Challenging Word of the WeeK: pismire


(PIS mire, PIZ-) noun

A pismire is an ant, but the term has been applied contemptuously to a despicable individual. Robert Penn Warren, the American poet and novelist (b. 1905), used it that way, “What do you think I’d do with a young pismire like you?” Shakespeare knew the word. In Henry IV, Part 1 (Act I, Scene 3), the impetuous young Harry Percy, known as Hotspur, cannot bear to hear the name of Bolingbroke:

Why, look you, I am whipped and scourged with rods, Nettled and stung with pismires, when I hear Of this vile politician, Bolingbroke.

In the same play (Act III, Scene 1) the same Hotspur uses the word ant. In reviling Mortimer’s father, he says:

…sometimes he angers me With telling me of the moldwarp (mole) and the ant…

In the earlier speech, the Bard obviously needed a two-syllable synonym for ant. Pismire is derived from Middle English pissemyre (a urinating ant, based on Middle English pisse, urinate, plus obsolete mire, ant). A pismire, then, is a urinating ant, i.e., an ant exuding formic acid.

My example: From my time living in more southerly parts of the country I am familiar with a colloquial version of this word: pisant, or pissant. The meaning is the same, however, as I always heard it used (or used it myself) to describe someone who is an irritating nuisance. I don’t think any of us knew we were borrowing from Shakespeare or thought in terms of having formic acid released upon us (irritating but not very damaging), but we definitely knew that to use the word was to describe someone who was an irritant completely out of proportion to his or her significance, kind of like ….

Well, I’ll leave the examples this week to you. If you’d like to supply the name of your pet pissant, do so in the comments or include the word and the individual in one of your posts and send me a link so I can see it.

From the book, “1000 Most Challenging Words” by Norman W. Schur, ©1987 by the Ballantine Reference Library, Random House. I post a weekly “Challenging Words” definition to call more attention to this delightful book and to promote interesting word usage in the blogosphere. I challenge other bloggers to work the current word into a post sometime in the coming week. If you manage to do so, please leave a comment or a link to where I can find it. Previous words in this series can be found under the appropriate Category heading in the right-hand sidebar.

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