. “Big Al” passed away in March 2009.
Mumford, now a 47-year-old corporate sales manager in the mobile communications industry, is laid back about her pivotal role in cougar history.
“I never really gave it a lot of thought until the term started being used as a negative slur against older women,” she says, adding that she’s found it’s often younger women who use the word in a derogatory manner, “I guess you can put that down to the insecurity of youth (not all of them), or that ugly green monster that hates competition.” As for her own preference in men, “I have to be honest and say younger men do a have a certain appeal—though I do know men in my own age group who could give a lot of the younger men some competition in the fitness, looks and experience den,” Mumford says. “But younger men tend to be more carefree and active,” she adds.