Q: An American friend in Rome says the expression “piss poor” comes from the use of urine in tanneries. He says people used to collect their urine and sell it to be used to tan animal skins. Is this etymology too good to be true?
A: As you suspect, this supposed phrase origin is apocryphal. The compound adjective “piss-poor” doesn’t have anything to do with tanneries, poverty or, for that matter, urine, except indirectly.
The word “piss” here is “an intensifier, usually implying excess or undesirability,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The usage originated in the United States in the mid-20th century.
The first citation in the OED is from a 1946 contribution by A. L. Hench, who reported 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 OED cites a similar, earlier expression from Ezra Pound’s Cantos LII–LXXI (1940): “J. Lawrence, Bingham, Carrol of Carrolton / gone piss-rotten for Hamilton / Cabot, Fisher Ames, Thomas Willing.” (I’ve expanded the citation somewhat in what was probably a futile attempt at clarity.)
Here are some other OED examples of compound adjectives using “piss” as an intensifier: “piss-elegant” (1947), “piss-bad” (1970), “piss-wet” (1974), “piss-chic” (1977), and “piss-easy” (1998).
I recall that one day as I was walking my dog in Manhattan in the 1980s, an admiring bystander remarked that she looked “piss-elegant.”
I hadn’t heard this expression before, but the OED defines it as “affectedly refined, pretentious, precious; (also) cheaply showy or flashy in dress or appearance.” That sounds like my little princess.
The dictionary traces the phrase back to an Oct. 9, 1947, entry in Noel Coward’s Diary: “The cast is very good. Gertie is enchanting at moments but inclined to be piss-elegant.”
I’m not sure how Gertrude Lawrence would have felt about being described in the same terms as my spoiled basenji.