piss poor, pot to piss in

The use of piss as an intensifier appears in the mid twentieth century U. S. slang. The first recorded use is in Ezra Pound’s Cantos LII–LXXI, lxix., which contains the line:

Bingham, Carrol of Carrolton Gone piss-rotten for Hamilton Cabot, Fisher Ames [etc.].

Why exactly piss is used in this fashion is uncertain, but it’s probably for the shock value.

The first use of the phrase piss poor itself is found in the archives of the OED, where it is recorded in the writing of A. L. Hench in 1946:

Piss-poor… Jim Constantine (...formerly sergeant in Air Corps in West Indies) told me this morning that this word 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.

Other uses of piss- from the mid century are piss-chic, piss-elegant, and piss-easy.

A similar phrase is not to have a pot to piss in, indicating extreme poverty. This one is recorded a bit earlier than piss poor, with the OED having a citation from 1934. It appears in a typescript of Djuna Barnes 1936 novel Nightwood:

My heart aches for all poor creatures putting on dog, and not a pot to piss in or a window to throw it from.

The combination and the alliteration of the two phrases probably helped piss poor survive while its other early counterparts have not become part of the lexicon.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen the old email hoax Life in the 1500s floating about. A series of false etymologies of common terms, the hoax dates back to 1999, and I spent an entire chapter debunking it in Word Myths. But yesterday my brother sent me a link to a version that popped up on an internet site recently. (I’m not providing the link because I don’t want to drive traffic to the site.) For the most part, it’s a word-for-word repetition of the old hoax, but it does add one new term piss poor. The site claims the phrase comes from the practice of poor people collecting and selling their urine for use in tanning animal hides, and that those who were really, really poor, didn’t have a pot to piss in.

It is true that urine, which is acidic, was once used in tanning leather. It helped loosen tissue and hair that remained on the skins and softened the hide. Urine was also used in production of dye and of gunpowder and for other purposes. But these uses all but disappeared in the nineteenth century with the advent of modern chemistry and the ability to produce artificial substitutes cheaply and efficiently. So this old practice is not the origin of the phrase piss poor or not having a pot to piss in, which both appear long after the practice of using urine in industrial production had ended.


Sources:

Kumar, Mohi. “From Gunpowder to Teeth Whitener: The Science Behind Historic Uses of Urine.” Smithsonian.com. 20 August 2013.

Oxford English Dictionary Online, third edition. s. v. piss, n. June 2006; pot, n1. December 2006.

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