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My friend and I (yes, it's the same friend) were chatting the other day about how some people are too poor to afford even drinking water, so much so that they don't urinate every day.

The root of the discussion that followed was whether or not the term piss poor is appropriate to describe these people. As in, not only that they are very poor, they don't even have much piss.

I'm also wanted to ask if it's PC, which is why I added the tag, but I wonder if it's asking two things in a question because I'm certain there was a rule about that.

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My answer is from a British perspective.

No, it would not be correct to use piss poor in this context.

Poor in this phrase does not refer to the wealth definition of poor, but to the quality or standard definition. In other words, piss poor means of a very low standard, or low quality. In the UK, it is most-commonly used to describe the performance or effort of a person, group or organisation. For example, if you showed up to an event and it was organised very, very badly, you could describe it as piss poor. Indeed, the alliteration piss poor performance is not uncommon.

Mirriam-Webster corroborates my understanding (this is the only definition given):

Piss-poor: very bad : extremely poor

According to wikipedia, piss poor performance is a constituent of a whole series of slang alliterative military acronyms. For example:

Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance

Those acronyms highlight the idiom's usage in referring to the performance of individuals or organisations (rather than objects, for instance).

Having said all that, I must acknowledge that the Cambridge English Dictionary does define piss poor with regards to wealth:

having very little ​money: we were piss-poor

But, I have never heard the phrase used in this way in the UK (and I have heard it a lot). Accordingly, the Oxford English Dictionary does not define it like so, and offers the same single definition as Mirriam-Webster. I take that as proof of my contention that piss poor is seldom used to refer to wealth.

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  • I agree. You do hear people described as 'piss-poor' but the sense is not the literal sense of them not having "... much piss". The idea is that they have nothing of any value (in the same way that a 'piss-poor performance' has nothing worth witnessing).
    – Dan
    Jan 20 '16 at 12:04
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    @Dan - yeah I realise that I sort of ignored the whole lack-of-piss thing in my response, just seemed a bit.... silly. To be honest, I have never heard piss poor used to describe people who are not well off, though I accept that it might be used like that, the CED declaring as much.
    – Charon
    Jan 20 '16 at 12:08

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