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Puny tunes

Q: I’ve been reading to my daughter from a book that was written in the 1940s and takes place in the ‘20s. A character refers to a young woman as “puny” and, given the context, means it as a compliment. I understand “puny” to mean small and weak, and my dictionary agrees with me. Do you have any other info?

A: This is a situation in which English borrows a word from another language, then splits it in two: two different spellings with two different meanings.

The word “puny” comes from the Old French word puisne, meaning born later. It originally was something like “junior,” and when it was adopted into English (in the 1300s) it was spelled “puisne.”

Later (in the 1500s) the phonetic spelling “puny” came into being. But interestingly, both spellings, “puisne” and “puny,” survived (they’re pronounced identically), and the two words gradually took on different meanings, Today, “puisne” means junior, subordinate, or lower in rank, while “puny” has come to mean primarily feeble or weak or small. “Puisne” isn’t seen much in American writing, and is chiefly used in Britain.

In American English, “puny” means inferior in size, strength, or significance, and is sometimes used to refer to people who are sick or ailing. It’s had these meanings for the last couple of hundred years, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It could be that the book you’re referring to used “puny” in the sense of tiny, and was meant affectionately (as in “my little chickadee”). One of the pleasures of older books is that you come across meanings that take you by surprise.

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