The buzzword for older women is hardly empowering, says Rebecca Barry.

Cougars. It would be nice to ignore this zeitgeisty American term but it keeps cropping up - everywhere from Hollywood to Ireland and the air over New Zealand. By now the original users are probably cringing at its over-use, like teens whose parents try to communicate with last year's playground slang. The American football team are probably used to the jibes.

But now that we're stuck with it, and all its silly connotations involving the pursuit of defenceless animals, we might as well try to come to some form of mutual agreement as to what it actually means. Is it a term of empowerment or just another word for harpy? Should we celebrate the rise of the wild cats or try to kill a mocking word?

It's too vague to say it's a woman who sleeps with a younger man and yet its increasingly liberal use means mature women with younger partners are getting slapped with a label they don't necessarily relate to.

The original use of the word was in 1999 when cougardate.com, a website pairing older women with younger men, became popular. So it basically meant an organised pursuit.

Then it caught on with celebs - and the tabloid outfits reporting on them - who snowballed the word's popularity. In the pro-cougar camp: celebrities such as Madonna, Demi Moore and Susan Sarandon, whose marriage to the much younger Tim Robbins has just ended, keep magazines filled with the word. Occasionally it's used disparagingly but mostly they're treated like feminist heroines to be admired, their balding ex-husbands cast as the jealous losers, left to watch this great blossoming of female power unfold.

As part of TVNZ's new season launch, Courteney Cox stars in Cougar Town, a show that finds her single 40-something character reclaim her sexuality by dating a series of younger men. Just as her male neighbour does with younger women.

There's an argument that labelling this old-as-the-hills phenomenon has helped to shatter the taboo that doesn't exist for the opposite sex. According to a website called The Real Cougar Woman, the ultimate definition of a cougar is "smart, sexy and independent", proud to be over 40, "a woman who adores men but refuses to be defined by the age of the man she chooses to be with". Which suggests the man could be 89, but anyhoo.

Lately however, the term has not been used to describe sexual confidence and power, the usurping of gender stereotypes. It's more to do with undignified desperation, a label to pin to boundless older women with one thing on their minds.

Disgraced Irish MP Iris Robinson, 60, could have just been called "Mrs Robinson" for her liaison with a 19-year-old boy when she was 59. In the online community she's widely referred to as a cougar queen. An American cruise liner recently banned cougar-themed parties because they obviously didn't want to be associated with such brazen hook-ups. Air New Zealand's now infamous cougar ad campaign mocks the cougar as a woman to be avoided. Still it didn't stop hundreds of cougars from signing up for free tickets to the Sevens.

An unscientific survey conducted in Auckland bars this week with help from some young single men finds it's not just the word catching on. Three report being pursued relentlessly by cougars, or as one put it, "older chicks who play hard-not-to-get". Another reckons all this talk of cougars has actually caused the cougar population to breed, with many hunting in packs. I get the impression he is a bit bewildered by it all. Apparently it's getting harder to just meet a nice girl who you can take home to mum without the two of them recognising each other from high school. Samantha Jones and Stifler's Mom are alive and well and teetering around the Viaduct.

Other mature women I spoke to, who are married to or going out with younger men, say their relationships are not tied into this trend. It's just the norm for them.

The predatory part of the equation, the concept of domination, doesn't even factor into it. They'd rather be called parsnips than cougars, and yet they fend off the animal title all the time.

Within the world of the cougar, however, it's hard to shake the feeling that lurking beneath the cool exterior of a sexy wild cat, beyond the fun and the excitement of forming a relationship that has nothing to do with procreation, is an element of revenge. Revenge against double standards that have seen older men parading their younger female trophies for decades.

Has it really taken women this long to break the glass ceiling and finally call a boy toy our own? Wow. Equality is really something.