Piss off, Aesop?

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 pettypitypuny, 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.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, which captions the photograph as “Formica rufa, typical pissant.” Ha. “Typical.” What a pissant.

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 miegeemkwith 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”).

16 thoughts on “Piss off, Aesop?

  1. chris August 21, 2015 / 8:18 am

    Hmm, as an Aussie I can’t say ‘drunk as a pissant’ or ‘game as a pissant ‘ at all rings true, other opinions from my homeland may be helpful.
    However, on a recent driving trip in the western USA, We drove across the ‘dreaded’ Death Valley. When my Irish wife gave a lecture to a media class in San Francisco, they apparently found my Australian vernacular description of the terrors of said valley as “pissweak” to be hilarious and entirely unfamiliar.
    So yes to pissweak, no to pissant.

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    • John Kelly August 21, 2015 / 2:32 pm

      Hi, Chris. You make a point about “drunk as a pissant.” The OED (and other slang-y resources) cite the word back in the 1930s, so its currency may well have faded out. That said, I love your “pissweak” anecdote. First, great term! Second, somewhat parallel, I used to live in Minnesota and took every occasion to brag about tundra toughness whenever friends or family griped about so-called storm of 6 inches of snow. Then, I moved to Southern California, where natives eye an overcast sky with extreme caution. Talk about “pissweak.”

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    • Chips Mackinolty August 26, 2015 / 10:59 pm

      Agree with @Chris re: Drunk as a pissant” and “game as a pissant”. They just don’t make sense, in any case. Not sure if it is an Australianism or not, but have always liked the phrase “pissed as a fart”.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. pbarret August 21, 2015 / 5:26 pm

    Walde-Hofmann’s Lateinishes Etymologisches Woerterbuch and Fasmer’s Etymological Dictionary of the Russian Language (the Entomological section – kidding) lists words related to mire, incl. ON maur-r, incl. Old Swedish myr, incl. Latin formica, all from an I-E root ^morui. Middle Dutch has miere, tho mire isn’t mentioned in either work and neither is English. The Latin one has a coda about how the m got to f..

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  3. pbarret August 21, 2015 / 6:28 pm

    On Saturday I’ll look in a Spanish etymological dictionary for the origin of mear. So many Sp words come from Germanic languages, esp the Goths, that mear ‘pee’, may be related to the word of this thread ‘mire’.

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    • John Kelly August 22, 2015 / 6:06 pm

      Meanwhile, “piss” is common to the Romanic languages: The OED suggests imitative origin, either from a sound-symbolic Latin root or from separate but parallel development across the tongues. The OED also notes the Germanic iterations are borrowed from the French. It’s interesting to think of a Romanic word for such a basic function displacing any native Germanic term.

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    • pbarret August 22, 2015 / 9:29 pm

      It’s Saturday and I found mear in the etymological dictionary and it’s from Latin meiare which is related to a similar word in many I-E languages and goes back to the root meigh- meaning cloud or mist. OE had migan for pee and Russian has mgla for mist. The Walde-Hofmann work has a long section under meio.

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  4. John Cowan August 21, 2015 / 8:42 pm

    I suspect emment should have been emmet, a twin of ant, both < ME ampte < OE æmette. In addition antmire was substituted for pismire during the Grant Era, which gave us limb for leg, bosom for breast, white/dark meat for breast/leg meat, and inexpressibles for nether-garments ‘underpants’.

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    • John Kelly August 22, 2015 / 6:09 pm

      Speaking of “ant” species, some regional English also yields some misdisivions, such as “nant” (“an ant” > a “nant”; Northumberland) and “nemot” (Scots).

      Interesting that the “pis-” in “pismire” wasn’t just scrubbed off rather than yielding the redundant “antmire.”

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  5. Iva Cheung August 21, 2015 / 9:30 pm

    Embarrassing confession: I always thought pissant was borrowed from the present participle of the French pisser. Thanks for setting me straight!

    Liked by 1 person

    • John Kelly August 22, 2015 / 6:10 pm

      Anyone who can confidently conjugate “pisser” should never have to apologize.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. jim August 25, 2015 / 12:58 pm

    perhaps an interesting commonality between pissant (at least as per vonnegut’s definition) and the dutch mierenneuker (“ant-fucker”), a term for people who make much ado about insignificant things.

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  7. CGHill August 26, 2015 / 1:14 am

    Having once, um, pissed someone off, I was denounced thusly:

    “If brains were gasoline, you couldn’t power a pissant’s go-kart around a donut hole.”

    At least it was a literal ant. I think.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pbarret August 26, 2015 / 4:33 am

      My wife always says, “If you put his brain in an ant, it’d go backwards.” For some reason, this always struck me as very funny. She also says, “Must is ’cause must ain’t don’t sound right.” She’s from East Texas.

      Liked by 1 person

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  9. Randel Allee May 30, 2016 / 1:45 am

    I mean the following in the nicest possible way.

    Much to my great pleasure,I recently stumbled across this website. I find the cerebral discussion of the vulgar to be a real spincter tingler. Indeed, my asshole quivers with delight at the very concept.

    It appears to me there are two main schools of scatological thought.
    The Minimalist: My maternal grandmother, and a paternal uncle, subscribed to this theory with great skill and alacrity. It was truly a wonder to be shocked by the well-placed “shit” or “damn” that rarely occurred during their respective social discourses.

    Of course, context is everything; they were true masters. (Yes, of context, you dirty sons of bitches. Do I constantly need to remind you, gentle reader, of what the fuck I’m talking about.) (Discuss punctuation) I have no idea what “alactity” means but it sounds pretty impressive, huh. (I lost my dictionary.)

    Neither grammar nor punctuation are my strong suits but I graduated the third grade and I know my Gazintas. (2 gazinta 4 two times. (Beverly Hillbillies.)

    The Maximalist: Incoherent by nature,mean sonofabitch by inclination. This type of asshole cocksucker will swear when a simple grunt will do. IE: “Honey, would you pick up Susie from school?” “I su-fuckin-pose.” Etc, etc, ad nausem.

    Well, I’ve attempted to convey a brief example of my profound thoughts on cussin’,at least for now. So, I grant a temporarey repreive to you, gentle reader.

    I fervently hope you puerile, gangrenous lickers of shit-covered cocks, who would just as soon spank the monkey, or buzz the button until it bleeds and screams for mercy, than you would save the life of a buggerous wino, have a nice day.

    In the nicest possible way, I remain yours,

    Randy

    P.S. Brace yourselves, I might become a contributor, or not…

    Like

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