Word of the Month: Pismire

David Zapatka

Reader Diane DeCarlo writes, “I enjoyed your article ‘Word’ in our January paper. I just wanted to share with you a favorite word of mine which is ‘pismere,’ another word for ‘ant.’ But I use the word for an annoying person.”

Thank you for your suggestion Diane. I discovered you’re not the only one who uses this word for such a person. Although the spelling is slightly different, Aaron writes, “I’m fond of describing certain people as ‘wicked as a pishmire’ meaning someone who is a particularly spiteful or unruly person.”

Pismire: noun pis·mire |  ˈpis-ˌmī(-ə)r , ˈpiz- 1. Ant; social insect living in organized colonies; characteristically the males and fertile queen have wings during breeding season; wingless sterile females are the workers. 2. Urinating ant, from the odor of formic acid characteristic of an ant hill.

Origin and Etymology: Middle English pissemyre, equivalent to pisse to urinate + obsolete mire ant, perhaps < Scandinavian (compare Danish myre, Swedish myra), cognate with Dutch mier; pejorative name from stench of formic acid proper to ants. It is said all of us are able to smell ants for which the great word pismire was originally coined.

First Used: 1350–1400.

Example sentences using pismire in literature:

You must understand he is an emmet of quality, and has better blood in his veins than any pismire in the mole-hill. —The Young Gentleman and Lady’s Monitor, and English Teacher’s Assistant, John Hamilton Moore.

An ancient name for the ant is pismire, probably a Danish word, from paid and myre, signifying such ants as live in hillocks –-Folk-Lore of Shakespeare, Thomas Firminger Thiselton-Dyer.

Observe how the whole swarm divide and make way for the pismire that passes through them! —Thackerayana, William Makepeace Thackeray.

Thou art no more than a pismire; why wilt thou seek to provoke the elephants? —The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon.

Then the little pismire the emote, taking pitty of her great difficulty and labour, cursing the cruellnesse of the daughter of Jupiter, and of so evill a mother, ran about, hither and thither, and called to all her friends, Yee quick sons of the ground, the mother of all things, take mercy on this poore maid, espouse to Cupid, who is in great danger of her person, I pray you helpe her with all diligence. –-Delphi Complete Works of Apuleius.

Chinese, mutton roasted with honey with the Turks, pismire cakes on the Orinoco, and turtle and venison with the Lord Mayor, and the turtle and venison he would have preferred to all the other dishes, because his taste, though Catholic, was not undiscriminating. –-The Dublin University Magazine.

Do you have any pismires in your life? Want to share them with us? Please submit your experiences, any thoughts on this month’s column or any word you may like to share along with your insights and comments to dzapatka@wbhsi.net.