Someone sent me an email claiming that the expression “piss-poor” stemmed from days in which urine was used to tan animal skins. Families, said this epistler, peed in a pot, and once a day the accumulation was sold to the tannery. If you had to do this to survive, you were “piss-poor.”
It’s a cute story, but ‘tain’t funny, McGee.* ‘Tain’t true, either.
The word piss dates to the 14th century and is from the Vulgar (that is, as spoken by ordinary Romans) Latin word pissiare, a word of imitative origin, meaning just what you think it does. In phrases such as piss-poor (or piss-ugly, or piss-elegant, for that matter), piss is used as a pure intensifier, usually implying excess or undesirability. Ezra Pound used the phrase piss-rotten in 1940 in his Canto LXIX.
Similar usage of piss- developed in the United States in the mid-20th century. The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is by A. L. Hench, who reported in 1946 that an Air Corps sergeant had told him the term “was used by all the soldiers he came in contact with as descriptive of a thing in its lowest condition … e.g. ‘This is a piss-poor outfit. My job is a piss-poor one.’”
The phrase “so poor he didn’t have a pot to piss in” predates “piss-poor.” It was used by Djuna Barnes in her 1936 novel Nightwood: “My heart aches for all the poor creatures putting on dog and not a pot to piss in or a window to throw it from.”
By the way, pissant, meaning insignificant, is formed from the words piss and ant—but you hardly needed me to tell you that, did you?
The prudish Bard of Buffalo Bayou is reticent about using words like the one under discussion, so he has chosen to take a different tack:
Does Ezra Pound the pavement,
And will Horton Foote the bill?
Can William Tell what they’ve meant
If they see Iggy Pop a pill?
Does Robert Stack the deck,
Dame Diana Rigg elections,
And does Johnny Cash a check
And give Glenn Close inspections?
I wonder, will Claire Bloom,
And also, does Al Hirt,
To see what Elaine May consume
As Jeremy Irons a shirt?
Will Nicolas Cage a beast
And Cary Grant a wish,
And should Edith Head out east,
To help Barbara Cook a fish?
Does Martin Mull great notions
And Bob Hope for the best,
Does Tom Cruise all the oceans,
And has Rip Torn his vest?
And does Jim Carrey keys
And Chevy Chase sopranos,
Just as Hugh Downs trees
And helps Tommy Tune pianos?
*Only readers of a certain vintage will recognize the allusion to Fibber McGee and Molly, a staple of NBC radio from 1935 until 1952.