Q: Why is something small and insignificant called “picayune”? And what is the word doing in the name of a New Orleans newspaper?
A: The word “picayune” comes from picaillon, a southern French regional term for a small coin of foreign origin, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The OED says the French regionalism is derived from picalhon, an Occitan term for a 17th-century copper coin that was minted in the Savoy and Piedmont regions of southern Europe, and that inspired similar cheaply made coins elsewhere in Europe.
When “picayune,” an Anglicized version of picaillon, showed up in Louisiana in the early 1800s, it was a noun that referred to a Spanish medio real, or half real, a coin worth a little more than six cents, and later to a US nickel, according to the dictionary.
The first Oxford example for “picayune” is from a Nov. 4, 1805, entry in the journal of the Philadelphia antiquarian John Fanning Watson: “One can’t buy anything [at New Orleans] for less than a six cent piece, called a picayune.”
We suspect that French speakers in Louisiana may have used picaillon earlier for the coin, but we haven’t found written evidence to support this. (The Louisiana region was variously ruled by France and Spain before becoming an American territory in 1803. Spanish coins were legal tender in the US from 1793 to 1857.)
In a few decades, the OED says, “picayune” was being used as an adjective meaning of “of little value; paltry, petty, trifling; unimportant, trivial; mean; contemptible.”
This example is from an 1837 congressional debate: “The hon. Senator from Kentucky … by way of ridicule, calls this a ‘picayune bill.’ ” (From the Congressional Globe, which recorded debates of the 23rd through 42nd Congresses, 1833-’73.)
A year later, the noun came to mean a small amount of something, as in this Oxford example from the February 1838 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a Philadelphia magazine: “I have nothing, not one sous—not a picayune to give her!”
And in the early 20th century, “picayune” took on the sense of a “worthless or contemptible person.” The first OED citation is from a 1903 issue of Scribner’s Magazine: “A pack of jealous picayunes, who bickered while the army starved.”
Why does the word “picayune” appear in the name of the Times-Picayune, the New Orleans newspaper? Because when it was founded in 1837, the Picayune (the paper’s name before it merged with the Times-Democrat in 1914) cost one picayune, or Spanish half real.