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I recently completed reading the novel "Cat's cradle" by Kurt Vonnegut. In this novel he describes peasant as:

"A pissant is somebody who thinks he's so damn smart, he can never keep his mouth shut. No matter what anybody says, he's got to argue with it. You say why you like something, and, by God, he'll tell you why you're wrong to like it. A pissant does his best to make you feel like a boob all the time. No matter what you say, he knows better."

I have never seen this word before so I checked it with the online dictionary. However, there was only an explanation for the word "peasant". Can anyone please explain me if these words mean the same thing? Is the word "pissant" with the meaning above in wide use today?

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Um. See You're asking the Wrong Question. ("The dictionary defines red as 'blue is a color...'") –  Marthaª Oct 14 '11 at 17:17
    
@Marthaª Oh wow, I've been quoted. =) –  TLP Oct 14 '11 at 17:32
    
@Martha, I actually thought of "pissant" as of writer's way of writing the word "peasant". The same as with "Kool", "gangsta" or so. –  ezpresso Oct 14 '11 at 22:02
    
Did you look up only "peasant" or did you also look up "pissant" in the dictionary? There's plenty of links to dictionary definitions of "pissant" when searching for "pissant" in Google. –  Hugo Oct 14 '11 at 22:38
    
It occurred to me a while back that one of the first spelling rules a courtier must memorize is this: there's a U in "puissant". –  MT_Head Jan 26 '13 at 5:57
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6 Answers 6

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A peasant is a farmer. A "pissant" is someone who throws his words away like "water." In practice, handworking peasants are seldom "pissants." Their only similarity is that the words can sound alike if not pronounced distinctly.

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I have never heard "pissant" used in this sense (AmE), only in the sense of a worthless or insignificant person or thing. –  Nate Eldredge Jan 28 '12 at 0:27
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I think you've got your words confused. Here is a wiki entry on the word. Quoted from Wikipedia:

A pissant, also seen as piss-ant and piss ant, is one or the other of two specific types of ant. Its origin is with pismire, a 14th-century word for ant. The term is also used as an insulting noun, and a pejorative adjective.

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Pissant is a kind of ant but it also a pejorative term on piss (urine) and peasant and partly a joke on some American pronunciation of peasant.

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I really don't think they're related at all. –  Ernest Friedman-Hill Oct 14 '11 at 15:25
    
@Ernest - not etymologically, but the usage of pissant to refer to something worthless probably has more to do with the existing word peasant than it has to do with the insect –  mgb Oct 14 '11 at 15:31
    
I guess you're right, they might have been some convergent evolution. Personally the relationship never occurred to me though. –  Ernest Friedman-Hill Oct 14 '11 at 15:35
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I always thought it was "piss ant". It's reasonably common slang, at least among Americans of a certain age. It's definitely not the same word as "peasant"; the Wikipedia entry makes no mention of peasants and has a plausible etymology having to do with ants that smell like urine.

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They are not the same at all except for being somewhat close in pronunciation. In this case you are actually giving the definition of pissant (as per Vonnegut) – try substituting peasant in there and see if it makes any sense!

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OK, several separate matters are at issue here.

First, the word Vonnegut describes is pedant; however, the mix-up was likely intentional – a means to reveal a certain confusion in his character’s state of mind. (This rhetorical device has a name; it’s not quite occultatio, but is related to the idea of a “Freudian slip” – alas, I forget).

Some say peasant = “farmer”. Well, so is “agronomist” – denotatively. In connotation, “peasant” especially emphasizes the insignificance of poor peons as might “come with the land” (paisano = “countryman”) in a rural country.

Wikipedia, basking in its undeserved certitude, often blinds itself (and others) with false detours. Its tangent about actual ants is irrelevant and unrelated. In AmE, the noun pissant derives from the adjective; both are one word. One might say, “that pissant (adj.) guy said …” or for short, “that pissant (n.) said …” Either way, the point is insignificance, which it inherits – consciously or not (like “cusses” from “curses”) – from peasant.

Never attribute to erudition what can be adequately explained by malapropism.

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I think not. Pismire (in a variety of spellings), meaning an ant, has been "applied contemptuously to a person" (OED) since the 16th century; and the earliest citation for pissant is a 17th century satire which describes a politician as one who "promising mountains but performing naught but such mole-hill actions as breed nothing but a multitude of pissants and vermin." And it is extremely unlikely that a word should gain a secondary stress such as pissant exhibits on the final syllable. –  StoneyB Jan 26 '13 at 4:21
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