So, avuncular (unclelike), saturnine (sluggish), sybaritic (pleasure-loving), antediluvian (primitive), concomitant (accompanying), uxorious (fawning), lucubrate (laborious studying), vulpine (foxlike), fissiparous (fractious), skeuomorph (look it up yourself), obdurate (stubborn), syllepsis (zeugma), parlous (perilous), crepuscular (twilightlike), concupiscent (lustful), cromlech (a formation of megaliths), sacerdotal (priestly), assize (law court) and how about … puissant?
A correspondent last week scolded me for my word choice: How am I supposed to use assize in a sentence, she said. This stirred me to search for a word with a broad scope of potential application.
I was thinking about it all week. Then I came across puissant.
How could I not get interested in a word like that?
First off, puissant, an adjective, is defined by Webster’s Fourth as “powerful, strong.” It appears between puisne, or “of lower rank,” and puke, which Webster’s does not really bother to define. (I took this to be an omen.) It is a French word, pretty much, but we can go ahead and say that you pronounce it PWE-sent.
I came across it in a passage from “Tournament of Shadows,” by Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac, Counterpoint (1999), which was part of my preslumber puttering last night. This is a history of the so-called Great Game, which was the appalling sketch of black comedy engaged in during the 1800s by the British and the Russians for dominance in Asia. (Our literate readers might recall that it serves as the backdrop in Rudyard Kipling’s “Kim”; everyone else can just take our word for it.)
Referring to the East India Company, Mr. Meyer and Ms Brysac write, “Thus, the over the decades, the Company evolved into a baffling hybrid, something less than an independent entity, but far more puissant than any government ministry.” (Let all that cool on the counter awhile, and up pops Gandhi.)
And so I think, with just that, we’ve got a sturdy WOW with a lot of possible uses.
But look more closely at that word.
Doesn’t it remind you of something?
Yes, it does. Drop a letter and you have pissant, which was the pejorative of choice on my elementary school playground. For years I assumed that was just a fleeting child’s mutation, an epithet hacked out of the coarse verb “piss” that no one outside of West Omaha was using. But no. Some wags think pissant has a tradition that dates to the Middle Ages, but we will reserve judgment.
Apparently, a pissant refers to a piss-ant, or wood ant, whose nesting materials are said to give off a urinelike smell. Some sources say that the ant itself smells like urine if you squash it, but we cannot say for sure. (No ants were harmed during the writing of this post.) Webster’s confirms this, sort of. It defines pissant first as “an ant,” and then as the more familiar (to me) “person regarded as insignificant or contemptible.”
And so there you have it.
Webster’s warns that puissant is by now “chiefly literary,” which is another way of saying that only pretentious jerks say it. Still, it seems appropriate for our purposes.
Most examples of puissant on the Web are in French; I’ve included one just so you can giggle a little. Many of the others were, perhaps, marginal uses of the word. For instance, I am not sure how a soccer player can have a powerful contribution, and note that some Harvard puke slathered puissant with the unnecessary “incredibly.”
“Le puissant lobby américain des armes à feu NRA a exclu dimanche tout soutien à une loi de réglementation sur les armes…” via Etats-Unis: le puissant lobby NRA exclut tout soutien à une loi sur les armes – Le Point.
“And that’s often the default interpretation of elves — ethereal and majestic beings wielding an unknowable and puissant magic.” via Galadriel, political animal of Middle-earth | Hobbit Movie News and Rumors | TheOneRing.net™.
“Berbatov is adept to spearheading the frontline, whilst Kacaniklic’s contributions alongside him are puissant.” via One 2 Watch – Alexander Kacaniklic « Back Page Football.
“It is not difficult to understand why the president wants control over the debt ceiling all to himself. After all, it has been shown to be an incredibly puissant armament.” via An Unfortunate Power Grab | Opinion | The Harvard Crimson.
- Puissant Morons (ivancarswell.wordpress.com)