The Grammarphobia Blog

A puny subject

Q: I love Victorian novels and often read them on my Kindle. I just came across “puisne” in Vanity Fair. When I highlight the word, the dictionary tells me it’s a junior judge and pronounced like “puny.” Are these two terms related?

A: Not only are “puny” and “puisne” related, but they were essentially the same word when borrowed from puisné, Middle French for “younger.”

The Middle French term, a compound of puis (later) and né (born), is spelled puîné in modern French. The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the usage ultimately comes from the classical Latin post (after) and nātus (born).

When the word entered English in the 1500s as a noun and an adjective, it was spelled various ways: punie, punee, puine, puisne, and so on—all pronounced “puny,” an anglicized version of the French pronunciation.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the English term was originally a noun for a new or junior student. The earliest OED citation is from a 1548 book by the historian William Patten about a trip that Prince Edward, Duke of Somerset, made to Scotland:

“Like yplay in Robin Cooks skole, whear bicaus the punies may lerne thei strike fewe strokes, but by assent & appointement.” (The new students were learning their assigned strokes at Robin Cook’s fencing school.)

When the word first showed up in print as an adjective, it meant “younger” or “junior.” The earliest OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from The Apologie of Fridericus Staphylus, Thomas Stapleton’s 1565 translation of a 1558 Latin treatise by the German theologian Friedrich Staphylus:

“Neither may you M. Grindall be offended herewith, when you shall vnderstand it, as I wish you maye, iff a young scholer and puine student in diuinite aduenter to encounter with you.” (Staphylus, a Protestant convert to Roman Catholicism, is addressing Edmund Grindal, an English clergyman who would later become Archbishop of Canterbury.)

Later in the 1500s, the noun came to mean an inexperienced person, an inferior, a subordinate, someone of no importance, and a junior judge.

All those senses are now obsolete or rare except for the use of the term (now spelled “puisne”) in reference to a subordinate judge or justice, according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest example for the adjective used in this sense is from The Common Welth of England (1589), by Sir Thomas Smith:

“The officer before whom the Clarke is to take these essoines, is the puny Iustice in the common pleas.” (The “essoines” here are excuses for not appearing in court on time before the subordinate justice.)

As for the noun, the first Oxford citation for this sense is from Skialetheia, or The Shadowe of Truth, a 1598 collection of poetry by Edward Guilpin:

“Oh he’s a puisne [lesser judge] of the Innes of Court, / Come from th’ Vniuersity to make sport.”

Since the mid-1600s, the term (now always spelled “puisne” and pronounced “puny”) has been used in the UK and some former British dependencies to designate “any judge, justice, etc., other than the most senior in the higher courts of law,” according to the dictionary.

The first OED citation refers to a case argued before “Mallet the puisne Judge” (from a 1648 collection of legal cases, compiled by the English barrister John March).

In Vanity Fair, the Thackeray novel that prompted your question, the term is similarly used to describe a less than senior judge. The novel, which was serialized in Punch from 1847 to ’48, describes Lady Smith as the “wife of Sir Minos Smith the puisne judge.”

Finally, we have Shakespeare to thank for the use of “puny” as an adjective meaning small, weak, or insignificant, the usual sense of the word today.

The Chambers etymological dictionary cites Richard II, which it dates at 1593, for the earliest example of the usage. In this passage, a pale, gloomy Richard, facing the forces of Bolingbroke, tries to snap out of his despondency:

I had forgot myself; am I not king?
Awake, thou coward majesty! thou sleepest.
Is not the king’s name twenty thousand names?
Arm, arm, my name! a puny subject strikes
At thy great glory. Look not to the ground,
Ye favourites of a king: are we not high?

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