I'm nearly halfway done with the monumental New Biographical Dictionary of Film
by David Thomson -- I swear I've been reading this guy for a month, and I'm almost through the H's. But its been fun, and I'll write more about it later.
Back when I was on the G's, I hit what is so far the longest entry in the book, on the writer Graham Greene. In his entry on Greene, Thomson mentioned that he had been involved in a nasty libel suit in 1937 when he dared to write that Shirley Temple was a "totsy."
Having never heard the word totsy before, I had to do some investigating. this article nicely summarizes the scandal that ensued when Greene reviewed the John Ford movie Wee Willie Winkie, staring Temple. In a longer quote (I couldn't find the whole article), he writes: "infancy with her is a disguise, her appeal is more secret and more adult... in Wee Willie Winkie, wearing short kilts, she is a complete totsy... Her admirers - middle-aged men and clergymen - respond to her dubious coquetry... only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire."
History seems to judge Greene better on this -- Temple really is used as a bit of a totsy in her films, although I'm sure she never intended it that way. And one person's precocious performance is another person's kid acting a little too grown up. Not that we ever see any of that these days.
But back to totsy: what on earth does it mean? Where did it come from? Well, I went to the source (the Oxford English Dictionary) and its earliest use of the term is by Greene in his 1938 book Brighton Rock: "The atmosphere of innumerable roadhouses, of totsies gathered round swimming pools." In case you are wondering, the word is related to the British slang term "totty," which started as a diminutive for "tot," then gained the secondary meaning of a "good-time girl" and currently can be used for any group of "people (esp. women) collectively regarded as objects of sexual desire."
I'm going to use the hell out of this word from now on. You bunch of totsies.