Word of the week: Picky? Petty? Or just picayune?
Picayune is a relatively recent addition to the English language, going back to the start of the 19th century in the United States.Updated: May 27, 2020 20:04 IST
picayune (noun), something of little value, paltry, trivial, trifling
While we were engaged in discussing issues of grand strategy, this irritating fellow kept bringing up picayune matters and derailing our deliberations.
Picayune is a relatively recent addition to the English language, going back to the start of the 19th century in the United States. The word “picayune”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is an Anglicized version of picaillon, a southern French regional term for a small copper coin that was minted in the Savoy and Piedmont regions of France. It was applied in Louisiana in the early 1800s to refer to a Spanish medio real, or half real, a coin worth a little more than six cents, and later to a US nickel, according to the OED. (A small explanation is due here: the Louisiana Territory was ruled for decades by France and Spain before becoming an American territory in 1803. When the United States bought the Louisiana Territory from France, the area contained many French subjects and French customs. Spanish coins were legal tender in the US right up to 1857.)
“Picayune” soon came to be used to refer to any small coin of the least value. As a result it acquired the figurative sense of “paltry” or “mean” and by extension was applied to behaviour that was niggling, petty, or picky.
Given that anything picayune is of small value, petty or worthless, it is surprising that the word can be found on the mastheads of a few American newspapers, including the prestigious New Orleans Times-Picayune, which won national kudos and awards during Hurricane Katrina when it kept publishing amid the flooding and the resultant chaos, initially only online, but within a few days of the storm in printed form as well. This flagship newspaper of the most famous Louisiana city began life in 1837 as the New Orleans Picayune. If it seems odd to us that a serious newspaper named itself with a word that means “trivial,” “petty” or “inconsequential,” we are thinking more figuratively than the owners did. The proprietors of the new newspaper had a practical reason: they gave it that name because that’s what a copy cost – six US cents, literally a picayune.
That’s not the only “picayune” of note in the US. The Beeville Bee-Picayune in Texas then took its name from the New Orleans newspaper as a tribute. There is even a town called Picayune, Mississippi, whose name was given to it by Eliza Jane Poitevent Nicholson, the owner and publisher of the New Orleans Daily Picayune, in homage to the illustrious newspaper she published.
Though the Spanish real as a monetary unit fell out of use, and the half-real with it, picayune became established as a synonym for a small amount of money (rather like the other American slang, “two bits”, which means the same thing and comes from similar out-of-date coins). “Picayune” was adopted across the U.S. in the 19th century as slang for the U.S. nickel, or five-cent coin. By the late 19th century, “not worth a picayune” had become a common way to say “of little value,” and soon enough, “picayune” acquired its meaning of “insignificant.” In a few decades, the OED says, “picayune” was being used as an adjective meaning of “of little value; paltry, petty, trifling; unimportant, trivial; mean; contemptible.” The word picky may also have been derived from picayune, in the sense of being choosy, fastidious, or fussy about small or trivial things and the most trifling details – “don’t be picky!” is a common reaction to a pettifogging objection. It also was used in the stronger sense of “contemptible,” as in the Boston Journal’s 1892 comment about the American national legislature: “Do you want another picayune Congress with all its stupidity and folly?”
So “picayune” has plenty of uses, from the literal – “Sorry, I have not a picayune to give you” if you can’t, or won’t, pay someone who’s asking you for money – to the contemptuous: “This is such a picayune request that I am ashamed of you for making it!” An early example of its usage can be found in an 1837 congressional debate: “The hon. Senator from Kentucky … by way of ridicule, calls this a ‘picayune bill.’ ” By the early 20th century, “picayune” took on the additional sense of a “worthless or contemptible person.” The first OED citation is from a 1903 magazine speaking of “A pack of jealous picayunes, who bickered while the army starved.”
Contemporary Indian public life offers plenty of uses for this little-used word. Political party manifestoes, for instance, are full of picayune promises that the party hopes voters won’t remember if they actually win. Bureaucracy saddles our governance with a host of picayune regulations that cumulatively place a huge burden on industry. The executive and the legislature tend to object when the judiciary seems to get involved in picayune administrative matters that are not, strictly speaking, judicial issues. Demonetisation traded India’s future economic growth for a picayune present gain. Criticising the Prime Minister’s theatrical gestures of taalis and diyas during the coronavirus pandemic is considered too picayune to be appropriate at this time. Objecting to the creation of his PM-CARES fund when the PMNRF is already in existence may seem a picayune matter, but in reality masks a far more serious set of issues. Am I going on too long with my examples? Don’t be picayune!!