In her latest post for Strong Language, Nancy Friedman enlightened us with some happenings of shit, which excremental theme Ben Yagoda fittingly continued in his print on bullshit. Some months back, Nancy also covered shit‘s execratory counterpart, piss, while Iva Cheung had the floor with some very unparliamentary language, including an instance of pissant (see Section 12).
For Strong Language standards, pissant is piddly. Yet the word nonetheless struck me as a curious little vulgar vermin that’s not yet crawled around these pages, though the site’s very own James Harbeck treated the word similarly some years back, which I discovered – like a pissant – just as I was finishing this post.
Piddly or repeat aside, it’s one of the (rare) times you’d actually be excused for confusing etymology with entomology, to the relief of many word historians.
Today, pissant (also formed as piss ant or piss-ant) is largely an insult spit at a “worthless, insignificant, contemptible, or irritating person.” The word, of course, can also denigrate something as “worthless” or the like. Pissant is an effective compound: It joins the tiny anonymity evoked by ant with piss‘s hiss and dismissive sense of anger, not to mention, well, actual piss. For a close reading, I’d add that its initial plosive disparages with the likes of petty, pity, puny, and perhaps even pathetic.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates this slang usage of pissant back to 1935 in Harold L. Davis’s Honey in the Horn: “Anybody who called owning horses disorderly conduct was a liar and pissant.” The book won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel (now, Fiction) in 1936. Not so pissant.
Another novel, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, famously elaborates on pissant in a bar scene with the narrator and H. Lowe Crosby:
A pissant is somebody who thinks he’s so damn smart, he can never keep his mouth shut. No matter what anybody says, he’s got to argue with it. You say you like something, and, by God, he’ll tell you why you’re wrong to like it. A pissant does his best to make you feel like a boob all the time. No matter what you say, he knows better.
U.S. President Lyndon Johnson once notoriously characterized Vietnam as a “damn little pissant country.” Dolly Parton sang of a “A Lil’ Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place” in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Speaking of politics, in his own Political Dictionary, William Safire specifies the political pissant: “One who is a stickler for details; a derogation of a too-technical minor functionary.” Perhaps this sense echoes the “pissant motion” in Iva’s post?
And speaking of sex, Sex and the City‘s Richard Wright (Samantha’s philandering ex-lover, played by James Remar) describes hosting an event for twenty-somethings as having “to tongue the taints of these trendy little pissants.” I’m not sure if ants have taints, but they do have rectums (or should I say recta, to be a pissant about it?).
But some readers, particularly in regions of the US, may well know pissant not just as the insult, but also as its origin: the actual ant, typically a wood ant. In the Dictionary of American Regional English‘s landmark 1965-1970 survey, 44 (n=1948) informants answered “piss ant” to the question, “What other kind of ants do you have around here?” That marks the 9th most common response. Not a pissant response.
The OED records this pissant usage as early as 1649 in an illustrative passage from Nicholas Culpeper’s Physicall Directory: “Some countries cal them Ants, some Pismires, and some Pissants, we in Sussex Emments.” The pismire sets a precedent for pissant in both its senses: Also a compound, pismire joins piss and mire, a term for “ant” probably deriving from some Germanic base (Old Norse has maurr, “ant”).
The OED gives the earliest citation to Chaucer in his Summoner’s Tale sometime around the end of the 14th century: “He is as angry as a pissemyre.” The Summoner’s Tale, mind you, splendidly culminates in a sick old man farting into a friar’s hands (as well as a subsequent effort to divide it into twelfths). Classic. Pismire‘s derogatory figuration is documented by the early 1500s.
But why did ants get associated with piss? The mischief of wanton boys wandering in the woods aside, anthills can, apparently, smell like piss, especially nests built of the detritus of forest floors, where – and I hazard a real guess here – the nitrification of pungent ammonia in the soil may play some part in the stench. Additionally, ants can secrete a venom, formic acid, when they bite or sting, which can smell urinous, so it goes. Ants’ sometimes fiery attacks may also lend ants their reputation for anger, as we saw from Chaucer. And the Latin for “ant,” I should note, is formica, hence formic acid, initially discovered in ant bodies.
Pismire has cousins in Germanic languages as well as parallel constructions combining other words for piss and ant (see the German miegeemk, with miegen, “to urinate,” related to obsolete English words for the same, mighe and mig).
Australian English, too, is credited for the comparative construction, drunk as a pissant (“very drunk”). Insignificance? Anger? Piss? The (piss-)poor ant has suffered much since its days of Aesopian industry. Yet the lowly ant may yet be redeemed: Australian English has also provided game as a pissant (“very brave”).