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. 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.
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.
 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.