Q From Bob Fleck: an item circulating online under the title Interesting History claims, “They provided to usage urine to tan animal skins, so family members used to all pee in a pot and also then when a job it was offered to the tannery. If you had actually to execute this to make it through you were ‘piss poor’.” This screams of people etymology. Deserve to you offer actual clarity?

A It absolutely might it is in a individual etymology, other than that the piece is in that is intention simply a mischievous effort to cheat its readers. However, just like other tongue-in-cheek suggestions about origins, a serial of fact exists in it. Urine has actually been widely provided in countless parts of the civilization in the preparatory step of tanning, in certain to aid remove the hair indigenous hides before applying tanning agents.

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Tanners in ~ work, from Microcosm by W H Pyne, 1808.

The Romans, because that example, gathered urine because that this purpose systematically and also even put a taxes on it. The most well known taxer to be the emperor Vespasian in the an initial century AD. The long-gone French publicly pissoirs were offered the surname vespasiennes together a direct connect to him. Vespasian’s kid is stated to have objected to the disgusting origin of the taxation revenues, to which in legend his father responded pecunia no olet, money doesn’t smell, a tag that from time to time is quiet employed to argue that money isn’t tainted by its origins.

However, the expression piss-poor is recent and also has naught to carry out with tanning. The current state that research argues that that may have been invented throughout the second World War, due to the fact that the very first examples in print date from 1946. Though it is still classed together low slang through dictionaries, that is mildly unpleasant associations have come to be blunted by time and also familiarity.

The origin is straightforward. Piss started to it is in attached to various other words during the twentieth century to intensify their meaning. Ezra Pound designed piss-rotten in 1940 (distasteful or unpleasant, the first example on record) and we’ve due to the fact that had piss-easy (very easy), piss-weak (cowardly or pathetic), piss-elegant (affectedly refined, pretentious), piss-awful (very unpleasant) and also other forms.

Piss-poor began life in a similar figurative feeling for other that"s third-rate, it s not enough ability or useless, together it does in this recent example:

Larkin’s letters, wrote Philippe Auclair, writer and also broadcaster, to be “very funny, really beautiful, and very sad; the elegant of an angel, the precision that a geometer, and also the short-sighted, intolerant piss-poor idées fixes the a provincial buffoon”.

The Spectator, 27 Nov. 2010.

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Americans who understand the idiom so negative he didn’t have a pot to piss in, sometimes in the fuller type ... Or a home window to litter it out of, can wonder if this is the origin. The idiom appears in Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, published in 1936, so it does predate piss-poor. However, it’s a graphic literal reference to poverty; together piss-poor was an initial used in a figurative sense, it"s i can not qualify to have actually been influenced by the larger idiom. In fact, the literal feeling of too much poverty because that piss-poor didn’t come along until a pair of years later, which additionally provides another reason, if one were needed, the the story you quote is nonsense.