Q: An email is making the rounds that includes the derivations of several common phrases; one of them links the expression “a pot to piss in” with the collecting and selling of urine to fur tanners. Any truth to this?
A: No, that story is a hoax.
It’s true that in preindustrial times, urine was sometimes used to remove hair from animal hides before they were tanned. But the 20th-century expression “a pot to piss in” has nothing to do with making leather.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “not to have a pot to piss in” as “to be penniless, to have no money or resources.” The dictionary says it’s slang that originated in the US and was “in early use more fully not to have a pot to piss in nor a window to throw it from and variants.”
The earliest written example, the OED says, is from a 1934 typescript of Djuna Barnes’s novel Nightwood (published in 1936): “My heart aches for all poor creatures putting on dog, and not a pot to piss in or a window to throw it from.”
This OED example from 20 years later also has the long version of the expression: “A woman must be crazy to … take up with a loafer that ain’t got a pot to piss in nor a window to throw it out.” The passage was recorded in 1954 by the American folklorist Vance Randolph and later published in his book Pissing in the Snow and Other Ozark Folktales (1976).
The dictionary’s earliest example of the short version (minus the window) is from later in the ’50s: “Some don’t even have a pot to piss in but nevertheless they think that they are a lot better than you are.” From Herman R. Lantz’s People of Coal Town, a 1958 study of a midwestern coal-mining community.
As we said before, it’s fictitious that “a pot to piss in” originated in the tanning trade. This false etymology (along with that of “piss poor” and other expressions), is sheer invention and has been debunked by etymologists.
For the record, the phrase “piss poor” simply means really poor or, as the OED says, “of an extremely poor quality or standard.”
Here, “piss” is an intensifier, an element used for emphasis. In this usage, which Oxford says originated in the US in the mid-20th century, “piss” is “prefixed to an adjective (occasionally to a noun) as an intensifier, usually implying excess or undesirability.”
The dictionary’s earliest use of “piss poor” is from MacKinlay Kantor’s Glory for Me (1945), a novel in blank verse: “I guess I know I’m piss-poor in a job like this. It’s trivial, it’s dull: I hate it more and more each day.”
Oxford also has this early use of “piss elegant” (flashy or affectedly refined): “The cast is very good. Gertie is enchanting at moments but inclined to be piss-elegant” (from Noel Coward’s diary, Oct. 9, 1947).