Monthly Archives: May 2010

piss /pɪs/

Like many people, I have an account on the Facebook social network site. I’m not sure whether I’m making the best use of the word “social” here because I tend to restrict my updates to tweets from The Word Guy, links on The Word Guy group page, and comments with my friends of the If You Can’t Differentiate Between “Your” And “You’re” You Deserve To Die group. The hyperbole of the title is often misunderstood by those people who don’t understand sarcasm, but in general, it’s fun to waste a little time now and again ripping on folks who make mistakes. Including me.

A recent discussion was on the derivation of the phrase piss poor. The suggested origin went as follows:

They used to use urine to tan animal skins, so families used to all pee in a pot, then once a day it was taken and sold to the tannery. If you had to do this to survive you were, “Piss Poor”, but worse than that, were the really poor folk, who couldn’t even afford to buy a pot, they “Didn’t have a pot to Piss in and were the lowest of the low.

A wonderful story but it turns out to have no evidence whatsoever to back it up. There may be a hint of plausibility about it but then again, all good tales should make you want to believe.


The word can be traced back to Anglo-Norman as pisser, or to Old French as pissier. It’s meaning has always been “to urinate” but there is no certainty about where it ultimately derives from.[1] The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that it may be of imitative origin, based on the notion that the sound of someone urinating is sort of “sssssssssss…” There are also similarities between Anglo-Norman and c12th Occitan pissar, c13th Catalan pixar, and c14th Spanish pixar. I wonder if Michael Eisner knew this before he bought Pixar, the company, back in 2006.


Actually, Pixar was apparently derived from pixel and the the initials of the first two names of one of the founders, Alvy Ray Smith. And according to author Alan Deutschman, the -el became -ar not because of Alvy but because in Spanish, the –ar ending is common in verbs and so it has the connotation of being derived from a current Spanish infinitive, *pixar=to pix. Whatever the truth of the matter, the link between the company name and the old Catalan meaning “to piss” is too good to pass up.

What we do know is that the word appears around 1300 in the following quote:

His membres pat he of carf : euere he dude misse
Bote a lute wharpurf he mijte : whan he wolde pisse
(A Miracle of St. James inTransactions of the Philological Society, 1858)

By 1359, Chaucer was using the word as a noun in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue from The Canterbury Tales:

No thyng forgat he the penaunce and wo
That Socrates hadde with hise wyves two,
How Xantippa caste pisse upon his heed.

By the 20th century, the noun form had also come to be used to refer to alcoholic drinks, particularly those that were weak or unpalatable. In 1925, Edward Fraser and John Gibbons, in their Soldier and Sailor words and phrases, defined piss (or pish, as they wrote it) to refer to whiskey or any spirits.

The verb form also took on the meaning of raining heavily in the phrase “pissing down” or “pissing with rain.” In 1948, Philip Larkin wrote “Outside its (sic) pissing with rain.” (In Selected Letters, 1992).

The true power of piss comes from the way in which is has been used to create a large number of noun and verb compounds. Here is a selection of imaginative uses:

  • piss-proud: (late 1700’s): having an erection because of a full bladder.
  • on the piss: (Chiefly Britain, Australia, and New Zealand; 1920’s): on a drinking spree.
  • piss and vinegar (US; 1940’s): energy, vigor, and youthful aggression.
  • take the piss out of (Chiefly Britain, Australia, and New Zealand; 1940’s): to make fun of or to mock.
  • piss artist (mainly British, 1960’s): a drunkard (see on the piss) or generally someone who fools around irresponsibly.
  • piss-take (Brit., Aus., and NZ; 1979’s): a parody or a send-up.

In the US, it seemed to be around the 1940’s when the word started being used as an intensifier meaning excessive, bad, or undesirable, as in piss-poor, piss-bad, piss-easy or piss-elegant.

Its place as an element in phrasal verbs is well documented in the OED, with entries like;

  • to piss through the same quill (Chiefly US, 1600’s): to be in agreement with, or to have a close relationship with.
  • to piss in/against the wind (1600’s): to waste time or be ineffectual at something.
  • to piss away (1600’s): to squander or waste something, usually money.
  • to piss up a rope (US, 1930’s): to do something pointless.

Incidentally, the word pissant or piss-ant began life as a reference to an actual ant, with its earliest form being pissmire, which in turn came from piss and maur, derived from early Scandinavian maurr or maur meaning ant. The piss element relates to the urine smell purported to come from an ant hill; hence a piss-ant is an ant that smells like piss.

Piss Ant

In the early 20th century, it took on the meaning of an insignificant, contemptible or irritating person, and then becoming more generic to refer to anything that was thought to be worthless and petty;

When your pissant town is called up to the huge-event big time, you can send me a thank-you note. (Houston Press, 2005, 10th Feb.)

In Australia, pissant can be found as a verb to mean mess around or loiter aimlessly – pissanting about.

And no more pissanting about for me. Enough is enough and it’s time for me to piss off to bed and call it a day.


[1] For all the folks who follow me on Twitter as a way of reinforcing their learning of English as a second language, notice that this sentence ends in a preposition – from. Some people will argue that ending with a preposition is a bad thing and should be avoided. If so, I would have written “…there is no certainty about from where it ultimately derives.” However, this sounds more complex and more formal than “…ultimately derives from” so I decided that in this case, having the preposition at the end sounds better.



Filed under Etymology, Vocabulary, Word Origins

lavender /’lævɪnˌdə/

The ability of human beings to find patterns in life when none exists is called apophenia.  It appears to be a deeply rooted cognitive process whereby people try to impose order on the world, even if such order does not exist. In the absence of an objective pattern, people will impose one.

As a phenomenon, it can take the blame for conspiracy theories, supernatural beliefs, rumors, myths, and all the posts during the past six years related to ABC’s phenomenally successful “Lost” series. Apophenia is what fuels the psychoanalytical Rorschach test and continues to have some people believe that the destruction of the twin towers in New York on 9/11 was planned by George W. Bush, the Jews, and aliens from Area 51.

Lost in Apophenia

So powerful is apophenia that people will cling to their erroneous beliefs even in the face of hard evidence to the contrary. Cultists who predict the End of the World on a particular date hardly seem fazed when the day comes and goes and they are still around. They simply reconstruct their patterns and create a new “truth.”

A more modest example of linguistic apophenia is with what are called “folk etymologies.” The OED defines it as;

the popular perversion of the form of words in order to render it apparently significant

Over at, the definition on offer is;

1. a modification of a linguistic form according either to a falsely assumed etymology, as Welsh rarebit from Welsh rabbit, or to a historically irrelevant analogy, as bridegroom from bridegome, or

2. a popular but false notion of the origin of a word.

The origin of company names and product names positively bristles with folk etymologies. A recent article for the New York Times by Ben Zimmer takes a peek at some dodgy etymologies in the corporate world.

And acronyms and bacronyms are a fruitful source of yarn spinning. Adidas is often quoted as being an acronym meaning “All day I dream about sport,” but the truth is that it is named after one of the founders, Adolf Dassler, whose nickname was Adi.

In his article entitled, Spitten Image: Etymythology and Fluid Dynamics, Laurence Horn of Yale University offered the following comment:

The human animal loves a good story and in particular cherishes a narrative embedding privileged knowledge. Etymythology is the lexical version of the urban legend, a fable—or more generously a piece of culturally based arcane wisdom—not transmitted by scholarly research but passed on by word of mouth (or computer). (p.39)

Such examples of bogus etymologies are not random but seem to be based applying previously known or used patterns that seem to be related to the word in question. The belief that the word crap comes from Thomas Crapper, who allegedly invented the flush toilet (he didn’t), may well be totally bogus, but it sure sounds plausible – with sound being the appropriate word. The false etymology is based on the word crap sounding like Crapper.

Which brings us to lavender, a word used to describe ;

The plant Lavandula vera (family Labiatæ), a small shrub with small pale lilac-coloured flowers, and narrow oblong or lanceolate leaves; it is a native of the south of Europe and Northern Africa, but cultivated extensively in other countries for its perfume.

The word sounds and looks very similar to the Italian lavanda, which means “to wash,” and in a recent tweet from the word-loving languagebandit, he notes that one suggested etymology for lavanda is actually lavender, based on the belief that people would wash their clothes in water containing the plant in order to add fragrance to the fibers.

Lavender's blue dilly dilly...

But is this either true or even likely? Certainly we do know that in the 14th century, a lavender was the name given to a washer-women who did the laundry. In his Legend of Good Women (1358), Chaucer wrote;

Enuye I prere to god yeue hire myschaunce
Is lauender in the grete court alway

In this sense, the word is fairly interpreted as coming from the Latin lavare meaning “to wash.” It therefore seems unlikely that the name of the plant was the origin of things to do with washing when the Latin root was already around. You might make a more cogent case that the name of the plant came from the word used for a washer-women, who may well have used it for cleaning clothes.

A more plausible etymology is that the name of the plant comes from a different route altogether than the “washing” strand. Other Latin spellings included livendula and livendola, which bear similarities to Latin livere meaning “to be livid or bluish.” Hypothesizing that lavender is based on the notion of being blue in color seems much better than supposing it was used as a washing agent.

What we may be seeing here are TWO words that look and sound the same but come from different origins: lavender the washer-woman from lavere, and lavender the plant from livere.

Of course, one might argue that even the livere origin of lavender could be a false etymology, but if I were going to place a bet on the table at the yet-to-be-built Las Vegas “Casino Etymologica,” I’d stack my chips higher for the livere camp.


Horn, L. R. (2004). Spitten Image: Etymythology and Fluid Dynamics, American Speech, 79, 1, 33-58.

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Filed under Etymology, Vocabulary, Word Origins

pulchritude /’pʊlkɹɪˌt(j)u:d/

Here’s a quick test for you: Try saying the following words aloud and see if you can guess what they mean – assuming you don’t know already.

(a) windfucker

(b) gayholer

(c) niggard

If you say them loud enough in a crowded place, the odds are that someone is going to be mightily offended. However, feel free to point out to the newly insulted that they can easily help themselves become less stressed by going to a library and looking at a dictionary. For the more challenged, you might need to explain that a “library” is a large building where things called “books” are housed, and that a “book” is sort of like a Kindle but with paper and no need for re-charging. For the younger person, you might like to tell them that libraries are a bit like the Internet but with much less gossip and porn.

Windfucker is synonym for a kestrel, which was used as early as 1599, and giving rise to a variation, windhover, in the late 1600’s.

Falco tinnunculus or Windfucker

A gayholer is jailer or prison guard, first attested in the 13th century as one of a number of possible spellings for the name of, “one who has charge of a jail or of the prisoners in it. (OED, Vol. XIII, p.181).

A niggard is someone who is mean, stingy, or miserly, and probably comes from early Scandinavian forms such as Old Icelandic hnoggr or Swedish njugg, which also mean stingy, along with the suffix –ard, a noun-forming element.

All of these have something in common: They all sound worse than what they are. This comes about because they actually sound like other words that are deemed “bad,” but do not come from the same roots.

Now, unless someone can let me know, there doesn’t seem to be a word that means “a word that sounds bad” as opposed to a word that IS bad i.e. a pejorative or a swear word. If I were one of the architects of Babel, I’d use the word cacophonym to label such lexical items.

Cacophonym comes from the Greek κακο meaning bad, along with φωνοσ meaning sound or voice, topped with the suffix ὂνομα or name. The more etymologically minded among you will note that this neologism is like cacophony with an “m” added. Full marks for that one.

However, this post is not about an invented word but an example of an invented word – and that word is pulchritude. On first hearing, it doesn’t sound like something you’d either want to have or want to wish on someone else. It is packed with hard sounds and reminiscent of some form of disease or skin condition. Ugh.

The truth is that this is simply another example of a cacophonym (/kʌˈkɒfʌnɪm/) because it’s actually a wonderful thing to have or wish on someone else. Pulchritude is simply another word for beauty way back in 1926, it was used to describe a new contest in Galveston, Texas, called The International Pageant of Pulchritude, which eventually became the Miss Universe competition.

Int. Pageant of Pulchritude, 1928

As you might expect, the word is a lot older than Galveston. The Oxford English Dictionary has its first citation dated 1460 in a collection of poems entitled Knyghthode & Bataile:

Themanuel, this Lord of Sabaoth,
Hath ostis angelik that multitude,
That noon of hem, nor persone erthly, woote
Their numbir or vertue or pulcritude;
Our chiualers of hem similitude
Take as thei may, but truely ? fer is,
As gemmys are ymagyned to sterrys.

Clearly the writer had limited access to a spell checker, but woot for the angelic hosts, eh?

The Middle French pulcritude or pulchritude is derived from the classical Latin pulcritudo meaning beauty and attractiveness. This in turn comes from the base form pulcher (and pulcer) meaning beautiful, along with the suffix –ious, which magically turns a word into another one meaning “full of” – in this case, pulchrious (or pulchrous)for “full of beauty.” In his 1547 book, The pryncyples of astronomye in manner a prognosticayon to the worldes end,” Andrew Border wrote that “Venus is a pulcrus planet.”

The adjective form pulchritudinous seems to have been an American invention, appearing in print in an 1877 edition of Puck magazine:

Fanny Davenport, the pulchritudinous and unpoetic, will play Shaksperian [sic] comedy… at Booth’s Theatre next week.

The word, although uncommon, is certainly not dead. In an article dated March 31st, 2010, published as article on the Parisian Art Deco hotel, Hotel Lutetia, entitled Hundred Years of Pulchritude at the Lutetia, where they talk about the beauty of the old hostelry. Furthermore, a quick look at the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) illustrates 33 instances of the word being used from 1990 to 2009, such as:

Postnap, the kids are on the couch, watching Disney’s Pocahontas-a fine example of feminine pulchritude by any standard, cartoon or otherwise, especially to a guy whose last night out with his wife, sans children, was roughly twenty-one months previous, a Saturday. (Mike Sagar, Esquire, 2006, Vol. 146, Iss.1, p.125)


And as well as being a current, all be it at a relatively low-frequency occurrence, the internet (or the Mother of All Lies, as some of us like to call it) has it as the collective name for a group of peacocks; a pulchritude of peacocks. However, it’s difficult to know how recent this is as there appear to be no actual references to where this originated, and neither the COCA nor the OED have any examples. It’s therefore tempting to conclude that it is a relatively new usage of pulchritude, used in something of either a humorous or ironic manner.

White Peacocks

Whatever its age, it still remains such a good example of a cacophonym that if you’re ever tempted to feel the need to impress you date with your vast vocabulary, I’d recommend that you avoid using this word to “whisper sweet nothings.” Save it for dinner parties, pub quizzes, and drunken nights out.

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Filed under Etymology, Humor, Vocabulary, Word Origins

stupid /ˈstʊ:pɪd/ (US), /ˈstjʊ:pɪd/ UK

My daughter decided to use her “text a friend” option yesterday while being involved in a heated online linguistic discussion in the XBox world of Halo. She is a freshman at college so naturally this message arrived in the afternoon, when no sane student is actually working.

Halo 3 game

Those of you who have spent any time with an online Halo team will know that the level of verbal interaction tends not to be at a particularly high level. I would hazard a guess that the average Halo language sample is made up mostly of profanities, some of which I’m not sure even I would recognize as such. However, the big, big topic for the day was all about the gradeability of adjectives, specifically as applied to the word stupid.

The question was; which is correct – stupidest or most stupid? A natural sub-question was whether is was better to say stupider or more stupid. It was after a round of arguing that my daughter decided to call in The Word Guy.

Typically, I always love to be right on questions like this, but in practice, some English language “truths” turn out to be more opinion than science, and the rules that are used to determine what is and isn’t “correct” are more complex than hyperdimensional probabilistic quantum equations where you aren’t allowed to use vowels or the number zero.

In general, adjectives (or words that can behave like adjectives) with a single syllable can be graded by adding an -er or an -est to form the comparative and superlative forms. Dumb, dumber, and dumbest are OK, as are thick, thicker, and thickest. Words with three or more syllables stay the same but need more and most to be added to the front. So, we see simple-minded, more simple-minded, and most simple-minded, as well as ludicrous, more ludicrous, and most ludicrous.

However, when you use two-syllable words like stupid and inane, things can get a little wooly, which I accept is not a formal linguistics term but certainly seems to fit the general feeling one gets when faced with choices between adding an ending or using a preceding more/most.

So in true prevaricating style, I texted my daughter back that both stupidest and most stupid are fine.

But that, of course, wasn’t satisfying enough for me,  so I decided to try to find a few numbers using the Google search engine. Here are the results expressed in ghits (Google hits):

Stupidest: 1,575,000
Most stupid: 593,000

We can see that stupidest is the winner by far, being used almost three times more often than its most stupid counterpart.  If you were to describe this article as “the stupidest analysis of stupid on the planet,” you might be factually wrong but grammatically with the majority.

Moving on to the comparative forms, I found the following ghits:

Stupider: 489,000
More stupid: 662,000

Here, the figures as less conclusive. I’d be OKish to say that more stupid is the more popular, but it would be better to chase down more data to support this. What IS worth noting is that if these figures are reasonably correct, the “correct” gradeable triplet is as follows:

stupid more stupid stupidest

As I said earlier, the “rules” in this case seem to be slipperier  (more slippy?) than a bucket of eels that’s been filled with baby oil.See how the comparative and superlative forms are inconsistent with each other? Welcome to the English language, eh?

The word stupid is defined by the OED as;

Having one’s faculties deadened or dulled; in a state of stupor, stupefied, stunned; esp. hyperbolically, stunned with surprise, grief, etc.

As an adjective, it pops up in Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale back in 1611;

Is not your Father growne incapeable Of reasonable affayres?
Is he not stupid With Age, and altring Rheumes?
Can he speake? heare? Know man, from man? (Act IV, Scene iv)

The word appears to come from the Latin stupere, which means “to be stunned or benumbed,” and is the same root for the word stupor that can be seen as a noun in 1358 to describe;

A state of insensibility or lethargy; spec. in Path., a disorder characterized by great diminution or entire suspension of sensibility.

John de Trevisa, in his Bartholomeus (de Glanvilla) De proprietatibus rerum (1398), uses the wonderful phrase;

Stupor is a lettynge and stonyenge of lymmes and crokynge of the vtter partyes of the body for colde so that it semyth that the lymmes shrynke and slepe.

Having one’s “vtter partyes crokynged” sounds more painful than stuporific, but it is at least a good definition of the word.

There is some evidence that stupid was also used to describe a paralyzed part of the body, but this is confined to a usage in 1638 and this connotation clearly never caught on.

Now, at about the same time as Shakespeare was using stupid to describe a state of stupor, its use to describe someone “wanting in or slow of mental perception; lacking ordinary activity of mind; slow-witted, dull” (OED, Vol XVI, p.1000) was also growing. It’s this more pejorative use of the word that is typical of today’s use.

During the 19th century, it took on the flavor of meaning of something “Void of interest, tiresome, boring, dull,” which could be applied to objects and situations, not just people. When Mary Braddon wrote “We were quartered at a stupid sea-port town” in her 1862 novel Lady Audley’s Secret, she wasn’t referring to the mental state of the town but its tedious nature.

It was also used during this period as a noun to refer to someone as being a stupid, as in “You do not know what a thoughtless, heartless stupid I have been. (Mrs. Alexander, Valerie’s Fate, 1885.) This is similar to how someone might refer to a person as a stupid today, or in the now-cliched T-shirt phrase, “I’m with stupid.”

It seems that in the mid-to-late 20th century that the word took on a more insulting slant and became a term of abuse or disparagement. In J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951), we find the sentence, “Anyway, it was December and all, and it was cold as a witch’s teat, especially on top of that stupid hill.” Unlike Braddon’s stupid sea-port, the stupid used to refer to the hill is derogatory.

Since the 20th century, the word seems to be used almost exclusively as a pejorative and calling someone who appears a little sleepy or unfocused as stupid would be unwise.

The word can also function as the noun stupidity, and as the adverb, stupidly, to describe something being done foolishly.

And don’t forget, as Einstein once quipped;

Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.

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Filed under Etymology, grammar, Morphology, Uncategorized, Vocabulary, Word Origins