Monday, August 28, 2006

The Daily Hump: Picayune and a Lack of Confidence, Man

If you're like me the only time you can remember ever hearing the word picayune was in reference to The Bloom Picayune or The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. This being the case, you may think I've decided to word hump picayune in memory of the first anniversary of Katrina (or the 17th anniversary of the demise of Bloom County). You'd be wrong.

It's a bit of a convoluted story how picayune became today's word. On Friday my friend John over at the ever-excellent suggested I research the etymology of confidence man which ended up revealing a spate of errors across the Internet. Many sources trace the etymology of confidence man back to Herman Melville's 1857 novel The Confidence-Man. Wrong. According to Wikipedia the inspriation for Melville's use of the term was the 1849 trial of William Thompson. Thompson would convince his mark to lend him his timepiece (or sometimes money) promising it'd be returned the following day; of course in all these cases Thompson would never be seen again. Up until this past Friday Wikipedia claimed that the first publication to coin the term was The New York Herald on July 8, 1849. Many websites do the same. In fact, the small New Orleans Picayune seems to have beaten the New York Herald by about 2 weeks, publishing this quote on June 21, 1849, "Well, then, continues the `confidence man', just lend me your watch till to-morrow." I edited the Wiki entry accordingly.

Ok, so, the search for the etymology of confidence man led me to The New Orleans Picayune which made me curious about the etymology of picayune. Make sense? The picayune is an obsolete term that was once common in southern United States, especially Louisiana where it was a Spanish half-real (by real, I mean a silver coin formerly used in Spain and Latin America: see photo). In later use the picayune was a 5-cent piece or other coin of little value. This definition was soon adapted to mean anything trivial, unimportant or in the case of people, worthless and contemptible. Thus one could describe William Thompson as rather picayune (it can be used alternately as a noun or adjective).

According to the OED, the term goes as far back as to 1643 where a Lyonnais source used it to describe foreign coinage. Around the 1740s a plural form (picaillons) began to circulate in France as a slang term for money or cash.

William Thompson [Wikipedia]

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:: posted by David, 8:39 AM


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