Mind your language

When Kingsley Amis needed a new insult, he reached for the taboo

25 November 2017

9:00 AM

25 November 2017

9:00 AM

‘It’s up there on the shelf you can’t reach,’ said my husband in an unhelpfully helpful tone. The ‘it’ was a copy of The King’s English, Kingsley Amis’s book on usage. I quoted it the other week on the deployment of the.

On the same page is a Kingsleyish word I wanted to follow up — pissily. ‘Until quite recently,’ Amis wrote, ‘it looked as if you could write of Greene’s Confidential Agent and Burgess’s Clockwork Orange and Kafka’s Castle, but indexers unnecessarily and pissily put a stop to that by throwing The and A and so on back in front of the main body of the title.’

Pissily figures nowhere in the Oxford English Dictionary. That is not out of prissiness. The world’s worst words, sexual C or racial N, according to your sensibilities, are there. Indeed, pissily is implied by pissy, illustrated by a quotation from T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom (in the 1922 edition kindly published for him by the Oxford Times): ‘That hot pissy aura of thronged men in woollen clothes.’


I don’t think Amis meant that indexers give off such an aura, though he might have applauded the suggestion. I think he meant ‘annoyingly’ and ‘piddlingly’.

I know that pissy in the sense of ‘contemptible’ is reckoned to be an Americanism, not recorded before 1930. But is there a semantic bridge in the familiar line from Alexander Pope: ‘From slashing Bentley to piddling Tibbalds’? Slash in the sense ‘urine’ is said to be no older than 1959, when it found a place in Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar. Piddle, ‘to urinate’, is not found before 1784, though it is occurs decades earlier in the context of piddling away money. Originally piddle was ‘to fiddle about ineffectually’. It is unconnected to place-names such as Piddletrenthide (deriving from the Old English pidel meaning ‘marshy stream’).

Then there are those false friends the American pissed, meaning ‘annoyed’, and the English pissed, definitely meaning drunk. The explanation, ‘I’m sorry I was rude to your mother, but I was really pissed,’ crosses the Atlantic uneasily.

As for Amis, his intention was surely to apply a slightly taboo depreciative term to indexers, and the connotations of pissily made it ideal.

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