Saturday, August 02, 2008

Because Ants Aren't Insignificant Enough Already

Ants are pitiful things, constantly toiling away but likely to have their day’s work wiped out in an instant by the passing of some oblivious larger animal. And that’s saying that this comparative giant passes by without stepping on the ant itself, destroying him as well. Sure, ants have aphids to look down upon, but that’s not a whole lot to make them feel better.

It seems like needless further insult, then, that there exists a term for ants that’s even more demeaning. It’s my word of the week.
pismire (PISS-myre) — noun: an ant
Pismire, which I found on that vocab test I posted in this week’s link dump, sounds awful, I’d guess because it pairs piss and mire, both of which have fairly negative connotations. One of those connotations even reflects the word’s etymology. The American Heritage Dictionary says that pismire comes from the Middle English pissemyre — with the pisse meaning “urine” and coming from the smell of the formic acid that ants secrete and the mire meaning “ant,” probably Scandinavian in origin and related to the Danish word myre, “ant.”

This connection between ants and urine surprises me. I’ve heard of people mention the smell of ants before but have never noticed it myself. (Perhaps this means that my nose has just adjusted to a constant urine stench. Which would be bad. For me.) I guess it’s an actual thing, then.

This association between ants and urine is also the origin of the term pissant, which is related to pismire. Never having looked the pissant up but having understood its meaning from context, I had just assumed that the fact that it sounded like the word piss was a coincidence. It had never seemed especially vile or derogatory, and perhaps it’s not, in spite of the fact that piss is pretty much the most impolite synonym for urine that I can think of. (I’d say piss is to urine as shit is to feces. Now there’s one you didn’t see on the SAT.) The AHD defines pissant simply as “one who is insignificant” or, in an obsolete sense, as just “ant.” It also notes that pissant was modeled on pismire

Previous words of the week:

4 comments:

  1. When I was a kid, I was informed (I wish I could remember who informed me) that the reason red ant bites hurt and black ant bites don't is because red ants pee in the wound after they bite you. When I grew up and heard the term "pissant" (and, later, "pismire") for the first time, it all fell into place for me. But now it turns out it's just a formic-acid-smells-like-pee thing? Odd.

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    Replies
    1. Where in the heck did you get the idea that black ant bites don't hurt?

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  2. Up here in Sweden, there's a certain species of ant known as "pissmyra", so the word doesn't really mean just any ant.

    Also of interest might be that formic acid is named after the latin word for ant, "formica".

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